On assistant coaches, football as a chess match
Throughout the 2009 NFL season, Coach Mike Tomlin will provide his insight and observations to Steelers.com on a variety of topics pertaining to the team and the National Football League.
Q. When you were hiring your coaching staff, what were you looking for in your assistants?
A. I was looking for guys who didn't mind putting the vision or the ambition of this team in front of their own. I was looking for guys who are knowledgeable about football. Guys who are good teachers, and by that I mean they're good communicators and able to build a rapport with players, and with different kinds of players.
Q. In your mind, are there levels of authority within your coaching staff, for example, position coaches, then coordinators, then you?
A. I try not to draw boundaries or lines in terms of what I envision people contributing. If people put their hand in the pile and they have an opinion, I try to do a good job of listening. I want that to permeate through the staff. If a quality control guy can bring something to the table in terms of us winning, I'm open to it. We don't worry about titles and positions. We're just trying to put our team in a position to win, and that's the kind of environment I encourage and look for.
Q. What is a coordinator's job?
A. To do just that. To put together a quality plan, to put the players in a position to excel, to give the position coaches what it is they need for the growth and development of their men.
Q. What would have to happen for you to fire an assistant coach, a coordinator, one week before the start of a regular season?
A. I can't imagine that from my standpoint, and that's just my approach and my opinion. I understand that there are different ways to slice it. The issue that I have is this: as coaches we stand in front of our team and we encourage our team never to blink, never to panic, tell them that things are always going to be less than perfect, that we are a team in development and we are going to stick together and fight the fight to improve and do the things we need to do, that we are going to play to our strengths and minimize our weaknesses, things of that nature. When you take an action like that – firing a coach right before the start of a season – you're pushing the panic button. At times, the things that come out of your mouth after that are a little less relevant.
Q. During a game, will you tell one of your coordinators to run a certain play here, or to blitz there, or do you allow them to do their jobs and then critique the performance afterward?
A. The answer to that is both. I believe in allowing guys to do their jobs, but I'm also willing, and do, interject my thoughts and feelings during the course of football games. I believe that our staff has an understanding of that. I believe everybody in this business has an understanding of that. I'm the guy who has to go and stand at that podium when it's over, so at times I take liberties.
Q. What do you think of the characterization of a football game as some kind of chess match with one coordinator calling his plays and the other team's coordinator trying to counteract those calls?
A. I think that's sensationalized at times. The big thing is you get quality players and you put them in position to perform. Coaches don't determine the outcome of games. It's the quality of play inside the white lines that does. Coaches lose games when you're below the line from a preparation/organization standpoint. But really, I think when you prepare, you put guys in proper position, the guys on the field determine the outcome of football games.
Q. Is it ever the play-call, or is it the execution of that on the field?
A. Usually, when it's the play-call, it's because of deficiencies on the other side. I'm not taking anything away from quality play-calling, offensively and defensively, but usually it's the guys in the helmets who determine the outcome.