In his first press conference as Pittsburgh's head coach, Mike Tomlin told us coaching was overrated. Ryan Wilson wants to believe it -- especially given some of the coaching hires -- but he's having a tough time convincing himself.
"I think part of good coaching is doing what your guys do and what they do well. We’ll maximize what they’re capable of doing, and if that means sitting some personal preferences and beliefs schematically aside, I’m willing to do that. Xs and Os can be overrated at times. You’ll find that we will be fundamentalist in our approach and we’ll put guys in position to execute and execute at a high level. So whatever they’re capable of doing, that’s what we’ll do... You have good players, you have a chance."
Let's just hope Mike Tomlin believes what he said at his introductory press conference. For the most part, I agree … at least in theory: coaching is overrated, at least on game days. Film study, game planning, meetings and practices are often where games are won. Sure, halftime adjustments are important, but it's a lot easier to make adjustments in a close game than when a team has its doors blown off in the first 30 minutes because of poor preparation.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting coaches are superfluous; or they are only useful as sideline-walking, NFL-sponsored advertisements for middle-aged men who enjoy sporting golf shirts and mock turtlenecks emblazoned with their favorite team's logo. But to paraphrase Brian Billick (blasphemous, I know), at some point you have to let the players play.
That said, Tomlin is taking this principle to the extreme. Let's take a look at the suspects Pittsburgh Steelers new coaching hires:
Special Teams Coach In: Bob Ligashesky, Amos Jones (assistant) Out: Kevin Spencer
Offensive Line Coach In: Larry Zierlein Out: Russ Grimm
Quarterbacks Coach In: Ken Anderson Out: Mark Whipple
Wide Receivers Coach In: Randy Fichtner Out: Bruce Arians (promoted to offensive coordinator)
Running Backs Coach In: Kirby Wilson Out: Dick Hoak (retired)
At first glance this list doesn't inspire confidence. And the second and third glances make me think I'll be uttering phrases like, "Man, Kevin Spencer wasn't that bad was he?" and "Larry Zierlein coaches the offensive line like his older brother acts" at some point next fall. (I know Hollywood is all about suspending reality, but are we honestly supposed to believe that Steve Sanders -- receding hairline and all -- was in high school? The guy was 27 when the show debuted in 1990.)
Although I'm kidding about Zierlein (but not Ziering), I have legitimate concerns about Ligashesky. He comes from the St. Louis Rams, an outfit that boasted the 31st-ranked special teams the past two seasons. Predictably, Ligashesky was canned this off-season before Tomlin threw him a bone.
I don't think it's fair to judge any coach on a year's work -- good or bad. The Steelers ranked 26th in special teams in 2001, the year before Spencer arrived. In his five years in Pittsburgh, special teams finished: 28th, 3rd, 10th, 9th, and 30th. It's easy to focus on last season, when Murphy's Law hated the Steelers, but some of the special teams travails were a consequence of injuries, dumb head-coaching decisions (hello, Ricardo Colclough, punt returner!), and tough 53-man roster decisions (goodbye Chidi Iwuoma!). But Spencer had a pretty good run from 2003-2005.
Last season, Ligashesky's Rams were worse than the Steelers and only better than the Cardinals. St. Louis was also the most inconsistent special teams in the league. The year before, Ligashesky's first with the Rams, his crew again finished next-to-last in the league, but they were the most consistent. Intuitively, I don't know what to make of a unit finding two completely different ways to play like crap, but I do know it doesn't give me a lot of confidence things will change for the better in 2007.
When I read stuff like this it makes me more skeptical:
In 2003, Ligashesky coached Pitt's special teams. The Panthers were last in the Big East in kickoff and punt returns. They also finished 116th in kickoff coverage, which might not seem bad until you consider 117 teams played Division I-A football.
Is that good? Next-to-last?
Whatever, I'm willing to give the "coaching's overrated" meme a chance for the first few months weeks of the season preseason.
Fans, by definition, are an impatient bunch. I like to think of myself as one of the rational ones, but if last year's loss to the Bengals proved anything, it's that it's damn near impossible to be a rational Steelers fan when Bill Cowher thinks Ricardo Colclough returning punts is a good idea. And look how that turned out: Cowher retired, Colclough is now in the Witness Protection Program, and Pittsburgh missed the playoffs by one game. But hey, it's February and I'm still thinking positive…
Ken Anderson, one of the first NFL players I remember watching -- In my mind, I imagine, as an eight year old, referring to him as "that dude with the sweet mustache and the two-bar facemask" -- doesn't have quite the distinguished coaching record when compared to his solid playing career. Compared to Ligashesky, however, he's Vince Lombardi.
Anderson was the Jaguars quarterbacks coach from 2003-2006. In his four years, Jacksonville finished: 14th, 23rd, 9th, and 19th in passing efficiency. Some of this has to do with Byron Leftwich constantly battling injuries. Throw in the pass catchers that had trouble catching passes and maybe Anderson overachieved.
Truthfully, I don't know anything about the new hires -- outside of Anderson, who I know more as a player -- than what I've read the past week. To look at Randy Fichtner I would expect him to know more about doing my taxes than coaching wide receivers. And if I didn't Google Kirby Wilson I wouldn't have known he played in the CFL as a defensive back and kick returner for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts (maybe he can help out on special teams … the assistant to the assistant to the special teams coach or some such title).
But this I do know: Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau are still around and this is a good thing. Arians was an offensive coordinator in Cleveland -- which is what he'll be doing for the Steelers after serving as their wide receivers coach for the last three seasons. LeBeau will continue wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, and apparently it doesn't matter how Pittsburgh lines up. And finally, we have Tomlin, who reminds us that coaching is overrated -- it's about putting players in position to make plays -- so none of this really matters anyway.
At least that's what I'll be telling myself when I watch the Steelers coverage team give up their first kick return for a touchdown. I suggest you do the same.
By Ryan Wilson
Posted Feb 4, 2007