Playoff Xtra Cover Story: Steelers' Mike Tomlin, Jets' Rex Ryan a study in coaching contrasts
One coach is loud and leads with his lips. The other is stoic and calculated. They may be different, but Rex Ryan and his Jets meet Mike Tomlin and his Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field with same goal. Victory.
Mike Tomlin is characterized by a stern intensity and passion.
An excited Rex Ryan near the end of the Jets' win in New England Sunday.
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New York Jets coach Rex Ryan is accustomed to raising eyebrows and grabbing headlines with some of the outrageous statements he seems to make on an almost daily basis. But Mike Tomlin? Strangely, he managed to do just that this week when he said he and Ryan "are probably more similar than you would imagine." Talk about your jaw-dropping comments?
Rex Ryan is brash and controversial, comedic and jovial, with no alarm systems to prevent some of the words and sentences that come out of his mouth. If he were a cartoon, he'd be Sponge Bob SquarePants.
Tomlin is none of that. He can be matter of fact, blunt, intellectually challenging and, at times, passionately insightful. But he is unfazed by flattery and seemingly unwilling to revel in achievement or absorb an accolade. On most occasions, he is more guarded than a Brink's truck.
Still, there is some measure of truth in what he said.
Tomlin and Ryan may not deliver their message with the same public flair, but there is substance in their words and a motivational motor to the method. Whatever it is they do, no matter how drastically different they appear, they share the same important quality of getting their players to respond to their message.
By extension, the players take on the personality of their head coach -- a quality that seems to be in apparent in the teams that will meet Sunday in the AFC championship game at Heinz Field
"You have to believe in the guy," said Steelers backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, who has been with four different National Football League teams. "I've been on a team before where we had 15 different personalities and we weren't a good football team. When you got one guy at the top who's going to lead us, and his whole main goal is winning football games, and you know that when you talk to him he's always going to put you in the best situation to win, and the guy is going to be as straight-forward as possible; as a player that's all you can ask for, especially in this business because you very seldom get what Mike is.
"And when you got it, that's why guys love playing here. This is a great organization. It was great before he came. But there's a reason they hired him. He's just a great guy to follow.
"A lot of guys run through a lot of brick walls for that guy, and that's because of his personality, his demeanor and his temperament and the way everyone feels about the guy. Everyone really loves and respects him being our coach."
The Jets feel the same way about their coach.
Coincidence or not, the Jets seem to take their cue from Ryan, whose words have spawned more back-page headlines in New York tabloids than George Steinbrenner. His bombastic, loquacious style -- entertaining to some, annoying to others -- is a departure from most NFL coaches who prefer to say little, if anything, that might rile or motivate the opponent.
He embraced having the HBO cameras at training camp to film the "Hard Knocks" series, hoping the exposure to him and the way he does things would attract potential free agents to the Jets.
Two weeks ago, when the Jets were preparing to play the Indianapolis Colts in a rematch of last year's AFC championship game, Ryan said the matchup with Peyton Manning was "personal." Before last week's playoff game against New England, Ryan chided Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for attending the Broadway show "Lombardi" with his supermodel wife, Gisele Bundchen, while the Jets were playing the Colts.
"Peyton Manning would have been watching our game," Ryan said.
His players merely follow his lead. Last week, cornerback Antonio Cromartie called Brady a one-word expletive in the days leading up to the game, seemingly unconcerned that such vitriol could only further motivate the NFL's top quarterback.
"It seems to be working for us," said Jets center Nick Mangold. "I know I've been enjoying it. You've got to be confident. You've got to believe that you're doing things the right way, that you're putting the work in. That comes from the top. That comes from our coach."
Not surprisingly, when Sports Illustrated earlier this season asked 279 NFL players for whom they would like to play (other than their current coach), Ryan was the clear-cut winner with 21 percent of the vote. Tomlin was second with 12 percent.
Last week, two members of the New York Giants -- safeties Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips -- said they thought their coach, Tom Coughlin, should loosen up and be more like Ryan. That's not the first time that's happened.
Before the Giants' 2007 Super Bowl season, team owner John Mara told Coughlin he needed to change his image and lighten up a little, let his players see a more relaxed side of the coach with the demeanor of a marine drill sergeant. Apparently, it worked.
"If you have a coach who likes to talk in the media, your guys are usually going to do it because they're allowed to," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "You look at the Patriots, their guy [Bill Belichick] is real quiet. He doesn't say much so you don't hear much from the Patriots. Whether that's from the rules the coach puts out, or whatever, you can tell."
Tomlin is more Belichick than Ryan, though his televised press conferences and public declarations are laced with frank assessments, intellectually advanced expressions and, at times, psycho-analytical babble -- all the product of a coach who was educated at William & Mary.
"Talk is cheap," said receiver Hines Ward, who has tempered some of his locker-room comments, even about the Ravens, the past couple of years. "You can talk all week and if you go out there and don't back it up, why even talk? That's why you don't hear much out of our camp about trash talk. It's not who we are. It's not the type of team we are."
Perhaps, but don't tell that to Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis, one of only three players who were with the Jets when they lost to the Steelers, 20-17 in overtime, in a 2004 wild-card playoff game at Heinz Field. He said the Steelers are "not all that different" than his team.
"They have the same mentality, and they play the game the same way," said Ellis, an 11-year veteran and the Jets' longest-tenured player. "It's just that they have a lot of people who have been there for a while, so maybe people just come to expect when one of their guys will talk. They've got the mystique, you know?"
It was that mystique that attracted former five-time Pro Bowl tackle Flozell Adams to sign with the Steelers in free agency after 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.
Known for his nasty disposition with the Cowboys, he has quickly assimilated into the Steelers' way. And he credits Tomlin for developing the personality.
"I believe a coach is a teacher and whatever the coach teaches, that's the personality you develop among the players," Adams said. "With a coach like Mike and tenacity he has and the know-all -- he's a very smart guy -- you can't help but appreciate it. You follow his lead, then another follows his lead, then another, and we all become cohesive."
Said offensive tackle Max Starks, a seven-year veteran, "All our personalities are dictated by the roles we're in, and all those coaching styles and philosophies reflect what the coaches believe. You assemble the team from top to bottom and you draft and sign free agents according to those theories. I guess you would say we do take on the personality of the coach, but it's the personality of the organization more so than anything else."
Those personalities will clash Sunday, in more ways than one.
First Published January 21, 2011 12:00 am