Embracing change

Mike Tomlin is the Steelers new coach and columnist Ryan Wilson sees changes on the South Side. New assistants will be added, the 3-4 defense could be phased out and if we're lucky, the quarterback might get an attitude adjustment too.

"I'm a fundamentalist as opposed to scheme," Tomlin said. "I think football is a tough man's game, an attrition game. You win by stopping the run and being able to run the ball effectively. And by doing the things winners do."
Anybody else ready for the season to start after seeing Mike Tomlin's first Pittsburgh Steelers press conference?

My thoughts on Tomlin are documented, but I'll be honest, I had mixed feelings when I read Michael Silver's article on Saturday naming Tomlin Pittsburgh's new head coach. Not because I didn't think Tomlin could do the job, but if he could do the job right now.

Often, when facing change, people fall back to what's familiar. The "better the devil you know than the devil you don't" idiom. In this case, for me, it was Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. Whisenhunt's 2005 season proved he would make a capable head coach some day soon and Grimm … well, enough people repeated enough times that he would make a swell head coach too, and I bought into it. I, like most every other Steelers fan I know, figured Bill Cowher's successor would come down to these two guys. As fans, we were discussing things like, "I wonder if Whisenhunt (Grimm) will keep Grimm (Whisenhunt) on staff if he gets the top job?" And, "It's good to see the Rooney's really going out of their way to enforce the Rooney Rule, but who doesn't think either Whisenhunt or Grimm will get the job?"

As recently as two weeks ago I wrote that the Steelers would hire Whisenhunt or Grimm over Tomlin because it would preserve organizational continuity:

Realistically, I don't think Tomlin will get the job, but not because he's underqualified; Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm are just as qualified, are very familiar with the organization, and if either of them get the job, turnover among assistant coaches would be minimal. Undoubtedly, Tomlin would hire some of his own assistants and while staff upheaval comes with very little near-term costs for teams like the Saints and the Jets (both teams were bad last season; if they struggled this year under new coaches, we would all just attribute it to growing pains), for the Steelers, who won the Super Bowl 12 months ago, are two years removed from a 15-win season, and still have many of the players and coaches responsible for this success, a one- or two-year setback would be disastrous.
I refer you again to the first sentence of the second paragraph above: "...when facing change, people fall back to what's familiar."

I admit it, I fell into that trap too. It's so easy. It's so safe. But here's the other side of that coin: Familiarity breeds contempt. There are two lessons here: One, don't base important decisions on clichés; you can always find one to fit your argument. Two, the obvious choice isn't always the right one.

Thankfully, the Rooney's had the watermelon-sized cajones to make the call and I think the organization, the city and the fans will all be the beneficiaries. Of course, I have nothing more to go on than Tomlin's kick-ass press conference, but man, what a first day on the job.

Who knows how successful the Steelers will be in the next few seasons, but Tomlin convinced me in 45 minutes that everything will be just fine. And I believe him. Now, I can worry about other stuff ... like the coaching staff.

Fully embracing the "change is good" meme, I did have reservations about cleaning house and starting over. Sure, there would be some turnover, but keeping certain coaches could smooth the transition. Before knowing Tomlin would retain defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and wide receivers coach (and since-promoted offensive coordinator) Bruce Arians, I was reminded of a similar new-coach-replacing-old-legend situation at the University of North Carolina in 2000.

Dean Smith led the Tar Heels to two national championships during his 31-year career and retired in 1997. Long-time assistant Bill Guthridge served as interim replacement, and after he retired three years later, 38-year-old Matt Doherty was named the head coach of one of the best college basketball programs in the country. You know the first thing he did? Fired everybody. I don't mean just the coaching staff, either. I mean everybody, right down to the secretaries. That turned out to be the first of many mistakes during his short stint in Chapel Hill.

Unlike Doherty, it seems Tomlin understands this job is bigger than one person. In my mind, keeping LeBeau is a no-brainer and promoting Arians provides offensive continuity. I have no worries that whatever Tomlin plans to do defensively -- he's a "Cover-2" guy, after all -- will work in Pittsburgh. Yes, the Steelers made the 3-4 defense popular, but it's not like switching to the 4-3 is a death knell. The Patriots run the 4-3, 3-4, 5-2, 2-5, 1-6 and everything in between. The Ravens run the 4-3, the 46, and variations on these variations. Recently, Mike Tanier of FootballOutsiders.com wrote that Minnesota wasn't strictly a "Cover-2" team last year. Depending on down-and-distance, the Vikings defense also played Cover-1 and Cover-3. Know who else plays a lot of Cover-3? Yep, the Steelers, behind all the zone blitzes.

There is no reason to think that if Tomlin wants to make Pittsburgh a 4-3, Cover-2 team, he can do it successfully.

Let's say the Steelers use the next two off-seasons to stock up on "4-3" players via free agency and the draft. If history is any indication, Kevin Colbert and the Steelers personnel department won't forget how to identify talent. And LeBeau and Tomlin won't forget how to coach, either.

Furthermore, shouldn't we recognize that LeBeau and Tomlin are smart guys, and not just one-trick (defensive) ponies?

"Okay," you're saying. "I'll give you LeBeau, but Tomlin? What's he done?"

Glad you asked.

There's a misconception that although the 2006 Vikings were stout against the run, they were horrible against the pass. This is true if you only look at total yards. The problem, however, is that total yards offers no context. Minnesota's defense allowed a league-worst 3,818 passing yards in 2006, last in the league. But when did they allow these yards?

Here's an extreme hypothetical: Let's say on every first and second down this season, the offense runs the ball against the Vikings defense. And every time, Minnesota tackles the ball carrier 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. On third-and -40, the offense completes a 39-yard pass. Every time. For 10 drives a game. That's 390 passing yards per game, 6,240 passing yards over the course of a season. If you're talking about total yards, the Vikings defense stunk. If you're talking about stopping the opponent on third down, Minnesota batted 1.000.

Obviously, this was a far-reaching example but the point remains: raw numbers can be misleading in football. So, how did the Vikings defense fare last season? According to Football Outsiders, they ranked fourth in the league behind the Ravens, Bears and Jaguars. Their run defense ranked first and their pass defense ranked 16th. By comparison, the Steelers ranked fourth and 14th.

To me, this is encouraging. The Vikings and Steelers had similar success, despite playing very different styles. But here's the true sign of Tomlin's influence: How much did the Vikings improve from 2005 to 2006 with virtually the same personnel?

Year  Rush Def.   Pass Def.  Overall
2005    19           19        19
2006     1           16         4
Anybody else notice an improvement?

I'll concede to being initially skeptical about the moving away from the 3-4. But again, I think it has more to do with resisting change than embracing it, especially when there's a track record of success.

Art Rooney II understands this too. From Monday's press conference:

How do you make the switch? Free agency, the draft, down the road? I think if you look at some of the defensive packages that we've played over the years, we've played with four down linemen in a lot of games for a lot of plays. If you made a decision to convert to it on a permanent basis then you'd probably have to spend two years re-doing your personnel. But there's something to be said for the fact we've played four down linemen on a lot of plays, and doing more of that is probably something he'll look at.
If Art's satisfied, then so am I.

And oh, yeah, the two Super Bowl participants are Cover-2 teams. Just throwing that out there.

Keeping Arians isn't a LeBeau Slam Dunk (and I mean a legit slam dunk, none of that George Tenet crap) but he does provide stability to a unit that finished the season 6-2 and 11th in the league in offensive efficiency.

I know there are concerns about the offensive staff coddling Ben Roethlisberger, but you know what? That's on Ben.

No amount of yelling, pleading, kicking, or screaming will make Roethlisberger work harder. Here's one of my favorite passages from David Halberstam's, "The Education of a Coach":

… [Tom] Brady himself had expected to go in the fourth round -- going in the sixth round stunned him -- and he took it as a personal challenge and became even more determined to turn himself into a quality NFL quarterback. No one, he decided, was going to work harder…

It would have been very easy for a player who had already done well in college but who was now listed as the number four quarterback to lose heart… But here was Brady during his off hours behaving as if there were no off hours; he was always sitting in a small room, studying film, comparing it with the playbook, which he had already mastered. He did it in an interesting way, [Patriots assistant coach Ernie] Adams thought; some players might have done it noisily to show how hard they were working, but Brady was as unobtrusive as possible, as if this were a private thing; he was doing it as quietly as possible, sneaking into a tiny office and burying himself in front of the film.

Then, when everyone else was gone for the day, he would go out and practice, using some of the receivers from the taxi squad, most notably a young man named Chris Eitzmann, a tight end who had just graduated from Harvard and signed as a free agent…

What impressed Adams and [General Manager] Scott Pioli, both of whom liked to slip down and watch these workouts, was how disciplined Brady was and how exceptional his work ethic was. What he was doing in these extra practices set him apart. He was not just telling the receivers, let's just run a down and out, or a square in, but he was calling plays as if they were in the playbook and as if the players were in a pressurized, game-time situations…

The other thing he was doing was cajoling the receivers to work with him -- pushing them to do more, telling them that it was the only way they were going to make it. He was a fourth-string quarterback behaving like a coach.

If you were wondering why Tom Brady has three Super Bowl rings, there's your answer.

When Arians was Peyton Manning's quarterback coach, do you think he had to remind the rookie to watch film? Me neither.

The Steelers could hire Tony Robbins as the next quarterbacks coach and it won't matter. As Bill Cowher was fond of saying, it is what it is. I don't begrudge Roethlisberger -- he is what he is -- and you can't make him do the little things. Nobody made Brady do the little things either, it's just in his nature. And that's a fundamental difference.

For Ben, it's all about want-to. If he's not motivated to get better after throwing 23 interceptions then, well, I don't know what to think.

That's where Tomlin comes in. This quote from former college teammate and current Vikings safety Darren Sharper says it all:

"He's probably motivated this team and the guys around me more than any coach that I've been around… You can just tell by the results and the product of how we're playing now, as compared to how we played in the past, and it's a direct reflection of Mike Tomlin."
Yeah, I'm not worried about Arians because it sounds like Tomlin's got everything under control. Big Ben, you've been put on notice.

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