NFL

Mike Tomlin continues greatness, players poised for breakout and more

Mike Tomlin has the Steelers in the throes of the AFC Playoff hunt, which might be his strongest performance yet, plus, players on the cusp of breaking out in NFL’s second half, more

It’s high time to put some respect on Mike Tomlin’s name.

Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin bristled when asked about his name being linked to the USC head coaching vacancy, pushing back on the media for even asking why he would consider the job.

“Never say never, but never,” Tomlin told reporters. “There’s not a booster with a big enough blank check … [Is] anybody asking Sean Payton about that? Anybody asking Andy Reid about stuff like that?”

Why mention Reid and Payton by name? They’re considered around the league “elite coaches.”

With a 5-3 start following an offseason of subtractions rather than additions, it’s time to put Tomlin in that same tier until further notice.

There are probably myriad reasons why Reid wouldn’t leave Patrick Mahomes and what he’s helped build in Kansas City. The same goes for Payton, who looks ahead to the rebuild at the quarterback position that the Saints are about to undertake.

Tomlin underwent an overhaul with his coordinator and offensive line this offseason. He watched several players leave via free agency. Yet, somehow, the Steelers win.

USC is a prime job in the college football ranks. It’s why the Trojans’ Mike Bohn should be on the phone with him. It’s also why it’s long past time to consider him one of the greatest coaches in the modern history of the game.

Following Monday night’s 29-27 hang-on-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth Steelers win over the Bears, Tomlin has Pittsburgh currently as the AFC’s No. 6 seed amid the kind of season that has come to define his tenure in the Steel City.

Since becoming the Steelers’ head coach in 2007, Tomlin has never suffered a losing season. He currently owns a career 150-81-1 record and has as many Super Bowl rings as Payton and Reid do. He also has consistently filled his locker room with players who will run through a proverbial wall for him.

“It’s about his honesty [with Tomlin,]” Steelers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud told me during a recent appearance on FanSided’s The Matt Lombardo Show podcast. “The way he’s up front about everything. He’s very direct. Never leaves anything off the table. A coach like that, even at times if you don’t like him, you have to love him. That’s what you want as a head coach. That’s how you keep the elephants out of the room. That’s how you play free. That’s how you play with a free mind, free space, free spirit.

“A coach like that, you always run through a wall for. The culture of the Steelers just makes teams so much closer. Even when we were struggling the first four games, going 1-4 the first month of the season, Coach Tomlin never changed the way he coached. We were doing the same thing we were doing now, just staying consistent, finding the things we needed to work on. That’s what it was. We’re finally clicking as a team.”

This season, Tomlin is winning on the backs of a pair of draft picks who look the part of franchise cornerstones, for a franchise that proudly displays four Vince Lombardi Trophies and has won over the span of five decades with a clear formula; dominant defense, run the football when the Western Pennsylvania weather turns, and maintain organizational consistency.

On Monday night, rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth caught the third and fourth touchdowns of his young career from 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, pulling to within three scores for the lead among NFL rookies.

“Pat is football smart,” Freiermuth’s college head coach, Penn State’s James Franklin tells FanSided. “He understands concepts, doesn’t like football but loves football. He has natural ball-skills, great body control, is a loose and fluid athlete who is quarterback friendly and understands how to get open.”

It’s obvious that Freiermuth’s natural traits are shining through, but also impossible to ignore the impact Tomlin has had on the Steelers’ latest second-round success story. Especially when considering that No. 3 overall pick, and fellow tight end, Kyle Pitts is in an unbelievably favorable position catching passes from a resurgent Matt Ryan but has three fewer touchdowns than Freiermuth.

Meanwhile, the only player the Steelers chose before Freiermuth this spring, running back Najee Harris out of Alabama, already looks like one of the premier players at his position across the NFL.

Harris is averaging 3.6 yards per carry and has scored four touchdowns, and just might be the most complete back the Steelers have had since Le’Veon Bell and maybe the most explosive since Willie Parker.

“The thing about Najee is he has size,” an NFC south personnel executive tells FanSided. “He’s patient as a runner, but has sneaky burst, runs with power but also has finesse in his toolbox. He also has really good ball skills, and offensive lineman absolutely love blocking for him, too.”

Freiermuth and Harris’ instant success are key attributable to Tomlin’s influence, system, and coaching. They also embody the Steelers’ historical dominance of the NFL Draft under the direction of general manager Kevin Colbert. Harris, Freiermuth, Freiermuth continue to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Chase Claypool, Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, James Washington, T.J. Watt, and JuJu Smith-Schuster who were added in the first two rounds dating back to the 2017 draft.

Mid-round picks such as Kendrick Green and Dan Moore have found similar success to that of Dionte Johnson, Alex Highsmith, and Cam Sutton.

That’s the Steelers’ blueprint. Build through the draft, and allow Tomlin to develop those picks into elite players.

Tomlin clearly has the faith, trust, and belief of the Steelers, who have had three head coaches since Chuck Noll was hired in 1969. Tomlin also has a better winning percentage (.639) than either Bill Cowher (619), or Knoll (572).

Should Tomlin lead the Steelers on a postseason run, beginning with a matchup — if the season ended today — against Justin Herbert making his first postseason start for the Los Angeles Chargers. A win in the playoffs with this roster might be Tomlin’s most impressive feat to date, given the decline of Roethlisberger’s arm and depths from which Pittsburgh needed to climb from a 1-3 start.

The AFC is a madhouse and constant carousel of changing parts. One week, the Bengals have home field advantage. Next, they rank in the bottom of the AFC North. The Titans are winning without Derrick Henry and Josh Allen made the other Josh Allen look like a pedestrian pumpkin instead of a MVP.

Anything is possible but, if Pittsburgh pulls a rabbit out of the hat this winter, Tomlin’s legacy in the NFL might just be secured as one of the greats.

Respect isn’t given, it’s earned. Sixteen years above .500? Politely adjust your head coaching tiers with Tomlin at the top, and maybe ask Reid and Payton why they’re playing catch up and if they’d consider heading out to USC.

These players will shape the second half of the NFL season

We have officially crossed the midway point of the first 18-week NFL season, and many of the usual suspects have been the stars of the first 272 games of the 2021 slate.

Kyler Murray has emerged as a superstar in the NFC, leading the Arizona Cardinals to the top seed, if the playoffs were to begin today. Tom Brady continues to outrun Father Time, and is a legitimate threat to win his fourth NFL MVP award. Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson has the Baltimore Ravens in the thick of the race for the top spot in the AFC.

But, who will be the players who define the season’s second half? Who are the breakout players starting to emerge? FanSided spoke to several NFL coaches, executives, and scouts across the league to find out who they believe will be the players who shape this season’s second half.

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

“I think my biggest surprise so far is what Matt Ryan is doing. The Falcons are playing really well right now. I’d watch out for them.” – NFC head coach

Ryan and the Falcons are .500, knocking on the postseason doorstep, as the 36-year-old veteran has completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 2,157 yards with 15 touchdowns to just six interceptions.

Odell Beckham Jr., WR

“Wherever Odell Beckham Jr. winds up, he’s going to be an instant playmaker.” – NFC Personnel executive

Beckham was waived by the Cleveland Browns on Monday.

Xavier McKinney, S, NY Giants

“Sunday seemed like just a glimpse of the kind of impact he can make on a game. He’s someone teams are going to need to pay attention to.”  NFC head coach 

McKinney, the Giants’ second-year safety out of Alabama, had his second two-interception game of the season against the Las Vegas Raiders Sunday afternoon, returning a Derek Carr interception for a touchdown in the third quarter and hauling in a second pick in the fourth quarter of a 23-16 New York upset win.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

“Now that Christian McCaffrey is finally healthy, he’s going to hurt some teams making runs to the playoffs. He’s a one man spoiler.” – NFC South Pro Personnel Director

McCaffrey has been activated off injured reserve by the Panthers, after recovering from a hamstring injury. Through four games so far this season McCaffrey has rushed for 253 yards and a touchdown.

Podcast

Quotable

“That’s as flat as any team I’ve seen. We basically played what seemed to be lackadaisical.”

– Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, via Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The Cowboys better be careful.

Dallas is going to win the NFC East, and it might not be particularly close. But, if the Cowboys are going to be considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders out of a conference that has developed into a gauntlet as the NFC has, falling behind 30-0 at home and losing 30-16 to the Denver Broncos simply cannot happen.

Thanksgiving is a few weeks away, which in addition to turkeys being on the lookout, this is when NFL contenders should be separating themselves from the pack.

The Cowboys play host to a wounded and beleaguered Raiders team that afternoon at about the time Americans will be onto their second slice of pumpkin pie. But, first Dallas welcomes Matt Ryan and the suddenly white-hot Atlanta Falcons to AT&T Stadium Sunday afternoon, before going to Arrowhead in their Turkey Day appetizer on Nov. 21.

If Dallas slips up Sunday, and falters against the Chiefs, there’s a very real possibility Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and the Cowboys are 6-4 when the Raiders arrive.

There are certainly matters far more important and consequential than football facing the Raiders right now, but if Vegas turns things around and knocks off the struggling Chiefs at home this Sunday, there’s no reason to think they can’t pile on a reeling Cowboys squad.

Especially if the same Cowboys defense that allowed 407 yards of total offense to the Broncos, nearly 50 more than its average allowed per game, shows up to the Turkey Day festivities.

Dallas has all the pieces in place to make a run this season, with Dak Prescott playing at a high level, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard forming one of the premier backfield duos in the league, and Dan Quinn’s defense anchored by rookie playmaker Micah Parsons, pass-rusher Randy Gregory and Defensive Player of The Year front-runner Trevon Diggs.

However, was Sunday the case of a team sleepwalking through a game it felt it could win by simply showing up? Or a harbinger of what’s to come?

We’re about to find out.

Final Thought

By any means necessary, the NFL taunting rule has to go.

That outcomes of one-score games, which make up approximately nine games on an average Sunday, can be decided by an official’s interpretation of a player’s intent after a big play is doing far more harm than good both to the product and competitiveness of NFL games.

The spirit of the rule that has become a point of emphasis this season, is well-intentioned. There’s something to be said for a player blatantly standing over an opponent on the ground, waiving his finger in his face, or making an obscene gesture directed at the opposition in celebration being flagged.

However, when referee Tony Corrente throws a flag on Cassius Marsh briefly looking over at the Steelers’ sideline, or even the punter running on the field, after he sacked Ben Roethlisberger on third down and the penalty allows Pittsburgh to send its offense back on the field to go kick a go-ahead field goal, officials have now dictated the outcome of the game.

Likewise, when Eagles linebacker Genard Avery said something along the sidelines after a tackle to Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette, which drew a penalty and extended a Tampa Bay drive that wound up sinking Philadelphia, a win was decided by a referee’s interpretation rather than the flow of the game.

 

Here is the rule, as it appears in the NFL’s rulebook:

“The use of baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.”

Did Avery engender ill will when he stood up after Fournette was tackled?

When Marsh looked towards Pittsburgh’s sideline before running off the field, did he somehow bait the Steelers?

It seems, this season, with this rule, NFL referees are being forced to make snap judgements about a player’s intent, and are crossing the line from enforcing the rule to interjecting their interpretation into outcomes.

No one is going to stop watching the NFL because of the taunting rule, but if this continues to be called at such a fervent level into the playoff chase or in the postseason, the risk is very real that a referee’s opinion might keep a team out of the playoffs or end their run prematurely.

There have already been 16 teams called for taunting. It’s only a matter of time before one of these calls makes a real impact on a team’s season, rather than just the outcome of one game.

Just imagine what would have happened had Monday night’s game been played in Chicago and the flag in question knocked the Bears from postseason contention.

Is that what the NFL wants? Is the league office ready for that level of public backlash?

Unless the NFL acts swiftly to better instruct officials what constitutes taunting, and takes the interpretation of the rule out of the realm where human judgement is the deciding factor, that’s the very real risk is running.