The Yancey Thigpen redemption game: What was Mike Tomlin thinking?

It was Christmas Eve, 1995, and the Pittsburgh Steelers were in Green Bay and positioned on the five-yard line with a chance to win the game with 10 seconds to play.

It was at that point when an 11-year-old Adam Gretz sat in his living room and watched his favorite player at the time, Yancey Thigpen (a player that had caught more passes that season than any other wide receiver in Steelers history up until that point), let a perfectly thrown Neil O’Donnell pass slip through his hands in the corner of the end zone, giving the Packers a 24-19 win.

Stunned faces everywhere. Bill Cowher still can’t believe it.

What a jacket.

On Sunday afternoon, the Green Bay Packers lost on a nearly identical play, in a nearly identical spot, in the exact same end zone. Everything comes full circle.

And with that, the Pittsburgh Steelers head into a Week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns with a chance to still make the playoffs. The NFL is a wild place, and what’s even more wild is how that game on Sunday — to mention the entire season — reached that point.

I like Mike Tomlin. I think he’s a pretty good coach, and if he were to become available tomorrow there would be a line of NFL teams waiting to hire him. Sometimes, I think he takes too much blame for things that are beyond his control. He’s not perfect, and he couldn’t manage the clock if you gave him a manual on it, but neither can 31 NFL coaches.

But man did he do his best to screw up the end of that game on Sunday.

Here’s the situation just in case you were living in a cave on Mars and missed the game: After the Packers jumped offsides on a field goal attempt, the Steelers were given a first-and-goal inside the five-yard line with less than two minutes to play. The Packers were out of timeouts, and the Steelers were in a position to run the clock down and kick a field goal as time expired. Game over. Steelers win. Let’s get ready for Cleveland.

All they had to do was kneel on the ball twice and allow Shaun Suisham to kick an extra point from the middle of the field. The Packers were helpless. The Steelers chances of winning the game had to be better than 99 percent. Only the unlikeliest of plays (a bad snap on the field goal? A fumble on the snap when they’re trying to kneel on it?) were in their way.

Unless, of course, the Steelers did something dumb. Like score a touchdown. And that’s exactly what they did, giving the ball to Le’Veon Bell and letting him plow through the line (a defensive line that was no doubt hoping he would score and doing everything they could to let him score) for a touchdown, leaving more than a minute-and-a-half on the clock.

There are several problems with this.

1) The Steelers special teams stink.

2) The Steelers defense has struggled this season and was, at times, pretty lousy on Sunday despite the fact they were going up against Matt Flynn.

The combination of these two points should have been enough to convince the Steelers’ coaching staff to run out the clock. Even if there is just a 10 percent chance that Green Bay drives down the field for a game-tying touchdown that’s still better odds for the Steelers than virtually zero percent chance the Packers would have had had the Steelers just sat on the ball and played for a field goal (something they’ve proven to do VERY WELL this season).

Following the touchdown, shit got real. The Packers returned the kick 70 yards, and then Matt Flynn put the Packers in position to score a game-tying touchdown in the final seconds until they were flagged for a false start with a running clock in the final 30 seconds, resulting in a 10-second run-off that forced them to throw one hurried pass into the end zone.

It never should have reached that point. And what’s more frustrating than Tomlin’s decision-making at the end of the game was the way he answered the inevitable post-game question about the decision.

“I’m not into that. We had an opportunity to put the ball in the end zone. With weather conditions like that, anything can happen.”

He also added something about trusting the defense to make a play. Nope. I don’t like that. Especially when Mike Tomlin has, at times, proven to be “into that.”

The first thing that kept popping into my mind was the Steelers-Packers game back in 2009 when Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers lit up the scoreboard at Heinz Field in a 37-36 Steelers win that ended with Mike Wallace getting both feet in bounds on the final play of the game (what is it with these teams and last second plays in the end zone?).  It was during that fourth quarter when the Steelers took a two-point lead and Tomlin made one of his best calls ever as Steelers head coach.

He went for a surprise onside kick.

The Steelers didn’t get the ball (they recovered it, because they touched it illegally before it went 10 yards) but everything worked out exactly as planned as the Packers scored a quick touchdown and gave the Steelers an opportunity they may not have had if they kicked it deep.

Here is Mike Tomlin after that game when talking about the surprise onside kick.

“I’ll be very bluntly honest with you. Based on the way the game was going in the second half … first of all, I felt like, 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 the necessary time on the clock to go down the field and score, match their score.

“Plan A didn’t work. We got the ball, but we were illegal, and that was the correct call. But kind of unfolded the way you kind of envisioned it. We had thirty minutes of evidence there to show that we could drive the ball on them. We also, conversely, had 30 minutes of evidence to show they could drive the ball on us. That’s why we took that risk when we did.”

It was an outside the box call. It took the NFL coaching manual and threw it out the window. And it was brilliant.

Where was this approach in the final two minutes on Sunday? Why would you trust a defense that had given up 31 points to Matt Flynn?

I’ve already complained more than I want to after a win, but that call and the explanation after the fact just completely flabbergasts me. The Steelers won, but it was the absolute wrong call and one that needs to be criticized.

That said, what a ridiculous game, and another shining example as to how games played in the snow are always the most entertaining, even if they’re not exactly well played. This was one of the sloppiest, poorly coached, and poorly officiated great games that I’ve ever seen. There was a fake punt, big plays, two laughably bad turnovers by Matt Flynn including a pick-six to Cortez Allen, and Ben Roethlisberger doing his best Tony Romo on the final play of the third quarter (even if A.J. Hawk doesn’t catch that pass it’s still an awful throw). Not to mention one of the most absurd and ridiculous sequences I’ve ever seen from NFL officials and the NFL rule book when nobody knew what was happening on that blocked field goal in the third quarter. If that play can’t be reviewed, then you might as well not even have instant replay.

Put it all together and you had one wild ass, but completely entertaining football game.

Some other things I liked/didn’t like on Sunday.

1) Jason Worilds and Cam Heyward continuing to play some of the best football of anybody on the defense.

2) Troy Polamalu forcing another fumble, and doing it at a huge point in the game.

3) I don’t know if the fake punt call was good or crazy, but it certainly took some stones.

4) Going for it fourth-and-one late in the fourth quarter in a tie game: Good. Calling a play for Will Johnson: Questionable.

5) Solomon Wilcots talking about Matt Spaeth at every chance like he’s a key part of the Steelers offense. What the hell was that about? “It’s so big for this offense to have Matt Spaeth back” is a thing he said at least five times on Sunday. Other than Matt Spaeth, and maybe Matt Spaeth’s family, is there anybody else that has expressed a similar opinion? Ever?

6) Le’Veon Bell going over 100 yards on the ground and jumping over another defender. Good. Le’Veon Bell fumbling inside his own five-yard line. Bad.

I don’t know if the Steelers are going to win against Cleveland on Sunday, and I don’t know if they’re going to get the help they need in the other games (with the way this season has gone, anything is possible up to and including the Steelers getting all of the help they need, and then losing to Cleveland) but at least the past month has been entertaining game after entertaining game.

Win or lose, they haven’t been boring.

That’s all I can ask for. After starting the season 0-4 and then going 2-6 even having an outside chance of making the playoffs in Week 17 is all you can ask for.


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  • David

    GB had one timeout and used it after our 1st play after the FG gaff. But I totally, wholeheartedly agree, and was screaming at the TV, that we should’ve taken two knees after that.

    Now Gerry Dulac wrote today that even if we did that, 8 sec would be left. So if everything else stayed the same, they would’ve attempted a 47 yarder to tie.

    But the percentages, and the smart play, favored the knees (and a squib).

    But we won. I have no voice and less hair and less fingernails, but we won.

    • Randy Steele

      According to Dale Lolley today, there shouldn’t have been even eight seconds left, David. The refs somehow forgot to run the clock during Bell’s touchdown run. The play began with 1.25 on the clock, and it ended with 1:25 on the clock.

      I hope that officiating crew gets royally reamed out this week.

      • Intropy

        If all the attention hadn’t been taken by the blocked fg gaffe, the big storry would be the touchback placed on the 2 yard line that lead directly to the fumble. As it is in see almost no mention of it.

  • Cols714

    Good article. I agree with the kneel and FG. But it made for a much more exciting finish!

    BTW, it would have been nice to have one win out of the Raiders/Titans/Vikings trio this year. That would make next weekend considerably more favorable.

    As for the Steelers, the future is looking brighter. The Haley offense has actually done what it was supposed to do, that is keep Ben healthy. The OL looks good. Bell looks good. Brown is a star.

    The defense could use a new safety (Clinton-Dix, come on down!!!) a better ILB than Vince Williams, and a NT (but I wouldn’t use a first round pick on a NT). But overall I think it’s in decent shape. Next year will be fun!

    • David

      I was wondering why Woods didn’t start after a great Cincy game.

      Anyhow, watching this game, I totally agree: our D is not good. A 10 pt lead use to be curtains for the opposition. Not anymore. We need 4 picks for D: NT, ILB, CB, S

  • Cols714

    The development of Bell, the OL, Cam Heyward, and Jason Worilds should mean that next year’s team is ready to make a playoff run. Cam Heyward in particular has looked phenomenal.

  • tequila0341

    Actually I think Spaeth coming back is huge for the running game. If you remember the David Paulson Experiment, which went so disastrously we were soon on to the Beachum/Adams TE Experiment, our run game was completely bottled up between the tackles this year. We had zero outside run game at all because we couldn’t block on the edge. Heath not being 100%, plus no David Johnson, plus no Matt Spaeth, means that once again this year our run game is utterly predictable in that it is 80-85% inside zone or iso lead.
    Combined with being onto our third center + Ramon Foster and David Decastro being less than adequate on many occasions, it’s one of the worst run games in the entire league. Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert are also very inadequate in the run game and often get our RBs blown up by quick edge defenders, who have no fear of charging straight inside because they have no need to mind outside responsibility.

    If we’d had Spaeth all year, our 22 and 21 personnel packages would have been much more effective.
    Regarding the end-of-game situation, I remember the last Giants SB win when the exact same situation presented itself and Ahmad Bradshaw sat down inside the end zone. I remember people arguing about it, but no such screeching from anyone about how Tom Coughlin was such an obvious idiot for not taking a knee at the 1 yard line. Kind of weird to see the vitriol about this play and not the other. I suppose part of its that the Giants were obviously more successful, being in the SB, and that the Giants special teams didn’t surrender a huge return. But the same exact thought process and mistake was made.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    If Ben plays the entire game on Sunday, it will be the first season since he entered the league that our backup QBs have taken zero snaps. It was close in 2008 when Leftwich made only 4 passing attempts. Ben’a also only been sacked 10 times in the last 7 games, so this is possibly the healthiest he’s ever been at this point in the season.

    • Cols714

      Good info. The Haley offense is starting to make a believer out of me.