Tomlin Beats Belichick With a Smile

How Mike Tomlin dealt a blow to the surly Cult of Belichick.

Something funny happened this past Sunday. The Cult of Belichick—that strange aura shielding the New England Patriots’ head coach from critical analysis, the unyielding devotion to a personality that would fit snuggly on a constipated corporate downsizer whose 6-year-old monochrome Blackberry just seized up—seemed to wilt in front of our eyes.

The defining moment occurred when a gaggle of assistant coaches approached the besieged Tom Brady on the sidelines with all manner of aerial photos and counter-strategy. Brady looked off into the distance and absently shook his head as they yammered at him.

In the midst of crisis, down by two scores on the road, Brady looked OMG SO ANNOYED, as the teenagers say on Facebook.

Perhaps Brady sensed that his sweatshirted sensei was in the midst of being outcoached by Mike Tomlin. Perhaps he had just heard enough negative reinforcement for one lifetime.

The unimpeachable NFL Narrative is inspired by Machiavelli’s eternal question, “Is it better to be loved or feared?” Thus, if you’re an NFL head coach, either you’re a charismatic buddy-cop motivator, or you’re the hermit-savant Bosnian warlord of your little practice facility sovereign state. Tomlin is the gold-standard for the former, Belichick the latter. There’s no room for in betweens or nuance in our national dialogue.

In the past, Tomlin played things too close to the vest against Belichick. This time, he followed his own poster-sized Tomlinisms. He dared to be great.

The strategy was daring, and remarkable: Tomlin effectively held out his veteran All-Pro, Hines Ward, in order to utilize the speed of young receivers Emanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown against New England’s flimsy secondary. But just when it looked like Tomlin was gearing up to go vertical with his speed-burners, which coincidentally would have exposed Roethlisberger to pressure, Tomlin flipped his gambit and played the short game instead. Roethlisberger shredded the Patriots with unpredictable, efficient, methodical drives that kept Brady brooding on the sidelines. Tomlin beat Belichick with his own devices. 

For once, Tomlin deserves plaudits as a tactician and not just a master psychologist. Belichick thrives on anticipating an opposing coach’s tendencies—the mental tics they succumb to when under duress. He succeeds by being two steps ahead. So Tomlin turned around and walked the other way.

It was a huge leap of faith to trust in two second-year receivers in arguably the biggest game of the regular season, and a move that would have the potential to kindle a locker room rift if Tomlin didn’t have such masterful control over his players.

We saw it during last season’s improbable comeback against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round. We saw it again after the team was eviscerated in Week 1 by those same Ravens. And we saw it once more this past Sunday. It’s more than a belief. There is a trust pervading the locker room that’s unmatched in the league, and it stems from Tomlin exhibiting one of the rarest coaching traits in the world: Positivity.

On NFL Network’s recent documentary, “A Football Life,” we got closer to Belichick’s impregnable mystique than ever before. We were given a rare peek behind the curtain, and what was happening in the Magical Mystery World of Micromanagement? A curmudgeonly, perpetually exasperated man telling everyone within earshot – assistant coaches, players, even his star quarterback – that his team sucked. We suck, he’d restate for emphasis.

You can just imagine every sadist junior college coach around the country chomping on Orville Redenbacher and nodding their head sympathetically as Belichick berated a bunch of grown-ass-men for running the Y-stunt double-Z backside pull like a bunch of Sallys or whatever. 

Belichick fans just found more to love in “A Football Life.” Every mumble was an affirmation. But the documentary’s flashback to 2009 was a stark reminder that the whole shtick, the entire Cult of Belichick, is supported by a core belief that the coach himself has begun to undermine: The thesis is that we’re all in this together, and to hell with everyone else outside the locker room.

But how long does an NFL player buy into that Sam Spence orchestrated fairytale when they’re constantly seeing teammates treated as expendable chattel? How many friends does a Patriot have to see traded (Randy Moss, Richard Seymour) or cut (Brandon Merriweather, Gerard Warren, Leigh Bodden) before Belichick’s Us vs. Them propaganda starts to sound awfully hollow and insincere?

If the Patriots have a fatal flaw, it's their secondary. Belichick cut Merriweather and veteran safety James Sanders before the season. He cut Bodden last week. Belichick downsized his way into a staffing disaster.

For the past decade, Belichick’s grumpy-grandpa panache has been a source of inspiration for angry, authoritarian high school football coaches whose managerial style is defined by spittle, lingering sighs and southern-bumper-sticker-machismo. Middle-aged men have heroes, too.

On Sunday, Tomlin didn’t destroy the glorified myth of “Coach as Disappointed Dad,” but he offered another path to managerial success, a happier one without press conferences spent method-acting a severe personality disorder.

Tomlin let go. He trusted in the next man. He trusted his coordinators, his quarterback. He delegated control. He became an anti-coach.

And most importantly, Tomlin, just by being himself, showed us all how silly the façade of an anti-cool disciplinarian can look when exposed for what it really is: A swift kick in the ass dressed up in chintzy a windbreaker.

Down with the grumps. I don't know if it's ultimately better to be feared or loved, but I know which one is more fun. Somewhere between the time of Jack Lambert smoking cigarettes at halftime and the time when fans started beating each other up at tailgates, football used to be fun.

Tomlin is taking it back for all of us. 

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

The Allegheny County Airport Authority has been lobbying for more direct service from Pittsburgh to the West Coast.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Our dining critic (and Three Day Blow organizing committee member) has a roundup of some open to the public events.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

These comic book shops offer more than just your casual Batman or Spider-Man choices.

Comments


New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

If you’re in need of a dining option that’s not a national chain while visiting the Robinson area, this is one to keep in mind.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

The Steelers running back emphasized his latest suspension resulted from missed random drug tests, and not a relapse into the marijuana-induced haze that got him jammed up last season. But if you lack the maturity to grasp the consequences of your actions (or, in this case, inactions), does it really matter?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Straight out of Canada, the custom menswear store opens its first U.S. location in Pittsburgh.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
'Hands of Stone' Keeps the Boxing Movie Genre Strong

'Hands of Stone' Keeps the Boxing Movie Genre Strong

Reviews of "Hands of Stone" and "Don't Breathe," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

Want even more Real Pittsburgh Weddings? We'll be bringing them to you throughout the fall, beginning with this lovely and lucky couple.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

The store famous for carrying storage and organizational products is set to open at the revamped Block Northway in Ross Township.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

A fall visitation day and a Saturday information session aim to allow interested students a look into life at the university.

Comments

Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags