Surviving the Off Season, Part 5: Trashing Tomlin
The black box
This is a term that has been associated with behavioral psychology, a branch of the discipline that didn’t concern itself with describing the mechanisms that were at work driving human behavior. Something happened in that black box and behaviors came out. What happened in the box was anyone’s guess.
It’s just like coaching in the NFL.
Criticizing a head coach becomes an easy eye-of-the-beholder exercise because few really have a clue as to what precisely goes on in the black box that is team preparation.
The few that do know are bound either by ethics or the threat of expulsion to be circumspect about what they know. Those who do leak the details of what goes on behind closed doors, the “anonymous source,” can only be trusted so far, since anonymity provides a perfect platform from which to pursue an agenda involving, among other possibilities, misinformation or sabotage.
This provides an opportunity for a critic to assert a coach is guilty of all manner of crimes and pathologies, unburdened by having to adhere to any real standards of proof. Let’s take an example.
From time to time the team will struggle with tackling. This leads to claims by his critics that Tomlin doesn’t adequately or properly coach tackling. But let’s consider this little video snippet involving Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi.
What are we to assume? That the guy who many believe to be the greatest coach of all time didn’t teach his team how to tackle? Can we extrapolate from this that whenever someone fails a test, the onus falls on the teacher?
Besides this very obvious lead-the-horse-to-water-but-can’t-make-them-drink scenario, there are two other factors that might be involved in the perception of shoddy tackling that serve as alternatives to the coach is incompetent narrative.
First is the fact that there is less time to practice anything. In Noll’s day there were padded practice twice a day for more weeks than are available now. It’s usually a good idea to practice tackling in pads.
Second, we sometimes forget that they pay the offensive players too. Early this past season DeAngelo Williams described how the requirement for certain plays to work was that he be successful in making one player miss a tackle.
But in the black box reality the agenda of promoting the notion that Tomlin is an overrated fraud does not require the consideration of alternatives or even facts. As stated earlier, selective information is mobilized in service to a predetermined construct. That, along with a heavy dose of Attitude, constitutes an irrefutable Truth.
The other black box
A lot of people don’t want to go there, but it would be intellectually irresponsible not to at this juncture. And here’s at least one reason why.
About a quarter of a century ago I was serving as president of my community association. One day a delegation from one of our subdivisions brought to my attention that they had been canvassed with newsletters from the Manassas, the Virginia branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The content of the newsletter was largely unremarkable except for one item I remember clearly to this day. It was a recruitment piece inviting people to join the Manassas KKK, provided they were able to do the following.
‘If you are one of those people who go around saying [N-word] this, and [N-word], we can’t use you. Because we don’t do that anymore’.
Understand that this didn’t represent a transformation or softening of philosophy, but a change in tactics embedded in the protocols of discussing matters of race to this day. White supremacist strategy is to assert that racism no longer exists. This inoculates in advance of everything that follows. Statements and positions, no matter how outrageous, cannot be racist because it has already been determined (unilaterally) that racism no longer exists. Therefore what is presented is simply the frank airing of an unfortunate truth. Got it?
It would be ridiculous if it didn’t work so well.
Beyond the challenges inherent in the office of head coach, Tomlin is clearly (or maybe not so clearly to the gullible) also criticized for what he is, not who he is, or what he has done. These critics are often charming, even chivalrous in their critiques. Tomlin, they say, is a very nice man, but the unfortunate truth is that he’s just not up for the demands of the job.
Of course there are those who are cruder in their approach. ‘Bug eyed’ is a particular favorite. But you have to remember, these folks wouldn’t make the cut for the Manassas KKK.
Ironically, this predicament comes about because of the ethical and consistent business practices of the Rooney family.
One of the better but relatively unremarked upon stories from this past Super Bowl cycle was the selection of former Steelers player and coaching assistant Tony Dungy into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Dungy’s career path is full of complexities. Noll stated flatly in the early eighties that Dungy possessed the qualities to be a successful head coach, but it would be about a decade and a half before he got the opportunity to do so. Part of the reason, as pointed out by Bill Nunn, is Dungy’s demeanor, which ran counter to that of the profane, hard-nosed disciplinarian that many believe to the essential character traits for the successful coach.
But I don’t believe it is unreasonable to assume there were also other considerations at play. A decade and a half into the 21st Century, we are far more accepting of persons of color in leadership positions on the field (quarterback) and on the sidelines (head coach) and front office (GM). Ownership is still an issue. Anyone genuinely conversant concerning the history of the league knows the process has been painfully slow.
Owners, based upon their personal biases or what they perceived to be that of their customer base, were cautious in their hiring practices. Candidates often had to be overqualified to offset perceptions to the contrary. In this sense Dungy was probably hired later (and fired earlier) in Tampa than what might be the case, given his qualifications and later performance.
The process the Rooneys followed in hiring Tomlin could be viewed as evolutionary, even provocative or revolutionary, given that no special consideration was given to Tomlin (despite the protestations to the contrary).
The Steelers have followed a consistent template in its head coaching hires over nearly fifty years—a young, relatively unknown defensive assistant (always a coordinator). Push back has come in the form of a preference for better known candidates with local ties. Joe Paterno as opposed to Chuck Noll, Russ Grimm as opposed to Tomlin. Many fans are, predictably, unhappy until the newcomer proves himself. However, because of what Tomlin is, there is a more perverse twist to fan resistance for some.
The naïve may see this as a specific set of policies and practices. In fact, it is code.
Roughly translated, it means this: An opportunity was extended to an unworthy individual from an undesirable caste depriving one from a more favored caste who is by definition better qualified or, at least, more deserving.
The construct was in play long before the existence of affirmative action. Unfortunately, it will likely exist long after affirmative action is gone. It has nothing to do with affirmative action. ‘Affirmative action’ is just the handle that is used to keep from getting kicked out of the Manassas KKK for being crudely obvious.
This may contribute to the persistent resistance to facts (his record, the Super Bowls, the popularity among players and staff) by some of Tomlin’s critics. Facts are only relevant as they support preconceived conclusions. Otherwise they are an annoyance that are to be circumvented, just like the in-laws who when inconvenienced by unmet expectations simply change the level of the bar.
This is the dual-edged nature of belief—potentially empowering and liberating, or suppressing and limiting. This explains why the attacks from some quarters will almost certainly continue, regardless of his accomplishments and those of his teams. The belief system is resistant to facts, resistant to rationality.
But I do believe that most stop short of total delusion. So I have devised a response to the ‘unfortunate truth’ that Tomlin is lacking. Here goes.
You believe Tomlin should be replaced? Fine. Let’s get specific. First we must obviously agree that his replacement has to better than he has been, which shouldn’t be a problem, right? So, let’s begin. Oh, and by the way, as Hombre says, you have to show your work. The burden of proof is on you. Because you say so is not good enough. Plausible explanations must be given as to why an assertion could be true.
Tomlin is heading into his tenth season. His replacement must be able to last at least that long, right? There have to be plenty of candidates out there who have put in that much time at the top, or clearly show that potential.
Not only must the new person last a decade, the standard is no losing seasons during that time. Piece of cake. In fact, there should be a contract provision that if the record is 7-9 or worse then termination is automatic.
Multiple Super Bowl appearances are expected and, of course, multiple wins. Even a failure like Tomlin managed at least one. Two or more within the first ten years would have to be the standard.
No fair using Tomlin’s players. Since Tomlin was able to use Cowher’s players there will be a special allowance. The new coach can have whatever players from the Cowher era that remain or can be coaxed out of retirement. From the current roster that would be Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison, Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and Greg Warren. Beyond that, get your own damn players. It’ll be easy. Anyone can do it. Start with five or six cornerbacks.
We will be looking forward to your list of candidates.