Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part 4: More on Mike Tomlin and Coaching in the NFL

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Fred Vuich/AP Photo

By Ivan Cole

On Christmas Day 2016, the Baltimore Ravens were eliminated from both the possibility of earning the AFC North championship and a spot in the playoffs when Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown combined for a game winning touchdown with nine seconds left to play.

In the days following the game, some Ravens fans directed their ire at head coach John Harbaugh and his staff, asserting that the group should be terminated, for, among other crimes, poor clock management. Sound familiar?

According to some in the Pittsburgh sports media, this complaint is common – perhaps even universal – among fans across the league when they become disgruntled with their team’s performance.

Of course, the complainers believe this is a unique sin, peculiar to the coach of their favorite team. But, beyond the lack of awareness of how common and predictable this expression of displeasure is, there is an even more fundamental concern. Do these people have any earthly idea of what they are talking about?

I am inclined to argue that the answer is no. If the various issues relative to the subject of knowing what we don’t know could be reduced to a metaphor of a city, then the subject of coaching would reside in the town center, ground zero.

There are two truths about coaching at the professional level that its critics either choose to ignore, or worse, are unaware of due to ignorance.

The first is that team preparation, much like the game itself, is ensemble work, subject to a variety of inputs that can influence the final outcome in ways that a coaching staff can exercise only partial control. The second is that the lion’s share of these preparations are not and cannot be observed by the media or fans.

What fans think of coaching performance becomes an inkblot test, more revealing of the state of the observer than what is being observed. Furthermore, their critiques are typically concerned with the game management phase, which is often the aspect where coaching is least important or influential. I have come to refer to this as the theatrics of coaching.

Am I saying that it is impossible for the observer, media or fans, to discern high quality coaching from bad coaching? No. But any fair and sober assessment must consider the large gaps in public information and the characteristics of the professional coaching landscape which deviate from that of the college level and below.

Autocracy?

If you’re a fan of authoritarianism, the power in the possession of many football head coaches, particularly big-time college coaches, will make you swoon. They can exercise total control or powerful influence over budgets, personnel (staff and players) and image. And even, to a limited extent, their schedule – who, when and where they play nonconference games.

They are the tail that wags the dog at many institutions. In theory, the head coach is accountable to the university president, and to a lesser extent, institutional norms as understood and enforced by the faculty and broader administration. In fact, the president may serve at his pleasure, and he is invulnerable to other influences within the institution. If the university is state funded, then he is often the highest paid employee of that state, challenging governors for power.

His power over players is godlike. Besides the advantage enjoyed by adults over children, a coach controls who comes and how long they are allowed (within the broader eligibility parameters) to stay. They also control much of the life of the player outside of the athletic facility. Student athletes will often be ‘advised’ as to what approved areas of study they will be allowed to pursue. The player who is derided for majoring in basket weaving was probably steered in that direction by someone acting in concert with the wishes of the head coach.

Space does not allow for a full description of the range of control enjoyed by football coaches at big time levels, and even in the lowly realms of Pop Warner.

The NFL is a different story.

There is an owner, of course. In most cases, there is a business manager who has a great deal to say as to who will be considered for employment (scouting), the conditions under which they will be employed (contracts), and whether they will be retained. The players themselves are independent contractors, aided and abetted by a union and their own cadre of personal advisors. Age and length of tenure do not always favor the coach. Some players and staff may have social and/or business entanglements with ownership. Any number of people may have veto power over the coach’s decisions or his employment.

Because he also is unlikely to have control over image or public relations, little, if any of these machinations will see the light of day.  And as in all work environments, any number of issues from workplace politics to misconduct will, appropriately, be hidden from public scrutiny.

Let’s take the Steelers as an example. The late Myron Cope coined the phrase “Emperor Chaz” to describe Chuck Noll, but in practice this would be something of an exaggeration.

Does anyone outside of the organization have a clear view of how power and decision making is shared inside? In the case of player personnel, we know that Franco Harris, who within the last week has been identified in the writings of both Joe Greene and Bob Labriola as being the “most significant” running back in team history, probably would not have been on the team had it been left to the preferences of Noll. The Steelers had both Harris and wide receiver Lynn Swann because of the intervention and influence of Art Rooney Jr. and Bill Nunn. Two decades later we acquired Ben Roethlisberger due more to Dan Rooney than to either Bill Cowher or Kevin Colbert.

Nor has it always been sweetness and light in staff relations. Noll was pressured to fire assistants. Cowher was involved in a power struggle with the general manager. And does anyone know the real story behind the ‘retirements,’ as they were characterized at the time, of Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau? They are currently head coach of the Arizona Cardinals and defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans respectively. Presumably they are engaged in these activities only as post-retirement hobbies.

And to the same point, did Mike Tomlin initiate, support or oppose these decisions, and did what he thought even matter? [At least in the case of Arians, Tomlin had already publicly announced that Arians would be returning the following season… Ed.] Does an ongoing issue such as substandard tackling demonstrate slipshod coaching? Or is it and other such issues an inevitable result of a CBA which severely restricts the number of padded practices relative to previous years, combined with economics that favor young, cheap, inexperienced players over more seasoned alternatives?

If Rebecca were to teach a course and a few of the students flunked the final exam, would this be because she failed to adequately prepare them? It is, of course, a possibility, but there are many alternative explanations as well. As that sage philosopher, James Harrison,  has opined, “You can lead a horse to water…”. Class absences, poor study habits, test anxiety or binge drinking the night before the exam are factors over which she would have limited control. [Um, that would be no control – Ed.] If all or most of the students failed the final, then perhaps a more plausible case can be made for the failure to be Rebecca’s.

Nonetheless, this is a leadership issue. As Captain Kirk declares in the sixth Star Trek movie, he is responsible for the action of those under his command, though he cannot perform for them. What is likely to be true is that coaches get more credit for victories and more blame for defeats than they deserve. If AB doesn’t stretch the ball over the plane of the end zone, we would undoubtedly be critiquing Tomlin’s clock management skills and calling for his scalp (more so than normal) to this day, and Harbaugh would be a genius.

In a sense those who argue Tomlin is doing it with other people’s resources would be onto something if they applied it more broadly and fairly. Some sought to diminish Noll’s accomplishments by suggesting that he was the beneficiary of a benevolent system, forgetting that he was also a co-creator and chief steward of that system as well. John Madden was often accused of being a mere figurehead for Raiders owner Al Davis.

Those who believe the Cincinnati Bengals are mistaken in keeping coach Marvin Lewis may have gotten it wrong as well. How much do you blame him for institutional failures which deliver to him the likes of Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones on a disturbingly regular basis? It’s not like they allow him to be armed with a taser. One of the admirable traits of the Bengals is that they are patient with their coaching. This is one of the things that distinguishes them from cross state rival Cleveland.

To be continued. Part 1 of this series can be found here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here.

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