In a world where everything is judged with 20/20 hindsight and meticulously dissected, the outcome of a decision is always going to be the basis for the judgment of that decision’s genius or stupidity. It’s always been that way, especially in the sports world, going back as long as guys with keyboards have been criticizing the guys on the field. Especially now, in our frighteningly rapid news cycle, it’s even more true that while the enraged social media masses will sit quietly in the intervening seconds between the decision being made and the actual outcome, the reaction will be increasingly polarized the moment the outcome has actually been decided.
You generally don’t get a lot of people criticizing a fake field goal or the utilization of timeouts, for example, until after the fallout from said decision has already started to settle. But trust that when something goes wrong – or right – everyone will have their two cents to throw into the fray until we’ve got a Scrooge McDuck-like pile of penny opinions just waiting to be dived into if you’re masochistic enough.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this, mind you. It’s what we do and it’s the world we live in, especially as sports fans, and certainly as citizens of a world that now consumes social media like a fire sucking up oxygen. Or perhaps, more accurately, like, well… a human sucking up oxygen. After all, look around and you’d think we need these devices to breathe.
It’s just so EASY to have knee-jerk reactions to everything. So when they start to pile up, it can be easy to slough them off, ignore them, or otherwise show indifference. It’s all just the white noise of what seems to be a rage meter constantly pinned in the red zone.
Which brings us to Mike Tomlin and the red zone. Specifically, his decision to kick a field goal from the 3 yard line when down by 5 points with just 3 minutes left.
If Tomlin were a Bill Cowher-type, who almost always erred on the side of caution and prudence, and who had reason to believe in his defense after a long afternoon, none of us would blink twice at the decision. But after an afternoon – and a season – filled with two-point conversions, 4th down attempts, and on this day a confusing fake field goal try gone awry, Mr. Not-Living-In-His-Fears did just that: He feared Seattle would take the ball after a failed 4th down attempt and move down the field to either run out the clock on the Steelers and their two timeouts (three, if you count the 2-minute warning) and/or score a touchdown to salt the game away. Mike Tomlin did the exact opposite of what he’s done all season long.
And that’s where “guts,” or “balls,” or “stones,” or “onions,” as the great Bill Raftery calls them, shriveled up into two tiny little buds of panicked timidity.
So much of the instant-reaction criticism for Tomlin after last night’s loss is for that fake field goal that got Landry’d and gave the Seahawks great field position to go ahead and capitalize on a 10-point swing. Not nearly enough blame has gone on the decision to kick that 4th down field goal. And not because in the end it didn’t work out for the Steelers. It’s because Mike Tomlin, who has lived and died by the pedal-to-the-metal, no guts/no glory, “we don’t live in our fears” philosophy since August, finally caved. Had he simply stuck to what’s worked for him the majority of the year, perhaps Antwon Blake would still be chasing Doug Baldwin into the great northwestern night and we’d still be talking about a rough loss for a team that was looking to clearly stake its claim to the AFC’s first Wild Card spot. But at least we wouldn’t be left to wonder why Tomlin had backed down.
For a coach fast-approaching a decade as the head coach of one of the league’s storied franchises, he’s clearly become used to the job security that belongs to the man in that role. His devil-may-care attitude toward 2-point plays, 4th down conversions, and usage of timeouts all seemed to point to man achieving Peter Gibbons-level enlightenment on the job. You half-expected Coach T to walk into his Tuesday press conference and promptly start gutting a trout while answering questions about the quickness of 3rd string offensive linemen’s feet.
On Sunday evening, that all changed, and at the worst possible time.
Again, I’m willing to forgive the perplexing Jones-to-Villanueva fake field goal because it fell in line with what Tomlin has done all year. Backing down at the 3-yard line down by 5 though smacks of a guy who became scared of his own shadow, or for some reason or another just finally realized what this year’s team is capable of and couldn’t stomach the idea of losing a grip on it by coming up 9 feet short on 4th and Goal. It gives the appearance that the cacophony of questions that have rained down on Mike Tomlin in regards to his risk-taking, his decision-making, and his leadership in the clutch all came home to roost at the worst possible time. At a time when the Steelers most needed their head coach to be oblivious to the white noise of that rage meter constantly pinned in the red zone, he heard it ringing in his ears as loudly as the 12th Man. He thought ahead to the critics and their meticulous dissection with 20/20 hindsight, and rather than live in the decision, sticking to his philosophy – showing some “guts,” or “balls,” or “onions,” – he did just what he insists he never does, and he lived in the outcome. Mike Tomlin lived in his fears.