Mike Tomlin is not a perfect head coach. He is not even the best head coach in the NFL right now. He might not be second-best, either, or perhaps even in the top five. Some would even go further than that.
But he is a good coach and generally knows what he is doing. For every supposed shortcoming that he might have, a fair and objective evaluation would be able to point out at least a positive trait or two to match it.
Tomlin has been criticized for struggling in things like clock management, though this argument becomes difficult to make in a season in which his team scored four game-winning field goals, with three coming as the clock expired, and I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers led the league in points scored in the final two minutes of the halves.
That said, he gets things wrong—all coaches do, including Bill Belichick—sometimes outsmarting themselves or passing up one low-probability outcome for an even lower one. That is exactly what Tomlin’s decision to attempt an onside kick in the situation in which he did on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars was.
According to Advanced Football Analytics, the average chance of recovering an onside kick attempt that the opposing team is anticipating is only about one in five, and for a team that has been as bad at it as Pittsburgh has, the odds of recovery are probably even lower than that.
Certainly, they are substantially lower than the odds of the defense being able to prevent the Jaguars from driving down the field. The risk of allowing Jacksonville to make it a two-possession game was far too big of a gamble, in my opinion, and I deem it unwise.
Not that Tomlin didn’t defend his decision.
“I know analytically they probably fall in the lower percentages and things of that nature”, he said yesterday. “If I err, I’m always going to err on the side of action in an effort to win. My guys know that about me. I think more importantly them knowing that about me, they expect that from me. I don’t fear failure”.
But he did fear the failure of his defense, which was statistically less likely to fail than the onside kick. With two timeouts and the two-minute warning at his disposal, his decision is a hard one to defend, and one that I don’t believe merits a defense.
“I’m certainly not going to steer away from decision-making for fear of ridicule”, he said. It’s great to be confident in the decisions that you make, but confidence is not correctness. “I understand when things don’t work out and the criticism that’s associated with it. I embrace that”.
I would say that he had better, but it’s not as though he has ever not been heavily criticized, so surely he’s used to it by now. I am a fan of Tomlin’s and do not believe there is a realistic option to replace him that would be an improvement, but he does make mistakes, and Sunday’s was a critical one that could potentially have cost the game.