Mike Tomlin is an Excellent Game Manager

I know, among Steeler fans, Mike Tomlin is usually regarded as a very good head coach, but he has a reputation of being bad at managing the clock. I’ve been tracking this narrative all season, and it appears to be false. Not only is it false, but I’ve found that Mike Tomlin might be one of the single best game managers in the NFL. If this sounds crazy to you, you might not have been paying close attention to what a head coach needs to do, to be successful.

In all honesty, a head coach’s job has little impact on the game itself. It is their responsibility to decide whether to go for 2, or go for a first down on 4th down. It is their job to mind the clock, manage timeouts, and allow their team to take calculated risks to score at the end of halves and games. With all of the close games, if you look at the management of the game, you will begin to realize that coaching strategy, paired with execution by the players, has been the biggest reason why the Steelers are 6-1 in one score games this season.

I tracked all the 2 minute scenarios at the end of the half, and the end of regulation for 2017. Under 2 minutes, the best possible scenarios are scoring to end each half or running out the clock to preserve the victory at the end of the game. The worst scenario, is the other team scoring. I’ve tracked the plays on this spreadsheet, click HERE. Scoring plays are bright green, failed scoring drives are light green, running out the clock in close games are yellow. Neutral plays are not colored (running out the clock or defensive stands at the end of games where the final score is more than one score). Opponent drives are in red, and scoring plays for the other team are dark red.

Before we begin, I want to explain a few coaching tendencies Mike Tomlin has. Coach Tomlin likes to go for 2, and does so more than any other coach. Mike also likes going for it on 4th and short, even if the ball is on the Steelers’ side of the field (as they did in this past week’s Bengals game). This extends drives, and is a refusal simply to give the ball back to the other team. Belichick is known for doing the same thing, and is one of the reasons why he is also successful. Coach Tomlin is also very aggressive when it comes to running out the clock at the end of games. If it is 3rd and long, he has shown that he will attempt to pass and gain the first down, to ensure victory with his offense closing the game in victory formation, instead of risking giving the ball back to the opponent to tie or win the game. In a conservative league, Tomlin’s moves can be seen as rash, but in actuality, he is playing the odds in his favor, and over the course of the season, those risks are churning out Ws.

In the first half of the season, the Steelers were above average in positive results. They had 10 positive results (7 scores and 3 clock runouts in one score games). They had 4 neutral results in games over 1 score. They had 5 instances where they failed to score. 5 instances where the other team failed to score, and only 4 instances where the other team scored. Of those 4 scores, only 2 were earned by the offense finishing a long drive (Chicago just inside the 2 minute warning of the first half for a TD, and Jacksonville at the end of the game on a 90 yard run, when the victory was already assured). The other 2 scores were direct results of the other team cashing in on execution mistakes that should have resulted in scores for the Steelers. At the end of the half against Detroit, the Steelers fumbled in FG range on the Detroit 21 yard line with 56 seconds left. Detroit puts together a quick drive and ends the half with a FG. The other was a blocked FG in Chicago with no time left on the clock at the end of the half, that resulted in the Bears scoring a FG on an untimed down. This was by far the most impactful negative play for the Steelers in under 2 minutes, as what should have been a short FG to end the half, turned into one of the craziest plays of the season. That 6 point swing was the biggest execution error of the year and ultimately cost the Steelers the game since they ended up losing it in overtime.

The Steelers ran out the clock 3 times. Two of those times they threw the ball aggressively to gain first downs to bleed the clock and preserve the win on offense vs Cleveland and Detroit. Against KC, they attempted to gain a first down by throwing on 3rd and 8 at the 2min warning. Under 2 minutes, a first down would have essentially ended the game. Instead, the Steelers needed a defensive stop and preserved the win with a more neutral kneel down upon gaining possession with 52 seconds in the game.

The first half of the season saw no errors in clock management, but what the Steelers have done since the bye week has been nothing short of exceptional. The Steelers have 7 scoring drives under 2 minutes. They stacked 2 scores at the end of the half against Tennessee by scoring a FG with 1:39 left, then using 3 timeouts on the Titan’s next possession to get the ball back with 1:11, only to score another FG. Tennessee then knelt down to end the half on a neutral possession. To end the game, the Steelers knelt down on 4th down in FG range (TEN 17), holding a more than one score lead. The Titans kneel down twice with 46 seconds left to end the blowout. The only other chance for an opponent to score was Green Bay at the end of the half. The Steelers elected to kick a tactical punt from the Green Bay 43 with 1:13 left in the half. They pin the Packers on the 10, and Green Bay calls 3 conservative plays to run the clock out to end the half. The Steelers had all 3 timeouts, but elected not to call them. This is the only moment I can see on the season, where timeouts could have been used and weren’t. I think the reason here was situational. The Packers ran for 12 yards and a first down on their first play, so a timeout would have helped their offense. Their next play they gained 5 yards on a short pass setting up 2nd and 5. I suppose this is still makeable down and distance, so Tomlin elected not to call the TO and possibly have Green Bay benefit from a first down conversion. Instead, the Packers allowed the clock to elapse and end the half.

Conversely the Steelers’ opponents only had 4 possessions combined under 2 minutes with a chance to do anything. 3 of those times the opponent elected to run out the clock by kneeling or calling conservative clock running plays (runs or short passes). Only one instance did the other team have the ball with a chance to do anything (Tennessee in the first half), and they ran 3 straight times to get the Steelers to use all 3 timeouts, but Pittsburgh still managed to score another FG after that possession.

Of the Steelers final possessions in 4 games, they kicked 3 walk off game winning field goals with no time on the clock (Colts, Packers, and Bengals). 2 were perfectly executed drives conserving just enough time to win the game on short field goals. The last was an incredibly well executed drive, with very little time, to win the game on a long field goal against Green Bay. I will also point out that in all 3 of those games, at worst, the Steelers would have ended up going to overtime. In none of those situations did missing the kick mean they lost the game. The most amazing aspect of these last 4 games, is the opponent has not scored a single point under 2 minutes, and even more amazing, is they didn’t even try because the down/distance/time left was not conducive to a conservative coach making an attempt.

Mike Tomlin is anything but conservative. It is no coincidence that he has a shot of passing Don Shula by winning his next 4 games, to become the head coach with the most wins in 11 seasons. Even if he falls short of that all time record, there is a reason why he has so many wins. He is making the right calls, at the right times to give his Steelers the best chance to win ballgames. It’s about time he started getting credit for being an incredibly savvy tactician, and an exceptional game manager, because although Mike Tomlin may seem unassuming behind his mirrored sunglasses, he is a much better head coach then some people may realize.

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