There is no more singular defining trait about Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin than his reputation for blunt honesty and sincerity. Basically every player on his team who talks about him talks about how he’s always straightforward with his players, and how that’s what they respect about him. It’s a large part of what makes up his reputation as a ‘players coach’.
We’ve heard guys like Cameron Heyward and Joe Haden say this a lot. Yet another one who talked about it recently was wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is coming off his third season, a rather disappointing campaign physically and statistically, and no doubt his coach had a few things to say to him over the course of the year about that.
Talking to Pat McAfee late last week, he was asked about Tomlin and what makes him so great to play for and as a coach. “He’s so authentic, he’s so real”, Smith-Schuster told his host. “He keeps it how it is, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He’s just one of the coaches who’ll tell you straight up if you’re gonna lose your job or your position”.
“It’s just so crazy because a lot of guys will be like, ‘well, we want to help you’”, he went on, describing his experiences with other coaches. “Nah, Mike Tomlin’ll just walk in a meeting room like, ‘no, if you’re not producing, if you’re not doing this, we’ve got other players ready to come, like at home sitting on the coach, ready to play’. He’s one of those guys that just always keeps it real”.
Just last season, Tomlin had a very short leash on Donte Moncrief, a relatively significant free agent signing, who was benched after two games and ultimately released. That opened the door for more playing time for rookie Diontae Johnson.
While they didn’t ultimately use anybody who was literally at home sitting on the couch, they did wind up throwing to a couple of guys during the season who were sitting on practice squads, including their own in Tevin Jones. Later, it was Deon Cain, signed from the Indianapolis Colts, who was able to come in and make a few significant plays.
It’s true that Tomlin has not been bashful about giving players opportunities, and even benching starters when they struggle, though I would argue this has been more true on offense than on defense over the years. he had to bench two different quarterbacks just last season, after all.
It’s a difficult balance lifting a guy up and tearing him down when needed, and the balance varies for every person and every situation and every relationship. More often than not, Tomlin has been able to walk the line to great effect and get the most out of his players, which is why he’s so well-liked among them, and even among players from other teams.