Tim Benz: Mike Tomlin’s OT call in Steelers loss was logical but lacked common sense
Mike Tomlin’s decision to kick off to begin overtime against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday made perfect sense.
If you are willing to ignore common sense.
Which I am not.
In case you missed what happened, the Steelers won the coin flip to start overtime, tied with their AFC North rivals at 23-23.
Tomlin shunned the usual practice of receiving the ball. Under NFL overtime rules, if the receiving team scores a touchdown, the game is over. If the receiving team kicks a field goal, punts or commits a turnover, the other team gets a possession. If the score remains tied after that possession, then play continues until a score of any kind takes place.
If no score takes place, it’s a tie.
So, logic would dictate receiving the ball. Give yourself a chance to score a touchdown without allowing the other team a possession. Don’t risk losing without getting a touch.
It’s the right decision. Every time.
Anything else is outthinking yourself. And that’s what happened to the Steelers coach Sunday.
I keep hearing defenders of Tomlin’s decision making their case because his decision “worked out well.”
Well, it didn’t “work out well.” His team lost 26-23. Maybe JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbles if they get the ball first, too. But maybe he doesn’t.
Forget the minor detail of who won and who lost, though. I’ll play along. Since the Steelers defense forced the Ravens to punt on their first possession, we’ll say Tomlin’s decision was successful.
However, just because something works out, doesn’t mean it was smart. You can go to happy hour after work today, slam five or six beers and drive home. If you make it without a ticket or an accident, that doesn’t make what you did a good decision just because you saved $15 by not calling an Uber.
That’s basically what Tomlin did.
The problem with that thinking is, you can do everything right on defense and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has the athleticism to go 75 yards to beat you.
It was Tomlin’s contention he preferred deploying his defense because that unit was playing better than his offense. Tomlin didn’t want to trust rookie fourth-string quarterback Devlin Hodges on a long field. A field that, given Justin Tucker’s kickoff proficiency and the Steelers’ failure to return the ball well, may have been in excess of 80 yards.
The hope was to hold the Ravens to a field goal or less, win a few yards of field position and maybe win the game on the next drive.
A few things, though.
What did Hodges do wrong offensively to suggest he couldn’t have handled the job as easily on the first possession as the second possession? “Duck” was good. He was 7 of 9 for 68 yards, plus he ran for 20.
“I’ve got the confidence we can go down and score,” Hodges said of the decision. “Get the ball. Score a touchdown. And win, first. But, obviously, I know what coach Tomlin is trying to do.”
What if the two teams had matched field goals or punts? If Hodges had the ball first, he might have gotten a chance to win the game on the third possession. In a 10-minute period, another change of possession was unlikely to come his way.
In fact, it didn’t.
Was the offense down the stretch that much worse than the defense? The defense gave away the lead twice in the fourth quarter. If the Ravens weren’t barfing up the ball to the Steelers with three giveaways, they were scoring. Baltimore’s Sam Koch punted only three times — twice in regulation — and averaged 51.7 yards.
On Tuesday, Tomlin said he “didn’t want to play the field-position game” with the Ravens because of their specialists.
OK. Isn’t that essentially what Tomlin was doing? Instead of taking the ball with a chance to win, he kicked off and hoped his defense would come through for him. Maybe shorten the field for his weak return team and new quarterback.
“Did you see our kickoff return in this football game? Did you see their kickoff team?” Tomlin asked rhetorically.
“We couldn’t get back to the 15. Why would I sign up for that? I put the defense on the field to fight for field position and put the onus on them to get the stop. So, when we got the ball, we got it on the 30-something. That is dramatically different than when our kick return team took the field all afternoon.”
“Dramatically?” I wouldn’t really consider a gain of 13 yards dramatic.
The Steelers started the overtime drive at the 32-yard line. The team’s average start after Tucker’s kickoffs was roughly the 19-yard line.
Was that worth forfeiting your chance to win on the first possession? I don’t think so.
Not to mention, theoretically, if the Steelers defense had simply allowed a field goal instead of forcing a punt, Tucker would have had to kick off anyway.
A lot of people are working really hard to defend a decision in a game that wound up being a loss. And I don’t grasp why.
It strikes me if, say, New York Jets coach Adam Gase makes the same decision on behalf of backup-turned-starting quarterback Luke Falk, no Pittsburgh fans or media members would bend over backwards to rationalize that choice. But they will for Tomlin.
Provincialism at its finest.
I’ll end by posing this scenario.
Let’s assume Tomlin did accept the kick, and Hodges leads a touchdown drive. Are any of the people supporting this strategy, hypothetically, writing a column like this one suggesting Tomlin got lucky by using conventional wisdom?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.