Michael Lombardi: Why do we doubt Mike Tomlin?

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When it comes to betting on the Steelers, why do we doubt Mike Tomlin?

Most of every off-season, we spend the majority of time discussing the players.   Who changed teams, who got paid, who didn’t, and why on paper one team looks better than the other?  Our off-seasons are all “paper talk.”  And at the start of camp, “paper talk” dominates the thought process and the betting odds. Perception rules, and what occurred on the field at the end of the season is meaningless if it doesn’t fit our paper talk narrative. 

 

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Sixteenth-century French playwright Voltaire once wrote: “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”  From our “paper talk,” we begin to doubt the obvious, and before too long, we are certain, which as Voltaire wrote, is ridiculous.  Doubting Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is uncomfortable and being certain he isn’t going to win more than eight games is ridiculous.  All this doubt that leads to certainty is fueled by the “paper talk” of their roster—not by facts.   Tomlin has never had a losing record, Tomlin won nine games with a roster riddled with injuries and a rookie quarterback last season, and now we are doubting him again.  What does the man have to do to gain a little respect? 

The Steelers and the Lions finished with identical 9-8 records, and both corrected their seasons after their bye weeks.  The Steelers went 7-2 after their bye, committing only five turnovers in the nine games, with three of them coming against Baltimore in a loss.  The Lions went 8-4 after their bye week, committing only nine turnovers in those twelve games, with five coming in the Dallas loss.  Yet, the Lions are the apple of the “paper talk” crowd, and the Steelers are picked for last place in the AFC North.  Now, I understand the AFC North is significantly more talented than the NFC North, but why do the Lions get the love, and the Steelers get the doubt? 

Both teams played the Panthers in Carolina after their bye weeks—which serves as a good platform to analyze both.  In Week 15, the Steelers dominated the Panthers 24-16, and the score wasn’t an indication of the disparity between the two teams.  Three fourth-quarter field goals by the Panthers made the game seem closer, yet the Steelers held the ball for over 36 minutes, converted 12 of 16 third downs, were always in control of the game, physically dominated the line of scrimmage and held the vaulted Panthers running game to 21 yards, their season low.  It was an ass-kicking, plain and simple. 

Meanwhile, the Lions traveled to Carolina the very next weekend and walked into a hornet’s nest.  The Lions got their asses kicked from start to finish—trailing 24-7 at the half, allowed 350 yards rushing, and they left town with a 37-23 loss and their playoff chances all but gone.  We all love the Lions, yet we hate the Steelers, but if you asked anyone in Carolina, who had the better team on the field, they would easily answer the Steelers.  But we keep ignoring the obvious, making excuses to fit our “paper talk.” 

So, what is wrong with the Steelers on paper?  They aren’t gaudy; they don’t shine brightly; they win games ugly, and no one loves winning ugly.  We are not conditioned to fall in love with ugly—even though there are no ugly wins. Quarterback Kenny Pickett isn’t flashy or doesn’t “wow” you with his skills.  Offensive coordinator Matt Canada doesn’t make anyone think he is the next Bill Walsh, and almost every game for the Steelers comes down to the fourth quarter.  It then becomes easy to explain their success as luck, as the bounce of the ball, but after 16 seasons of not having a losing season, luck isn’t the reason.  Tomlin is great at his job—better than most, and he makes the Steelers a formidable contender—regardless of the “paper talk.” 

Tomlin understands “how to win games,” which isn’t a common trait among most head coaches.  Partly because most head coaches are at the mercy of their coordinators, and all coordinators have a different agenda than the head coach.  Fans might believe that to be a ridiculous statement, but unless you understand the functionality of each coordinator and their ambition, you miss the point. 

Each coach on every NFL team has a detailed job description outlining his duties for the season.  Within the text of their responsibilities, the word “winning” doesn’t appear.  It’s a common belief for all in the organization that winning matters—which it does, but the execution of the job is not related to winning.  For example, an offensive coordinator’s job is to get first downs and score points. Plain and simple. And if he does that well, then regardless of having a winning record, he can become a candidate for a head coaching job.  The only person who has “winning” in their job description is the head coach, and when he manages the game to win—controlling all three phases, as Tomlin does,  then he doesn’t look flashy or risky or gain much notice from the “paper talk” club.  They get labeled boring, and fans glamorize more excitement. 

Last season, the Steelers played with one of the worst offensive lines in football.  They struggled to protect with consistency—which hinders any offensive coordinator’s game plan.   They turned the ball over too much at the start of the season. They were not able to run the ball with consistency, nor could they stop the run.  When Tomlin reviewed his team after being soundly beaten by the Eagles 35-13 in Week 8, he found the solutions needed to win.  Tomlin understood playing a rookie quarterback wasn’t ideal—he didn’t want to start Pickett, but Trubisky was costing them games by turning the ball over in the first part of the season, and he had no other options but to play Pickett. When Tomlin was forced to play Trubisky in the Week 14 game for the injured Pickett, Trubisky singlehandedly allowed the Ravens to win 16-14 by tossing three picks, all in or near the red zone.

Tomlin fixed the defense after the bye, allowing over 20 points just once in nine games—37 against the Bengals.   In those nine games, the Steelers allowed only 16.5 points per game, and if you remove the 37 against the Bengals, the number dips to 13.8.  Only the Bengals had over 20 first downs in nine weeks against the Steelers defense, as they were physically controlling the line of scrimmage. 

What makes people doubting Tomlin more puzzling is that was his worst team in terms of talent.  He had a porous offensive line that they addressed in the off-season. They had injuries to their front seven on defense and in their secondary, which they also addressed this off-season and are expected to be improved in all phases.  So why the doubt?  Yes, the AFC North is tough, and yes, the Steelers don’t have the best quarterback in the division, but they have a great head coach.  

For me, I refuse to discuss the “paper talk” or the hard schedule.  In Tomlin I trust, and so should you at the window for betting their over total.