When a team is heavily penalized, the head coach is often saddled with the blame: “(Insert team) lacks discipline and it starts with the head coach,” is the claim. A player who draws a personal foul for a late hit or fighting or excessive celebration only intensifies that finger pointing toward someone else, someone who wasn’t wearing a uniform or helmet when the penalty occurred.
And ultimately, a head coach is responsible for what takes place on the field. For anything that happens between the painted white lines, “the buck stops” with the head coach. But outside those painted white lines, a head coach is not a baby sitter, a father or a psychologist to the players on his roster, and he shouldn’t be expected to correct or coddle players who break the law, be it society’s or the NFL’s.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have long been considered one of the model franchises in the NFL. But in the last half-dozen years or so, they’ve seen a relatively high number of players—and particularly star players—run into trouble with the law.
Former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, who was arrested twice in the few months after Pittsburgh selected him in the first round, was arrested for marijuana possession in 2008 and was later implicated in the assault of a woman at a nightclub.
In 2014, Steelers running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount were arrested for marijuana possession; both players received suspensions from the league and Bell was suspended a second time, this year, for allegedly failing a drug test. So too was burgeoning star receiver Martavis Bryant, who is currently suspended for the entire 2016 season due to a failed drug test, his second suspension since being drafted in 2014.
And, most infamously, star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was twice implicated in sexual assaults, as recently as 2010.
In roughly seven years, that is significant run-ins with the law or the NFL or both to five important players. And every one of these incidents occurred under head coach Mike Tomlin’s watch. But no one should be foolish enough to pin any of the blame on Tomlin. The same goes for Rex Ryan, who has seen three important players suspended (Marcell Dareus, Seantrel Henderson, Karlos Williams) this summer for banned substances.
It’s easy to lump all these players and their specific missteps into one large pot and suggest that the head coach —Tomlin or Ryan — lets his players run wild, that they have no accountability, that they think they’re above the law or the NFL’s rules. But like each player, these indiscretions are unique and have different causes, different roots. Tomlin, just as every other head coach in the NFL, is not hired to improve players as people, he’s hired to improve players as players. If Tomlin’s example, his wisdom, his leadership inspires his players to be better people, like Joe Gibbs did for the Washington Redskins in the 1980s, that’s a happy byproduct.
In the result-driven, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL world, wins and championships are, and should be, the only measuring sticks for head coaches.
So as much as we’d all like to see players learn life lessons from their coaches, when they don’t the coach isn’t to blame. By the time a rookie reaches the NFL he’s at least 21 years old; his life has long-since been shaped by all the moments and people during those previous 21 years. Expecting the presence of a new head coach to change that person is asking far too much.
That’s not to say the head coach cannot have a role in stopping or limiting these types of crimes and violations. Fostering an environment where players put team above all is a good start. A head coach who convinces his players that one off-the-field slip-up, eliciting an arrest and/or suspension, will ultimately hurt the team’s goals may be just enough to dissuade drug use or some other transgression.
Doing a better job of weighing the risks and rewards of a player’s potential for production versus their potential for selfish behavior is also important. Every coach and general manager thinks they can be the one to reform a player with a checkered past or obvious immaturity issues. Resisting that urge removes the risk altogether.
Actively holding the head coach accountable for the off-the-field actions of his players is misguided, counterproductive, and ultimately redundant. A head coach whose players break the law and receive stiff penalties is already being punished. His team is less likely to prosper with an under-contract, under-the-cap player sidelined for an extended period of time; it’s much harder to win games with talent unavailable due to suspension. And in the end, either that head coach will try harder to avoid players with red flags or he’ll pay the price himself.