Commentary

Unlike Belichick, Tomlin let off hook

Questionable move by Steelers coach escapes scrutiny of 'fourth-and-2'

Updated: December 22, 2009, 1:02 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Where's the outrage? Where are the critics screaming arrogance on the part of the head coach, or that he'd lost his football mind?

Those questions arose when recapping the unexpected turn of events in Pittsburgh on Sunday, when the Steelers had their version of "fourth-and-2."

"Fourth-and-2," of course, needs no explanation to Patriots followers. It was the decision that coach Bill Belichick was vilified for in many circles -- going for it from the Patriots' own 28-yard line with 2:08 left against the Colts while holding a 34-28 lead.

Belichick didn't say it directly that November day, but he obviously felt his defense was cooked.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had the same thing on his mind when he called for an onside kick with 3:58 to play in Sunday's game against the Packers. The Steelers had just taken a 30-28 lead.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
AP Photo/Don WrightMike Tomlin's fourth-quarter onside kick didn't work out the way he'd hoped but his team bailed him out with a comeback win.

"We were just trying to win the football game," Tomlin explained after the contest. "There was time left in that game that had we kicked that ball away and the half had gone the way it had gone … they would have moved the ball down the field on us [and] we wouldn't have had necessary time to respond. I'm just being honest, but it starts with feeling pretty good about the element of surprise and having a good chance to get that ball, but that part of it didn't work out."

It didn't work out because Ike Taylor was penalized for illegal touching, and six plays later, the Packers scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2:06 remaining. At that point, Tomlin looked like he was going to find himself in the crosshairs of some intense scrutiny.

Yet he hasn't taken anywhere close to the same heat as Belichick, in part because the Steelers dramatically came back to win the game with no time left on the clock on an improbable play. Was the win because of the onside kick or in spite of it?

That seemed like a fair question to debate, but one thing that isn't debatable is that Tomlin made the same sort of bold, unconventional decision as Belichick did on fourth-and-2. The main difference was the end result, even if it didn't unfold exactly as planned.

So does that make Tomlin arrogant? Is it fair to suggest that Tomlin thinks he's somehow above the game, or that he had a brain freeze?

Of course not, but that's what some were saying about Belichick. "Fourth-and-2" lived on for days, with seemingly every NFL precinct checking in to voice an opinion. A Google search on "Belichick, fourth down" turned up 257,000 hits today. On the other hand, a search for "Tomlin, onside kick" resulted in 15,400 hits.

Part of it, it seems, is that Belichick has few friends in the media and this was an opening for many to take some long-awaited uppercuts. Another part of it is the Tom Brady theory that tall trees often face the highest winds, as few have a loftier perch in the coaching profession than Belichick, not to mention that the Patriots have three Super Bowl titles this decade and have been an annual contender.

Surely, Belichick brings some of the scrutiny on himself with the way he often answers questions. After "fourth-and-2," for example, he didn't say he was protecting his defense, as Tomlin did, so it left much open to interpretation, which only seemed to fuel the feeding frenzy.

Maybe if Belichick answered in the same manner as Tomlin, "fourth-and-2" wouldn't have taken on a life of its own.

"I'll be very bluntly honest with you," Tomlin said Sunday. "Based on the way the game was going in the second half, first of all I thought with the element of surprise we had a chance to get it, but if we didn't get it and they were to score, then we would have necessary time on the clock to score or match their score.

"Plan A didn't work, but it kind of unfolded the way you envisioned it. We had 30 minutes of evidence that we could drive the ball on them. We also conversely had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could also drive the ball on us. That's why we took the risk when we did."

From this view, Belichick's fourth-and-2 risk was not worth taking, as punting still seemed like the right call. Simply debating the merits of such decisions is part what makes following the game enjoyable.

But what became clear this week -- with Tomlin's unconventional decision and even Titans coach Jeff Fisher going off the board by not using any of his remaining three timeouts late in a tie game when the Dolphins were pinned at their 6-yard line -- is that the furor surrounding "fourth-and-2" went way beyond that.

Although the unconventional decisions weren't exactly the same -- and Belichick's didn't work out and Tomlin's did (sort of) -- the dramatic difference in the immediate fallout from both was noticeable.

For that, we ask the question again: Where's the outrage?

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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