Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part 5: Coaching in the Fog of War
By Ivan Cole
I once took over the head coaching duties of a girls basketball team that had been winless the previous year and guided them to an undefeated season and a state championship. This was accomplished despite my being saddled with a considerable set of handicaps.
I had solid experience coaching football, and had been a basketball assistant, but I had never played the game at an organized competitive level myself and had never led a team.
Some of the preparation and developmental principles are transferable across sports. This fact, along with deep study of great coaches such as John Wooden and Morgan Wooten, and being open to the insight of the other strong coaches I knew, helped. No team was better prepared than we were.
Then there was my daughter, who was on the team. We had reached that sweet spot in the parent/child relationship where— in her considered opinion —I was nothing more than a clueless idiot. I arranged to communicate with her on team matters through intermediaries. She was amazed at how wise and insightful they were and grateful she didn’t have to listen to the clueless idiot. Problem solved.
But there was one challenge I couldn’t get past by my own efforts. As the saying goes, the best laid battle plans go out the window when the first shot is fired. Tactical adjustments which must be made in the heat of the moment are often the winning (or losing) difference. The problem is, beyond just the mental, emotional and creative nimbleness that this requires, experience also plays a huge, unavoidable role.
Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka was once asked why he pulled quarterback Heath Schuler from a game and had the young man stand next to him on the sideline. “The game was moving too fast for him out there” was Ditka’s reply. If you pay attention during the coming months, you will hear a constant refrain from first and second year players – the game is “slowing down” for them.
This is a problem of experience, not intelligence. And it is something I suspect all of us have encountered in multiple areas of our lives. You are placed in a situation where an adjustment must be recognized and made in a matter of minutes or seconds, but you can’t react that quickly.
This is the essence of the process of getting both physical and mental reps. That was my problem, and our team’s greatest weakness. My solution was to give free rein in terms of bench decision making to my brother, who was one of my assistants and who had far more experience. It made me look like a figurehead in the eyes of some, and I guess if I had a different type of ego it would have affected me differently. But to me leadership is about delegating tasks to those who are best able to accomplish them. I was smart enough to know I wasn’t that smart, and the team was able to achieve greatness as a result.
It is this area of tactical decision making which many of the armchair field generals either underestimate, misunderstand or overlook altogether. Putting aside for the moment the meetings, game planning, film study, drills and other aspects of the preparation phase that we have absolutely no hope of being able to view and evaluate, let’s just focus for the moment on what we can actually see.
One of the most important tasks of a head coach is how he decides to delegate responsibility among staff and players. Coming back to the topic of clock management, of all the things that are competing for a coach’s personal attention in a game situation, this may potentially be the biggest waste of time (pun intended).
From what little I can glean, certain time management issues are typically delegated to assistants, with the head coach being called upon for executive decisions. Of course, some coaches take more of a hands-on approach to moment-to-moment actions such as play calling. An Andy Reid, for example, might have a greater influence on time management than Steelers coaches, all of whom in the Super Bowl era delegate those tasks to assistants.
Analytics geeks expose their arrogance and cluelessness in not understanding the limitations of their formulas, such as the charts for when a team should seek to convert a one vs. a two-point conversion after a touchdown. The generalized descriptive and predictive value of these things are wonderful, but it bears remembering that a statistical description of a pattern involving the results of coin tosses has no value in predicting the outcome of any individual coin toss.
Coaches, good ones, while respecting the established protocols and the accepted common wisdom, go beyond that to respond to the individualized chaos that characterizes competitive contests involving talented, smart and motivated sets of opponents. Factors such as who and what has been effectual that day, who’s fighting through injury or exhaustion, weather conditions, momentum (confidence), and any number of other things will play into the decision making at that moment.
Consider the 2015 contest against the Ravens where the conservative and winning play would be to put the game in the hands of the placekicker. But Tomlin had no confidence in Josh Scobee, went in another direction and the Steelers eventually lost the game. In this case, there was little blowback from Steelers Nation since most of us had no confidence in Scobee either.
At the end of another 2015 game against San Diego, Tomlin decided to put the ball in the hands of Le’Veon Bell in a win/lose move. Bell scored and the Steelers won, but can you imagine the reaction if the play had failed? The laid-back sideline demeanor of Mike Tomlin (and Chuck Noll before him), his version of what I termed the “theatrics” of coaching, belies the fact that his teams are well prepared, aggressive and not adverse to taking considerable risks. Hardly what you would associate with the characterization of a cheerleader.
But because Tomlin doesn’t scowl, pout, throw tantrums, spit, in other words, does not conduct himself in a manner that is entertaining to the viewer but couldn’t be less relevant to effectively addressing the task at hand (winning the football game), he courts criticism of being insufficiently engaged. I would also add that this extends to the fact that he doesn’t perform for the media in this regard either (another trait he shares with Noll.) This may result in the side effect of a lower sense of regard in response.
Is the jury still out on Tomlin?
Fair minded people can hedge their bets and vote yes. A life can be upended or discredited within a twinkling of an eye. Standards can change. The will of one’s enemies can prevail. Passions can be redirected or flame out. But based upon the body of work as it exists today and reasonable projections, the track toward a Hall of Fame career is what we are witnessing now.
What are the specific characteristics that would support this argument?
Eleven years and counting, with no losing seasons. Making a comparison of Tomlin with other NFL coaches, if he were to retire today, he would have the same number of years served, wins, and championships as John Madden. Same number of years as Vince Lombardi, and same number of championships as Tony Dungy. All three are in the Hall of Fame. But I think he has the potential to match most favorably with Don Shula.
Here are a couple of tidbits from Shula’s history. With 33 seasons, he was the second longest tenured coach (behind George Halas, who had 40) in league history. Like Tomlin, he won his first championship in his second season, and had teams in championship contests in three different decades. He didn’t have his first losing season until his 13th year of coaching. He and Tomlin (and Noll) are branches of the same coaching tree that leads back to Paul Brown.
Tomlin is due an extension that would take a prodigious feat of imagination to come up with reasons that he would be denied. Likewise, even if his productivity fell off a cliff, it is unlikely that the full length of his contract wouldn’t be honored. Hard to imagine also that other organizations wouldn’t be interested in his services if he and Pittsburgh parted ways. A worst-case scenario says he has at least a 20-year career—best case would be that Shula’s record is within reach. That kind of longevity alone is a HOF qualifier. The convolutions necessary to explain away both the length of his tenure and lack of a losing record become increasingly difficult and absurd, especially with the challenges presented by the 21st Century NFL.
Bill Belichick, the current state of the art, is entering his 23rd season and is 20 years older than Tomlin. He has five losing seasons in both Cleveland and New England. Tomlin has turned over his entire roster (Ben and Deebo being the only survivors of the previous regime), and besides two .500 seasons has been consistently competitive. And if you were a betting person, would you put your money on Tomlin’s skills deteriorating, remaining static or improving over the next decade?
The Super Bowl seasons
The idea has been continually advanced that Tomlin was handed a team that was so talented and accomplished that his job was essentially idiot proof. It doesn’t take much to put the lie to that notion.
Bill Cowher’s regular season high water mark was 2004, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, when the Steelers only lost one regular season game, but lost the AFCCG at home. In 2005, the team stumbled badly mid-year, and slipped into the playoffs as a sixth seed in the last week of the season. They capped an unprecedented playoff run with a victory in the Super Bowl. They then followed with an 8-8 season Cowher’s last year.
Tomlin inherited an idiot proof team that hadn’t won a divisional title in two seasons and missed the playoffs altogether the previous season. Key contributors such as Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Joey Porter and Jeff Hartings had either retired or otherwise moved on. In Tomlin’s first season at the helm, Pittsburgh managed to win their division but faded in December and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
So obviously, entering the 2008 campaign you would think the Cowher juggernaut would be a favorite for the Super Bowl, right? Hardly. Their projected schedule was so difficult that it became newsworthy in and of itself, like some kind of thousand-year weather event.
It may not be surprising that national observers did not consider the Steelers seriously as a championship contender. Of perhaps greater significance is that Steeler Nation wrote them off in the preseason as well. Coaching wasn’t much at issue. 2007 had been an improvement over 2006, and Tomlin was still in the honeymoon phase. Let us just say that the team did not appear nearly as formidable as those looking through rose-colored rearview mirrors might let on.
Just consider the challenges posed by the offensive line. Pro Bowlers Faneca and Hartings were gone. Arguably, the two best remaining linemen, Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons, were lost for the year to injuries. Who’s left?
Over the past 50 years Pittsburgh has been remarkably consistent in the All Pro/HOF quality of their centers. 2007 center Jeff Hartwig was an outlier in this regard. And, speaking of centers, a free agent center, Darnell Stapleton, was pressed into service at right guard. Right tackle Willie Colon was the William Gay of his time, despised by some fans because in his early days he gave a great impression of a sieve. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu displayed the judgement issues that would plague his career. During one game against the Eagles, Ben was sacked seven times.
The issues weren’t confined to the O line. When playing the defending champion New York Giants, No. 1 receiver Santonio Holmes wasn’t available because Tomlin suspended him because of a drug related arrest the previous week. Because of an injury to long snapper Greg Warren, James Harrison was pressed into service and promptly snapped the ball to Cincinnati. That was an exaggeration, but the play did result in a safety, and was a key factor in a loss.
All of which may help to explain certain current events. Despite the schedule, injuries and dysfunction, Pittsburgh won the AFC North and was second seed in the AFC. And if you need any additional supporting input as to Tomlin’s coaching that season, then I recommend to you the “America’s Team” documentary on the 2008 Steelers. Particularly note Troy Polamalu’s account of the team’s preparation for the Super Bowl game.
The leadup to the 2010 season was similar. Once again Steeler Nation wrote the team off prior to training camp (in March!). This time it was the impending six-game suspension of Roethlisberger, and, because of his ongoing personal issues, the trading away of Holmes for nothing of apparent immediate value (I think I characterized it as receiving a ham sandwich in return at the time).
Once again Tomlin cheer-leaded his way to a division title, a second seed, and a trip to the Super Bowl, where they lost by less than a touchdown. The point is that far from being the fortunate beneficiary of a competitive slam dunk, the 2008 and 2010 Super Bowl teams needed a great deal of coaching and leadership to be successful.
The disadvantage of a career which spans more than a decade is that plenty of opportunities exist for PR bubbles to be ruptured and flaws exposed. Tomlin has his detractors, but few, if any are among those most qualified to speak to the issue—current and former players, staff members, peers in the profession, and so on.
Like so many of Tomlin’s, and the Steelers’, critics, the Cowherds, Whitlocks, Bradshaws and numbers of lesser lights and fans sit on the periphery and claim deep knowledge. Adhering to the theme of this series, we can’t know for certain the full extent of the story. However, the consistent narrative is that of a coach who is well respected by those with whom he works and those who play for him. This does not just speak well of his talent and character but also provides a discernable advantage to the recruitment and retention of talent
This creates a clear competitive advantage.