Is Tomlin to blame for Steelers’ head-scratching losses?

Head Coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers has taken some heat for some of his recent coaching decisions, particularly after the alarming loss to the San Diego Chargers last Sunday. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The Steelers have lost to four of the eight AFC teams that have the worst win-lost records in the AFC. It could easily have been five, if kicker Shaun Suisham misses the overtime field goal that defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10.

The disturbing part is: it could just as easily have been all wins. All wins, against–as the season has played out and shown us–decidedly inferior teams. Again, more on this in a minute.

I’ve always said that winning a football game comes down to some combination of talent, coaching and luck. You can have good talent but coaches who are one step behind the other team–you’ll probably lose. You can have great coaches but not as much talent–again, you’ll probably lose to a better team. And, as far as luck goes, good coaching and good talent can minimize the luck factor…but go ask the Buffalo Bills about luck after Scott Norwood just misses the game winner in Super Bowl XXV…or the Tennessee Titans after Kevin Dyson just-can’t-get-that-extra-yard in Super Bowl XXXIV…or, the New England Patriots after the New York Giants’ David Tyree somehow makes that bubblegum-on-the-helmet catch to help kill New England’s “perfect” chances in Super Bowl XLII. The football has an odd shape for a reason.

The Pittsburgh Steelers now stand at 7-6, and in my mind have only one loss that was even close to legitimate–the opener against the Denver Broncos. An argument could be made that even that loss could have easily gone the other way.

The other loss that has any legitimacy is to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 11, 13-10. The Ravens’ only touchdown came as the result of a punt return. If the Steelers are capable of even a field goal, that game is tied and possibly goes to overtime.

Fans wondered: “If Byron Leftwich couldn’t complete any of those last passes, at the end, then why was he still in the game at that point? The cameras showed him repeatedly doubled over and grimacing in pain after a play…why did Tomlin leave him in there? Why not put in a healthy Charlie Batch?”

We perhaps got a clue the next week as to why Batch wasn’t inserted late in that game, as the Steelers played what could be their worst game in decades against the Cleveland Browns, since the days even before Chuck Noll became head coach in 1969. (“Same Old Steelers,” indeed.) There were a total of eight turnovers…and while Batch only accounted for three of them as interceptions, he still was not the Charlie Batch we saw in his masterful 23-20 game victory the next week against the Ravens, snapping their 16-game home winning streak.

Back to Tomlin…he’s had to answer, among many other questions, why his team has allowed inferior opponents to win games; why he didn’t elect to go for a two-point conversion toward the end of the Chargers game; how his team could play so well one week and then so awful the next (again, facing a lesser opponent); and why he didn’t put Batch in at the end of the Ravens game when Leftwich clearly could not go.

Taking these in no particular order: after the Ravens loss he said he had the QB in the game that he believed had the best chance to win it. As I said before, we saw how rusty Batch was in the next game. So, there’s your answer–although I would argue that even Heath Miller (emergency QB–he played the position while in college at Virginia) would have been a better choice than the damaged Leftwich by the end of the game.

As for dismissing the two-point play, here’s the scenario at the time: the score is 34-16 and Pittsburgh has just scored with 6:07 left, pending the extra point try. If the two-point conversion is successful, it’s 34-18. If the Steelers can score another TD and another two-pointer, it’s 34-26. Now–if you can score AGAIN and get another two-point conversion…well look at that, it would be 34-34. Otherwise, it’s 17 points–two TDs, two extra points, and a field goal. Tomlin chose to kick the extra point. When Tomlin was asked if he considered going for two points, he responded:

“No. Until we stopped them it was going to be insignificant. I was holding the two-point plays for that reason and that reason only. Now, we still have them in our hip pocket. Those specialty plays we didn’t want to put on tape unless we had an opportunity to close the gap. As you can see, we didn’t.”

[Asked if this meant he thought the game was out of hand]

“I didn’t say the game was out of hand,” Tomlin said. “I said that I was going to hold it until I saw signs of us being capable of stopping them.”

I’m actually okay with his decision, despite what the above-linked author says. I’ve watched a lot of two-point attempts since the NFL has made it an option, and I’m not convinced the Steelers could have made a pair of two point conversions, yet alone three…especially if the defense knows what’s coming. It’s no indictment of the quality of the Steelers’ play (although it was very suspect on this day), but it’s simple math. If the team fails to convert even one of those, then even the combination of a touchdown, extra point and field goal leaves you one point short. I know that there’s a belief that if you don’t try to win you won’t, but I still think it’s unrealistic to expect to convert three two-point plays in less than six minutes.

Finally, the Steelers kind of have a history of playing down to the level of their opponents. This didn’t start with Tomlin, but happened with both Noll and Bill Cowher. The team’s records, especially since 1969 and the start of the Noll Era to present, show seemingly inexplicable losses to teams with lesser win-loss records.

Tomlin has won 60 games faster than only four other NFL coaches in history–in fact, with the victory against the New York Giants in Week 9, he became the fastest of any current coach to achieve that mark at just 88 games. As ESPN’s Jason Helmsley reports:

The only coaches to record their 60th win faster have been: San Francisco’s George Seifert (75 games), Washington’s Joe Gibbs (84) and Chicago’s Mike Ditka (85). Tomlin…also edge[d] out former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who didn’t celebrate his 60th victory until his 90th game.

He has taken the team to two Super Bowls and a 1-1 record. He has never had a losing season. Before one makes the argument that he did it with Cowher’s players, remember that Barry Switzer, who took over the Dallas Cowboys head coaching job from Jimmy Johnson, did win Super Bowl XXX with the prior coach’s talent. However, he was not able to repeat that success, and he resigned soon thereafter.

Point being: it’s easy to win with the other guy’s players. But when you’ve drafted and signed new players and they’re now yours, it’s a lot harder. Still, Tomlin has kept winning, and has generally kept his team able to compete for and win its record seventh Lombardi trophy.

He’s still learning at this job…and, like the benching snafu of the running backs in the Cleveland game, he’s going to make some little mistakes. A good team should overcome those, and the Steelers had plenty of chances in all of those losses.

There’s enough blame to go around in this most recent stumbling effort…from Mike Wallace’s befuddling dropped passes to a defense that seemed unable to stop third and long conversions to a blown fourth-down attempt that caused a spark, alright, but for the other team.

The coaches can teach technique, but the desire to win comes from within.

And, to be fair, the Chargers were not like the Titans or Oakland Raiders, teams that have underplayed all season with better talent. When news broke earlier in the week that head coach Norv Turner would be fired at the end of the season–and this news allegedly came from the team’s from office (although no official word was released), the Chargers team reportedly decided that it would play its last four games for its embattled head coach and would just “have fun.” A fake punt that surprises the other team and gets you a first down is a great way to have some fun.

In a previous post I talked about the Steelers playing down to its expected level of competition. I do believe that it is the coaching staff’s job, collectively, to properly prepare a team for what it should expect, and to ensure that the team is ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

There are three games left. If the coaching staff has done its job correctly, there will be no repeats of the terrible and subpar performances we’ve seen so far.

Talent, coaching and luck.

Can the Steelers win these last three games? While the luck factor cannot be accounted for, Pittsburgh has the talent and coaching to beat any team in the league. No joke.

Will it happen? That depends on the coaching staff ensuring that it has the tools it needs to win, and getting both itself and the Pittsburgh Steelers football team poised for a long playoff run.

And if the players can fully realize that history is theirs to be made.

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