Watch Tower: Tomlin Turns on Charm with the Press; Plus Pleas for More of Moore…

The Steelers heart breaking loss to the lowly Buccaneers sent Steelers Nation reeling, with cries of “Fire Tomlin,” “Fire LeBeau” and/or “Fire Haley” heard from parts near and far. But how Tomlin reacted gives the Watch Tower its first subject. Also on deck Justin Brown vs. Lance Moore, and the case for running the ball.

Tomlin Shows Savvy with the Press

Unlike his predecessors, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin relationship with the press is difficult to peg.

Chuck Noll never like dealing with the press, but seemed to accept they had a job to do, and by all accounts was friendly and amiable to conversation – as long as it wasn’t about football. Bill Cowher, it is widely acknowledged, made little pretense of trying to get along with the press, whether on or off camera.

  • Eight years into his coaching tenure, Tomlin’s relationship with the press remains much more of an enigma. 

Early on it was clear that Tomlin’s personality jived much more better with the press (in Spanish we’d say, “tenia mucho mejor onda con la prensa” sorry, it communicates the idea better) than Cowher’s. In his first weeks as coach, reporters made comments like “Tomlin actually smiles and says things like ‘hello’ when you pass him in the hall.”

Later on, reporters went at pains to include quotes from Bruce Arians and/or Dick LeBeau glowing about the newfound autonomy they enjoyed. Explicit rebukes of Cowher never surfaced, but the Watch Tower’s hypothesis surmises that this was the press’ way of saying, “We like the new guy better than the old.”

  • Relationships evolve over time of course, and so has Tomlin’s with the press.

Ed Bouchette once commented that Tomlin, like Cowher, had mastered the “art of the informationless press conference.” (Contrast this to his first press conference prior to the 2007 NFL Draft, when Kevin Colbert prevented Tomlin from answering a question, fearing he’d give away too many specifics.”)

And as social media has grown, so has head coaches exposure to the press. Most NFL coaches interact multiple times with the press.

  • Tomlin is not one of those, however.

He gives a post-game press conference and a mid week one and that’s it. During the off season, he doesn’t speak with the press, at least not on the record. Pittsburgh reporters must travel to the NFL’s off season meetings to get face to face time with Tomlin. Ed Bouchette once revealed that he asked Tomlin for more face time, and Tomlin told him point blank, “How does it benefit me?”

  • But Tomlin does know how to work the press when he needs to, as was apparent last season, and again last week.

Regular readers know that the Watch Tower is a devotee of Elliot King and Michael Schudson’s theory that personal relations between the press and a public figure have incredible impact on the coverage those figures receive.  It appears that Tomlin buys into that theory too.

A year ago Tomlin’s interactions with the press were getting testy. He openly complained about the relevance of their questions. And after the New England debacle, when someone asked if he’d begun to doubt Dick LeBeau’s ability, Tomlin snapped back “No. Because he’s Dick LeBeau.”

Contrast that with the approach Tomlin took after the sideline infraction vs. Baltimore, where he enthusiastically invited any and all questions. Joe Starkey went as far as to say it was a “different Tomlin.”

  • Tomlin took a similar approach following the loss to Tampa.

Jim Wexell characterized it as “…one of his most honest press conferences.” Indeed, Tomlin provided detailed insight into both the thinking and execution breakdowns surrounding the Steelers and Panther’s final drive, and the strip sack of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • It appears that Tomlin’s strategy for combating press speculation was to take away the story.

Just how effective the strategy was remains unclear, as Roethlisberger did appear to dispute, at least in part Tomlin’s description of the final play call as “run pass option.” But the “Fire Everyone” talk did die down by week’s end.

Press Wants More Moore

Everyone expected the Steelers defense to struggle, and that was before injuries to Ryan Shazier, Ike Taylor and Jarvis Jones. The Steelers offense played well in the first half vs. Cleveland, but struggled after that (although Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Markus Wheaton’s production has been consistently “above the line.”)

Going into the Carolina game, Dale Lolley reflected on the offense’s struggles before adding “But I think the addition of Lance Moore will make a difference for this team this week.”

  • Moore played one snap vs. the Panthers.

The word was that Justin Brown was a better blocker, and that Moore having missed so much time needed to work himself back into the offense. Mark Kaboly for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wasn’t buying it, and suggested outright that Moore had done something to get himself into Tomlin and Todd Haley’s dog house.

  • And this was before the loss to Tampa.

Since then the criticism has only increased. Dale Lolley made note of it after the Tampa disaster. Later in the week Lolley praised Brown’s potential, but pointed to Moore’s ability to help with production, and took aim at the blocking argument saying, “But the position is called wide receiver, not wide blocker.”

Scott Brown of ESPN took it a step further, flatly stating the Brown was hardly the “second coming of Hines Ward” as a blocker. He continued “I’m at a complete loss to explain why Brown has played over Moore” sharing that Todd Haley has made it clear that Brown is still above Moore in the pecking order.

  • While the football issues are of most interest to the fans, the question of what is going on with the press is equally fascinating.

While reporters access to Tomlin and the coordinators is limited to once a week interactions, they seldom get to speak, on the record, to assistant coaches. Yet these reporters work in the same building as the coaches, see them in the hallways, lunch room, and even in the john.

  • And now you have 3 reporters from separate publications following the same story.

It could very well be the case that the press is in the dark about why Moore has dropped to number 4 on the depth chart. But it could also be that some assistant coach is quietly letting them know that there’s more to the story that Haley is letting on.

It’s unlikely anyone outside of the South Side will know anything in detail for some time. But the Watch Tower will keep an eye on social media as the backside of stories like this have a way of surfacing. (Case in point, if memory serves, it was Jim Wexell has said on Twitter that Bruce Arians had no interest in rebuilding the offensive line.)

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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