I’ve long been a defender of Mike Tomlin.
But there’s now a growing body of evidence that perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach should get a good deal of criticism, and that maybe he’s not the great leader of men an NFL coach should be.
It may end up costing him his job.
‘We’ll tolerate it now’
A few days ago, I read this piece by ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler, “How it has gone wrong with Antonio Brown and the Steelers.” It’s a well-reported piece, featuring quotes from numerous current and former teammates, and emphasizes that while Brown is an incredibly hard-working player on the field and in the workout room, he’s also been given incredible latitude by Tomlin to basically do whatever he wants because he produces on Sundays.
“[Tomlin] essentially told the [team], we’ll tolerate it now because of what he brings on the field, but the minute production stops, you don’t overlook it,” one former Steeler told Fowler about one of Brown’s frequent sneak-in-the-backdoor-to-a-meeting incidents, a story that others confirmed to him.
But one note in particular from Fowler’s story stayed with me:
Training camp is a slog. Every morning, Steelers players drag their sizable frames out of modest Saint Vincent College dorm rooms. Vets might get a room to themselves.
Brown had something more: an Airbnb-style rental home close to campus.
Several players say the general belief was that Brown did not sleep at Saint Vincent. Though players might get an occasional day off or time to see family, most agree Brown’s setup was different.
Training camp is a time for teams to get ready physically and to commit the playbook to memory, honing new plays or continue learning from a new coordinator. But it’s also a time to bond and build the brotherhood we hear so much about — it’s why rookies are forced to sing their school’s fight song or perform skits, and guys spend time getting to know one another in those cramped dorm rooms.
And usually, they are all dealing with the less-than-ideal housing conditions, sleeping on too-short mattresses or the bullhorn-level snoring of their roommate.
How often have we heard about football being a team sport, and that no one person is bigger than the team? It’s impossible to preach that when you consistently turn a blind eye to a player running with his own rules.
The New England Patriots hold training camp at their own facility, in Foxborough, Mass., but for the first two weeks of training camp, everyone on the team stays at a nearby hotel. Everyone.
That includes six-time Super Bowl champion and three-time NFL MVP Tom Brady.
Do you think a 41-year-old, 19-year veteran who has a custom-built mansion just 20 miles away wants to spend two weeks in a Residence Inn? But he does. You know why? Because he’s a team player.
And because Bill Belichick, who famously rips Brady apart in film breakdown as much as he does the 53rd player on the roster, probably wouldn’t allow him to be anywhere but the team hotel.
Therein lies the problem with Tomlin.
‘It all starts with the head coach’
It’s unclear what efforts, if any, Tomlin made to make it clear to Brown that every player stays in the dorms during training camp. But if he did anything, it obviously didn’t work, or he didn’t do enough to make it abundantly clear to the receiver that, star or not, everyone in the dorms means everyone in the dorms.
As multiple players told Fowler for his story, Tomlin let Brown get away with whatever he wanted because he produced on Sundays. Brown was never on time for meetings, with one former Steelers player saying he didn’t remember seeing Brown at any Wednesday morning game-week meetings during his season with the team.
Players aren’t perfect in meetings, we know that. Guys fall asleep sometimes, or are late occasionally. It’s on coaches to establish and enforce the team rules. We all remember Tom Coughlin’s policy that meetings start five minutes early, and you could either adjust your watch accordingly or pay a fine; his New York Giants players probably weren’t big fans, but they respected it because Coughlin made it clear that was the expectation.
Hines Ward, a leader on Pittsburgh’s two most recent championship-winning teams, told Yahoo Sports’ NFL Podcast during Super Bowl week that he places much of the blame for the Steelers’ recent drama on the coach.
“To me it all starts with the head coach Mike Tomlin. When you give some leniency with players based on whatever, you’re only fining them — a player can only do what you allow them to do,” he said in regards to Brown.
“The circus and the culture that has been provided now, that’s not the standard of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Ward added. “We’re talking more about the Steelers off the field than on the field. That’s very unusual. We have to have some rules and regulation from Mike Tomlin to delegate down to the players knowing not one player isn’t bigger than the team.”
Ultimately, Brown is responsible for his own actions. Going AWOL the last week of the regular season, whether he had a disagreement with QB Ben Roethlisberger or not, was his decision.
But thinking he could magically show up on Sunday morning and play? That was because Tomlin had let him get away with so much, without any real consequence, that Brown believed he could.
The Steelers have been one of the NFL’s more drama-heavy teams for a couple of years. It’s on Tomlin to get it under control, whether Brown is on the Steelers roster come July or not — and maybe especially if he is.
Set rules, make it clear they’re intended for everyone to follow, and enforce them. It’s basic, and it’s hard to do, but if Tomlin wants to right the ship, it’s necessary.
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