Watch Tower: Pittsburgh Media Puts Tomlin’s Talent Evaluation Skills Under Microscope

The Ben Roethlisberger’s first loss at Cleveland since 2009 sent the Pittsburgh Steelers soul searching. While Steelers Nation searches for a scapegoat, the Watch Tower shines its light on more level-headed attempts to discern “what’s wrong” and uncovers something interesting about practice reporting requirements.

Tomlin as a Talent Evaluator Under the Microscope

It used to be that the Steelers press corps fanned the flames of fan passion in Steelers Nation. Often times that makes good business sense, as nothing sells newspapers – or generates web hits, like a fire and brimstone article filled with bad news.

During the 1990’s, when seemingly every off season was punctuated by an exodus of premium free agents (think of Chad Brown, Yancey Thigpen and Rod Woodson’s departures), and fans were treated to a steady stream of “The Sky is Falling in Pittsburgh” themed articles.

It got to the point where, during the 1999 off season, Tom Donahoe, who had great press relations, told a reporter that one of the things he loved about his job was proving the press wrong. (Of course the 1999 season was a disaster, and cost Donahoe his job, but that’s another story.)

Nonetheless, the tone of the Pittsburgh press has shifted over the last decade or so.

  • If anything reporters push back against knee-jerk reactions on the part of the fan base.

Still, the 2014 Steelers are not playing very good football, and two reporters have opted to looks past the “Fire Tomlin,” “Fire Haley,” “Fire LeBeau” and “Fire Colbert” brigades in hopes of offering a more reason-based analysis of what ails the Steelers.

ESPN’s Scott Brown was the first to move in that direction, making his effort in response to one of the weekly “Why Hasn’t Rooney Fired Everyone Already” questions in his weekly Steelers Mail Bag. After indicating that he think Mike Tomlin’s job is safe – barring a total meltdown – Brown makes an interesting observation:

The Steelers would also have to take a hard look at their drafting process. Whatever the setup is in regard to Kevin Colbert and Tomlin doesn’t appear to be working. The Steelers have made too many questionable draft picks since the two have been together. I think the Steelers would be wise to give Colbert the final say — there appears to be 50/50 split between him and Tomlin — and give him ownership the draft.

Whether Brown has sources to base this upon or he’s simply offering his own opinion (the Watch Tower speculates it’s the second) is unknown. But Mike Tomlin’s ability as a talent evaluator, and perhaps his drafting philosophy, is open to question.

During his first season, Tomlin pushed for Sean Mahan and Allen Rossum, in addition to pushing to draft Matt Spaeth in the third round and pushing for the team to pick Daniel Sepulveda in the 4th round. Three out of four moves were disasters, and Spaeth, while OK, hasn’t produced at the level you expect out of a third round pick.

Beyond that, it is hard to peg a specific personnel move that has a clear Tomlin footprint on it, other than the Mewelde Moore free agent signing, which was excellent.

A day later, Alan Robinson took a look at the same question, albeit from a slightly different angle. He and the staff at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review took a long look at the first eight drafts of Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe and compared those to the results of the first 7 drafts of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert.

Robinson renders his verdict this way:

The answer: At comparative stages of the draft picks’ careers, the Tomlin/Colbert drafts of 2007 and ’10 were the best two, but the Cowher/Donahoe drafts were generally better from top to bottom and produced more star-caliber players.
And except for the 2010 draft that yielded Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds and Antonio Brown, the Tomlin/Colbert drafts have declined since the first draft in 2007 yielding Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.

By assigning points to players based on playing time and performance – and punishing player washouts, the Cowher-Donahoe drafts amassed 302 points while the Tomlin-Colbert drafts only ended up with 258.

One can quibble with Robinson’s methodologyCharles Johnson for example gets 11 points starting, but that ignores the fact that his performance was below what one would expect and need out of a first rounder. Likewise, undrafted rookie free agents are not taken into account, and undrafted rookie free agents have played a tremendous part in Colbert’s personnel success under both Cowher and Tomlin.

Still, the Watch Tower has called the professional press on the carpet time and time again for not delivering these sorts of analytical pieces which are a staple on sites like Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure I also write for BTSC.)

The Tribune Review turned out an excellent one here – kudos to you Alan Robinson.

A Closer Look Inside the Steelers Practice Facility 

The last edition of the Watch Tower asked whether the Steelers PR team was combating the storm of negativity in Steelers Nation by loosening practice reporting requirements. This week, after Mike Tomlin implied that Brice McCain would replace Cortez Allen, Dale Lolley reported that McCain in fact was running with the first time.

Then he observed, “There were some other changes in the lineup, but due to practice reporting  requirements, I cannot report them without confirmation from the players.”

Reporters are allowed to observe practice, and have a shot at interviewing them as they walk from practice to the locker room, which is when reporters would get a chance to get confirmation from a player.

That of course doesn’t explain the fact that reporters are suddenly reporting details about Stephon Tuitt’s interceptions and/or Matavias Bryant’s drops (as Jim Wexell did last week), but it does shed some light on the restrictions under which beat writers work.

Thanks for visiting. To read more analysis of the media that cover the Steelers, click here to read more from Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower.
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