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Labriola on Tomlin, Coach of the Year

Ready or not, here it comes:

• This was not an original idea from me, but rather something I heard Mike Prisuta say, and it made a lot of sense. It has to do with the NFL's Coach of the Year Award, and based on what I know about how Mike Tomlin approaches his job, I believe he would concur.

• What Prisuta said was that immediately after the Super Bowl winning coach is presented with the Lombardi Trophy on the platform with confetti raining down, that same person then should be given the Coach of the Year Award, because if you coached your team to a Super Bowl championship, then by definition you have done the best job.

• Think about that, and then recall how Tomlin answers when asked for his assessment of a particular training camp, or a particular offseason program, or even a week of practice. In all of those instances, Tomlin will say that he will be able to do that only after the upcoming game or season is over. Win the game, win the championship, and whatever was being asked about was a success. Lose the game, fall short of winning the championship, and whatever it was could've been better.

• Mike Tomlin has been getting a lot of support recently as either a prime candidate for, or the odds-on favorite to win, the NFL Coach of the Year Award for his work with this particular Steelers team. The reasons given for his candidacy in 2019 have been well-documented and should be familiar now to everyone paying attention to this NFL regular season and how the Steelers have had to navigate it.

• Tomlin has done a good job in 2019, but this isn't something new, or unique. In fact, it started almost immediately after he was hired in January 2007.

• To provide a little background, Mike Tomlin's first NFL job came in 2001 as the secondary coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That team was coached at the time by Tony Dungy, a believer in a style of defense that came to be known as the Tampa-2, which in fact was a version of the defense the Pittsburgh Steelers played during the 1970s when the team's coordinator was Bud Carson.

• A simplistic explanation of that defense is that it was a 4-3 alignment, with the linebackers and defensive backs most often in zone coverage behind the four-man rush generated by the defensive line. By the time Tomlin came into the NFL, Carson was out of football, and the Buccaneers defense was being coordinated by Monte Kiffin.

• And so Tomlin was taught the Tampa-2 by Dungy and Kiffin, and that was the scheme with which he was most familiar when he was hired by the Steelers. In the NFL, it's most common, in fact it's accepted that a new coach will come into a new job and rearrange scheme, staff, and personnel to fit that with which he's most comfortable, and that's especially true of a first-time head coach in his inaugural season in a new job.

• But as the Steelers' search for Bill Cowher's replacement developed, Tomlin let it be known that his plan was to retain Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator and continue utilizing the zone-blitz scheme for which the existing personnel had been assembled. Even though the defensive philosophies of Kiffin and LeBeau are polar opposites and Tomlin had been schooled in the Tampa-2, he believed then and still believes now that change simply for the sake of change is unnecessary and counter-productive.

• "I'm a student of the game," Tomlin said about his decision at that time. "It wasn't the first time I exposed myself to (LeBeau's zone-blitz) defense. I had studied the defense the three previous offseasons, since (the Steelers) were No. 1 in the league in defense in 2004. I had done a week's study on this defense during every offseason (from 2004-07), so I'm familiar with what the players are capable of, and I have a great deal of respect for them.

• "That decision to retain the defensive scheme was very easy for me," continued Tomlin. "To me, that's all ego-driven when people come in and believe they have to put their stamp on things. Why would you fix something that's not broken? That's just me. I'm more interested in winning than anything else, and that allows us to win. We have great players, we have a great system, we have great coaches. The story doesn't have to be about me, about what I do. The story has to be about what we do, and what we're capable of doing as a team."

• And Tomlin backed up his words with action. In his first draft as the Steelers coach, the team spent its first two picks on prototypical 3-4 linebackers named Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.

• While many self-proclaimed draft experts had Timmons as the replacement for Joey Porter at right outside linebacker, Tomlin already had earmarked that spot for James Harrison, who was limited to special teams under Bill Cowher. Timmons was a fast, athletic inside linebacker to pair with James Farrior and had the skill-set both to attack the backfield or cover backs and tight ends depending on what was needed at the time. Woodley was a brutish pass-rusher who would team with Harrison to give the Steelers' 3-4 defense a combined 71.5 sacks in the three seasons from 2008-10.

• In the first draft of the Colbert-Tomlin era, the Steelers not only didn't change their defense but they made the existing one better by effectively re-making their corps of linebackers into a younger, faster, more athletic group that helped the team win a Super Bowl in 2008 and go to another in 2010.

• Those last two sentences – "The story doesn't have to be about me, about what I do. The story has to be about what we do, and what we're capable of doing as a team" – encapsulate Tomlin's approach to his job, and they underscore his disdain for things such as the Coach of the Year Award. But he also understands when it's time to put himself at the front of the line, and the latest example of that came in the postgame following the victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

• With 8:13 left in the fourth quarter of a game in which the Steelers held a 20-10 lead, Jordan Berry received the snap on fourth-and-6 from the Pittsburgh 40-yard line and took off running instead of punting. Berry never got close to the line to gain; in fact, he never even got close to the original line of scrimmage. The play officially was scored as an 8-yard loss, and the Cardinals took over at the Steelers 32-yard line.

• Three plays later, the Steelers lead was 20-17 after a touchdown pass from Kyler Murray to David Johnson, and disaster was knocking on the door. An 11-play, 77-yard answering drive by the Steelers ended with a Chris Boswell field goal and restored some breathing room in what ended up being a 23-17 victory.

• How could Tomlin call for a fake punt in that situation? What was he thinking? Why wasn't he thinking? There were going to be questions, and those questions would start with him in his postgame gathering with the media.

• Before dealing with the questions and how they were handled, it's important to understand how these kinds of special teams plays are handled.

• A fake punt, for example, isn't something that's done on demand, like a pass to the tight end on offense, or a blitz from the quarterback's blind side on defense. A simple explanation is that during the week of preparation for a particular opponent, video study reveals a personnel grouping or an alignment of a personnel grouping that can be exploited.

• That "tell" is then taught to the players, and a fake is introduced and practiced throughout the week that can take advantage of this weakness. When the opponent either deploys that particular personnel grouping, or the opponent's personnel is in that particular alignment, the fake is on. Unless it's called off.

• What happened on the field was that the particular personnel was aligned in the particular formation to trigger the fake punt, but it was called off. Ten of the players on the field got the signal to call off the fake. The 11th player was Berry.

• When asked about the fake punt in his postgame, Tomlin said, "It was a call by me. They had a six-man box. They had one (gunner) in vice. They had two returners deep. We had decent numbers. We worked it during the week, but they executed better than we did. Kudos to them."

• A follow-up question had to do with whether Berry had the ability to call off the fake. Instead of explaining the process and what had happened, which would have mitigated his responsibility for the gaffe, Tomlin again pointed only at himself for the turnover on downs that led to an easy Arizona touchdown in the latter stages of the fourth quarter in a close game. "Jordan doesn't have latitude," said Tomlin.. "I make the decisions, and I assume the responsibility."

• And so it was Tomlin who got ripped for the failure. Not Berry. Not Danny Smith. No one else who might have been involved in the miscommunication. Just the head coach, which is exactly what Tomlin had in mind.

• Mike Tomlin has a good feel for his team and the players on it, and in mid-December the Steelers are in the thick of the playoff race. And he's doing a good job as its head coach.

• Really, it's nothing different .

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