Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin recently added two new position coaches to his staff in Karl Dunbar and Tom Bradley in addition to adding a new offensive assistant in Blaine Stewart. While Tomlin might be done adding to his 2018 staff, might he want to consider hiring himself a challenge challenger as well?
During the 2017 regular season, Tomlin was 0-4 in coaches’ challenges and according to Brad Gagnon of The Comeback, he was one of just four head coaches who failed to win a challenge during the year. If that’s not enough cause for concern, Tomlin’s 3-12 record on coaches’ challenges over the course of the last three seasons was the worst challenge success rate among active head coaches during those three seasons.
Tomlin, however, according Gagnon’s research, hasn’t always been bad at coaches’ challenges as he was reportedly 24-for-44 (54.5%) during the first seven seasons of his head-coaching career. Since then, however, he is just 5-for-18 (27.8%) the last four years, per Gagnon.
So, is Tomlin’s recent bad string of challenges a result of a flawed process? It’s really hard to know for sure but when asked by Bob Labriola of steelers.com during an interview this past October, Tomlin did reveal what his thought process is when it comes to whether or not he decides to throw a replay challenge flag.
“It’s first and foremost, what I see. Field level. Ground level. From my eye,” Tomlin told Labriola. “Then from there, it’s information I receive from assistant coaches and the video board. But first and foremost, it’s from my eye. There were a couple of instances a week ago, particularly that first one I challenged where we had the line to gain, the yard line was on a white line, and when I had a definitive white line that I was standing on, I was comfortable throwing that challenge flag. I didn’t win the challenge, but I was comfortable with my decision and would do it again if given the opportunity based on the information I had.”
That “first one” that Tomlin referenced from the 2017 season came during the Steelers Week 5 home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. On that particular play, Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles completed a four-yard pass to wide receiver Keelan Cole on a 3rd and 4 play from the Jacksonville 36-yard-line with 4:40 left in the second quarter. Tomlin challenged the spot of the ball, which had given the Jaguars the first down at their own 40-yard line. He obviously lost the challenge, and the ruling on the field of a first down stood. After the game, Tomlin was asked about his decision to challenge that spot.
“Very rarely will I challenge a line to gain, unless there is visually a line to gain,” said Tomlin. “I was standing on the yard marker, it was maybe the 40-yard line. There was a white line. When the line to gain is a line that is the only time I will consider challenging a spot because the visual evidence required to flip it you probably have a better shot as far as seeing something definitive. I was standing on the line, I didn’t think he got the line to gain. I was extremely confident in it. I challenged it. I didn’t win the challenge. I would challenge it again under the same circumstances based on what I saw.”
When you look at the all-22 view of that play below, you can probably understand why Tomlin challenged the spot as it was close.
Later in that same game against the Jaguars, Tomlin again threw his red challenge flag following a low 1st and 10 pass from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to wide receiver Antonio Brown with 5:51 left in the fourth quarter and Pittsburgh trailing 23-9 at the time. On that ruled incompletion, it was quite obvious in the television replay that Brown had trapped the football.
Considering the score and time left in the game, it’s somewhat understandable why Tomlin may have challenged the ruling on the field. Even so, it was a bad challenge and Tomlin probably knew it right after he threw his red flag. In short, his decision to challenge that ruling on the field reeks of desperation.
During that aforementioned interview with Labriola, Tomlin was asked if his challenge decisions are made in a vacuum in terms of whether he believes he is right, or if things like the score of the game, how many timeouts and challenges he has left, along with how much time is left in the game has any impact on his decision to throw the red flag.
“Certainly the decision takes in all of those things you mention, but it’s like the game show Jeopardy,” Tomlin told Labriola. “The music is playing. There’s not a lot of time to ponder those things. It’s really the things you innately weigh as you decide whether you throw the challenge flag.”
In case you’re curious, Tomlin’s other two failed challenges during the 2017 season came in Weeks 6 and 13. In the Steelers Week 6 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tomlin challenged the downing of a second quarter punt by Chiefs running back Akeem Hunt and as you can see in the replay below, it’s understandable why he did so. Close, but no cigars for Tomlin.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 13, Tomlin threw his red challenge flag following a late third quarter incompleted pass from Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton to wide receiver A.J. Green. While that description might sound funny, Tomlin was hoping that the replay official would have ruled the play a catch by Green and then a fumble afterwards. As you can see by the replay below, it’s somewhat understandable as to why Tomlin challenged the play and after all the Steelers did trail the Bengals 20-10 with just a little more than one minute remaining in the third quarter. With that said, I believe the correct call was made to uphold the original ruling on the field.
In retrospect, and while Tomlin’s challenge record in 2017 was indeed 0-4, only one of the four are what you could probably classify as a very bad challenge. While I haven’t looked at the other 14 failed challenges by Tomlin dating back to 2015, it’s quite possible that several of those were close enough to warrant him throwing the red flag along with a few more that he had no business doing so.
With all of the above now notated, you can bet that I’ll be keeping close tabs on Tomlin’s challenge record starting in 2018 and at some point during this offseason, I plan on going back and looking at all of his failed challenges dating back to 2015. in the meantime, here is a quick rundown of Tomlin’s challenge history to look at.