BALTIMORE — Mike Tomlin is doing it again.
With his back against the wall on the brink of playoff elimination and the first losing season of his coaching career, somehow, Tomlin has engineered his way through a 2-6 start to now get the Steelers to 8-8. That level of resilience is impressive enough, and it is about as indicative as a culture as an NFL team can get. Pittsburgh is somehow once again rising from the ashes to charge toward the playoffs.
“It’s culture,” Terrell Edmunds said. “We are just fighting, standing together, we’re not quitting. That’s the biggest part of our culture as a Steeler. Even with the older guys on down, that’s the mentality, we don’t quit here. If you think, you can do it, and right now we’re living it.”
This goes into something about Mike Tomlin that is hard to put a pulse on as a coach. Every day if you scour social media, you are sure to find criticisms of Tomlin. And let me be honest, these criticisms are very valid. For
Tomlin is not an aggressive coach and goes against analytics often on fourth downs. His in-game management and clock management are very suspect. In his history as a head coach, Tomlin’s lacked the true consistent ability to hire quality offensive coordinators and assistant coaches around him. His teams have a tendency to play down to the level of competition they play at times. In reality, that is a lot of flaws for a head coach to have in the NFL.
With all of these flaws in mind, why then could I even argue for Tomlin as being a true catalyst for this team’s rebound and shoo-in as one of the best head coaches in the NFL?
Mike Tomlin is one of the elite relationships coaches in professional sports today. There is simply no denying it. His players will run through the metaphorical brick wall for him every Sunday. When the team’s back is against the wall and they look down and out, Pittsburgh can climb out of any hole. It’s a very simple resolve and management of people that makes Tomlin great. Many good coordinators get promoted to being head coaches but fail because they are not good at the aspect of managing people and building a culture. When looking at Tomlin, I’m not sure if there is a better culture builder in the NFL. He is elite in this area.
Moreover, one of the more underrated segments of Tomlin’s coaching career has been his defensive prowess. Coming in from Minnesota as a defensive coordinator, people far too often just associated Tomlin as a rah-rah-only coach who lacks the true innovativeness to adapt to the modern NFL defensively and plays with archaic schemes. However, week in and week out, Tomlin is a fantastic game planner on defense. His schematics evolve every year to his players to put them in the right position to play. NFL defenses are volatile, but there is a reason Tomlin has so many top defenses during his time in Pittsburgh. He is a really good defensive coach.
Tomlin has an innate ability to have his finger on the pulse of each team he coaches. Not once has he lost an actual locker room. The players respect him, and listen to him. He is not hands-off and is not soft on these players. That is a great myth perpetuated by many out there. Tomlin has mastered the art of culture building in the NFL. His development of players to curate their abilities and help them grow is a consistent plus indicator, too.
What is this all leading up to in my point? You can say Tomlin has his flaws, and I’ll agree with you on just about all of those flaws. They have been warts since he has been a head coach, too, so these aren’t going to be magically fixed all of the sudden.
But what Tomlin is good at, few or maybe even no one is better at in the NFL than him. He is elite at the unquantifiable, which is the human aspect of head coaching the NFL. His strengths of his come together to make a coach and team that can never be counted out at any time, and one that maximizes what he can get out of his team in the most trying of times each week.
This isn’t asking anyone to ignore his flaws, those matter and have hurt Pittsburgh in the past. But don’t ignore the elite strengths of Mike Tomlin, either.
Those strengths are what make Tomlin a truly special head coach.