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Giger: The trouble with Tomlin

Photo from Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin is a tremendous NFL head coach, for six days and 21 hours a week. He represents the Pittsburgh Steelers exceptionally well, is a great leader, does and says the right things, avoids making controversial statements and keeps his players focused.

But in those other three hours each week — during games — Tomlin far too often makes big mistakes that a coach of his stature and experience simply should not make.

Tomlin’s in-game decisions have always been a problem for the Steelers. Bad timeout usage, bad situational decisions, bad playcalls, bad challenges, bad “hunches” that fly in the face of analytics.

Sunday night, Tomlin was terrible. And now the Steelers’ season is over, a collapse of epic proportions during which the team that started 11-0 lost five of its final six games.

This embarrassing final loss was a 48-37 decision to the Cleveland Browns, who were without their head coach and numerous players because of COVID.

The Steelers fell behind 28-0 in the first quarter, but they had a ton of momentum and were trailing just 35-23 with 14:52 remaining. That’s when they faced fourth-and-1 at their own 46.

Tomlin then made an inexcusable decision when he decided to punt.

Now, this was only a first-round playoff game and not an AFC title game or Super Bowl, so the game situation was not nearly as magnified. Still, punting at that point in the game, given all the circumstances, has to be one of the worst decisions of Tomlin’s career.

All the metrics SCREAMED go for it in that spot.

The punt went for a touchback — a further blow — the Browns got the ball at their 20 and marched right down the field for a touchdown and 42-23 lead. The Steelers, who had gone from dead to appearing to be on the verge of coming all the way back, were toast at that point.

Why on earth didn’t Tomlin go for it? This is what he said, from our sister site Steelers Now.

“We had some stops, wanted to pin them down, maybe provide the short field for our offense,” Tomlin said. “We had maybe two or three consecutive stops. I just wanted to keep the momentum going in terms of field positioning. But we weren’t good enough in terms of doing that.”

The terrible fourth-down decision wasn’t the only mistake Tomlin made.

He went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 5 down by 19, and the decision worked as Ben Roethlisberger threw a TD to Juju Smith-Schuster. But instead of going for 2 to try and cut the deficit to 11, Tomlin decided to kick the PAT to make it 35-23 with 2:57 left in the third.

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Going for 2 would have cut the deficit to 11, meaning the Steelers would be a FG and TD+2 from tying the game. Instead, down 12, it meant two TDs were still needed.

Tomlin had gone for 2 on the Steelers’ previous TD, but the attempt failed, leaving the score 35-16. It makes NO sense to not have gone for 2 again when it was 35-22.

These are the kinds of mistakes a coach simply cannot make with the season on the line in the playoffs. But if you’ve watchd the Steelers closely for years, you already know these mistakes are simply par for the course for Tomlin.

He just simply cannot get out of his own way during games, often compounding one mistake with another, as he did by failing to go for 2 and then making the bad decision to punt.

This is the kind of stuff that drives Steelers fans mad.

I am a Steelers fan. That’s my disclosure. I don’t cover the Steelers, so when I talk about all of this stuff, my mindset is that of a fan, not a journalist. As a fan, Tomlin often infuriates me.

Look, Mike Tomlin is a great coach. He’s a Hall of Famer. If the Steelers were to part ways with him, he’d have another job with another great organization in a matter of minutes.

This is the problem when it comes to Steelers fans vs. fans of other teams. Those fans see all the success the Steelers have had and see all the griping that Steelers fans do about Tomlin, and they don’t understand why there’s so much frustration.

Sunday’s game against the Browns is why.

Those awful decisions that we as Steelers fans have become so used to seeing time and time again from Tomlin.

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Written By

Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Eric Reinke

    January 11, 2021 at 10:58 am

    Easy to pile on the coach after this debacle. I don’t like the punt decision, either, but what about the defense giving up 28 in the first quarter? As far as losing 5 of 6 down the stretch, it leaves a very bad taste, but most football fans with a shred of objectivity could see many faults in their performances as they piled up wins. They stopped running the ball,’or even trying to, injuries mounted and the sterile stadium atmospheres continued. No doubt the lack of a crowd was an issue for every team. What difference would a full Heinz Field have made? We’ll never know. I don’t have all the answers but I also don’t know which performances to trust in this year of unprecedented conditions. It is going to be a long off season for the good guys, by I’m with them.

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