I've been a Mike Tomlin fan for years. I argued way back in 2007 that the Steelers should hire him to succeed Bill Cowher. (I wished at the time that the Vikings had hired him instead of Brad Childress in 2006.)
But I'm not going to look the other way on the rare occasions when Tomlin makes a misstep. With receiver George Pickens, Tomlin has.
The mere fact that Pickens acted out regarding his frustrations shows that Tomlin has already failed, in comparison to his usual standard of keeping pots from boiling over until he's ready to dump its contents and move on. For years, Tomlin managed to handle receiver Antonio Brown, keeping Brown from becoming a publicly-known problem until Brown's last season with the team.
Brown isn't the only one. Other players who seemingly weren't much of a problem in Pittsburgh (e.g., Chase Claypool) became a problem elsewhere. It's one of the reasons Tomlin is so respected among his peers. They know how hard it is to get a player to submit to his better angels. Tomlin has consistently accomplished that during his 17 seasons with the team.
With Pickens, the mere fact that he showed frustration on the field, in the locker room, and on social media shows that Tomlin and his staff did not successfully manage the player in a way that would get him to not do those things. And it suggests that, regardless of Tomlin’s comments on Tuesday, there is a problem between player and team.
So it really is a pebble in Tomlin's shoe. Even though he meant to downplay the situation by using that simile he accidentally nailed it.
A pebble in the shoe is a constant irritant. It keeps the person who is wearing the shoe from ever being comfortable.
It's something Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells did to himself in 1984, after a disastrous first season with the Giants that resulted in the team nearly supplanting him for Howard Schnellenberger. Parcells put a pebble in his shoe during training camp because he believed that "his new, plush job had softened him."
Parcells had done the same thing during his three years as defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, in the 1970s: "Parcells was so ingrained in the belief that pain is the catalyst for remembering what you're taught, he would put a pebble in his shoe before every practice session. At intervals meaningful only to him, he would move his foot hard against the stone."
So, no, a pebble in the shoe is not a good thing. And, yes, Tomlin might have inadvertently hinted at the unvarnished truth when describing the Pickens situation that way.