Good for Mike Tomlin. Good for him for making a move a lot of coaches probably want to make in the quiet of their minds but don’t have the starch to execute when the time comes.
Mike Tomlin went for it. Monday night, Mike Tomlin coached like a man hungry for a win and unafraid to lose. That last quality, that absence of any fear of defeat, is a trait in short supply among Tomlin’s contemporaries.
It’s stunning when you think about it. Football, the most macho of sports, played by the toughest athletes around, features coaches mentally strong enough to encourage, inspire and lead a group of 53 often strong personalities, yet too afraid of failure, too concerned with long-term job security, to take the kind of calculated risks that could actually help them succeed.
Hardly a game goes by where a coach doesn’t make a conservative decision to punt the ball inside his opponent’s 40-yard line, even if his team is only facing fourth-and-1, or fourth-and-2. These men would rather lose the conventional way rather than give their team a chance for a momentum-changing play at the risk of turning over the ball on downs. Often times, a punt in this situation ends up only gaining the coach 20 yards of field position.
Most fans are rightly miffed by this timid behavior, and it is commonplace to hear, “I would have gone for it if I was running the team,” if you happen to be watching a game at a bar, or really in any group setting.
Thing is, Tomlin actually coaches like that fan who insists that he/she would leave it all out on the field if left to make crucial decisions. Sometimes it works, and he is lauded, and sometimes it doesn’t, and he gets crushed and ridiculed.
Either way, he doesn’t seem to care. Just last week, he understandably showed zero faith in now-departed kicker Josh Scobee to win a key matchup with the Baltimore Ravens, so he went for a first down on fourth-and-short twice. Both times, the Steelers failed to pick up the necessary yardage. Both times, they failed to give Le’Veon Bell the ball.
Even though his kicker inspired virtually no confidence that night, and almost forced his hand, the Steelers’ head coach still took broadsides from fans and media the following day. Some coaches are cowed by the mere thought of that type of backlash. It is obvious that Tomlin doesn’t really care.
He learned his lesson, too. When Monday night’s game was in the balance, he and Todd Haley decided to cut out the middleman and snap the ball to their best player. They trusted him to make a play, and he did just that.
Tomlin was reading the game, too. The Chargers, after a long lull in the mid-portion of the contest, were starting to find their rhythm again offensively. Conversely, Mike Vick was wildly inconsistent all night, and it is hard to fathom that he would have led a decisive touchdown drive in overtime, if given the chance.
From my vantage point, the Chargers looked like the team better positioned to win if the game went to OT. Tomlin could have played it safe, kicked the field goal and still lost. He decided to take control of the moment and trust his team to advance the ball six inches forward. They did.
Real leaders are unfazed by making tough, sometimes unpopular decisions, and living with the consequences if they choose wrong. Real leaders earn respect by facing criticism and not wavering in big moments. Tomlin behaved like a leader, and displayed a level of intestinal fortitude that most of his fellow coaches could only dream of possessing.
The Rooney family deserves credit, as well. They hire coaches, and then let them do the job they are being paid to do. In the ego-driven world of professional sports, this is an increasingly rare way of doing business. Their philosophy of hiring and then empowering their head coach is not always the easiest thing to adhere to, and requires patience, but has proven to be successful for decades.
The Rooneys trusted Tomlin. In turn, he showed some real guts and trusted his players, specifically Le’Veon Bell. Bell rewarded that trust. The Steelers grabbed a thrilling win.
In a league where risk-averse, “safe” coaching decisions are depressingly commonplace, Mike Tomlin dared to be bold. He dared to take a chance when the stakes couldn’t have been higher. In doing so, he might have saved the Steelers’ season.