This week is a period of mourning for the greater Pittsburgh area and the diaspora of Steeler Nation across this great land of ours. You see, the Steelers are not going to win the Super Bowl this year. After the anger of losing to the Patriots, and the depression when the realization of no Super Bowl sets in, there will inevitably be a backlash against coach Mike Tomlin. In some quarters it has already started, especially after the embers are still fresh from this year when they were 4-5 at one point.
If you know someone with this viewpoint that Mike Tomlin should be fired (or, hopefully not, you are a person that feels that way), let them know that is a terribly myopic viewpoint that doesn’t take into account how great he’s been or how bad many of the coaching situations are in the NFL. The Steelers recently became the only (as in, ever) team in pro North American sports to have three consecutive coaches complete 10 or more seasons. No interim coaches, just Chuck Noll from 1969-1992, Bill Cowher from 1992-2007, and Tomlin from 2007 to present.
During that time, the soon-to-be 45-year old Tomlin has compiled a 103-57-1 record for a .644 winning percentage. Those 103 regular season wins are good for 40th all-time (as in, ever) and Tomlin is tied for 9th among active coaches (although Jeff Fisher and Tom Coughlin may not be coaching anymore, for different reasons). Tomlin is a young enough man that reaching 200 regular season wins is quite attainable and would put him in rarefied air. He’s now 8-6 all-time in the playoffs. He’s taken the team to two Super Bowls, winning it in 2008 over the Arizona Cardinals and losing in 2010 to the Green Bay Packers. All of this is not good enough for some people, though. And I don’t want to hear that he won the Super Bowl with Cowher’s players — those same players went 8-8 in Cowher’s final year in 2006 two years prior to the Super Bowl team. Here’s the exhaustive list of every franchise, beside the Steelers, that has been to two or more Super Bowls since Tomlin started coaching in 2007:
- New York Giants (2)
- Denver Broncos (2)
- Seattle Seahawks (2)
- New England Patriots (4)
That’s it. Out of 31 other franchises in the NFL, only 4 have been to two or more Super Bowls. And yet because Pittsburgh has not achieved their perceived-by-some birthright to lay hands on the Lombardi Trophy this year, it’s time to toss out Tomlin. Ridiculous.
Are there things that Tomlin is not good at? Of course. His clock management skills need a brushup, but that’s not uncommon for any head coach in the NFL, even the infallible Bill Belichick. His over-reliance on cliches frequently backfires against him and gives fuel to his critics. His “we will unleash hell here” in December 2009 then saw the Steelers sputter with two losses to OAK and CLE immediately after that quote (both would finish 5-11) and lead to Pittsburgh missing the playoffs. His more recent trite phrase of “we don’t live in our fears” doesn’t ring true when the Steelers lose a game in which they tepidly approach a weaker opponent on paper and falter. If he spoke down to earth, in a language that everyone here can easily understand, then he would save himself a lot of heartburn down the road.
But he doesn’t and that’s OK. It’s his thing, his style. If you take that away from him, you effectively are pruning away at what makes him Mike Tomlin. After getting just a brief glimpse of one of his post-game speeches (thanks, Antonio!), we see that how he relates to his players is different than how he relates to the media. He’s an adaptable gentleman, based on his environment.
Here’s a couple of questions for those who want to see Mike Tomlin fired:
- How long do you think Tomlin would be out of work?
- Who would you bring in that was better?
For #1, I would say that by the time the chyrons were updated on NFL Network and ESPN saying Tomlin was fired, he would be contacted by 10-12 teams. By the time the sun rose the next morning, he would be interviewing with 3 of them. And two days on, he would be hired by another NFL team. As for #2, do you think Belichick would come here? Do you think Pittsburgh fans would even want him? Maybe Pete Carroll is better…and that’s just a maybe. Bruce Arians? Not after the sloppy way his exit was handled. Would Jim Harbaugh leave Michigan for the Steelers? How do you think his personality would play out with fans after a rough patch?
The main issue that I’ve had with the Steelers in recent years has been their player acquisition through the draft. However you want to parse out the “division of labor”, in Tomlin’s favorite term of 2016-17’s season, between he and Kevin Colbert, the drafts have been lacking in previous years. However, this past 2016 draft may be their finest one in years. Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave were the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks of the draft. Each were key starters on the defense down the stretch and in the playoffs. Barring injury, they’ll be together for three more years at a minimum, more if they can lock them into extensions. Coupled with Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, and Cam Heyward, the Steelers’ defense is young and strong for years to come. The offense has a great offensive line under control for at least two more years, a franchise QB not slowing down, one of the best WR’s in the NFL, and a dynamic RB that will be here next year (at least via the franchise tag). This team will be ready to go again next year.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a large impediment in their path going forward in the form of the New England Patriots. Belichick outcoaches Tomlin frequently and the game in the playoffs always seems to be at Foxboro because of the Patriots’ cupcake division that allows them to get a #1/#2 seed almost every year. Until Father Time catches up with the Belichick (65 soon) and Tom Brady (40 in August), the Steelers need someone else to do the heavy lifting. In 2008, the Patriots didn’t make the playoffs, even though they were 11-5, thanks to tiebreakers. In 2010, the Jets (!!!) beat the Patriots in the Divisional Round before losing to the Steelers in the AFC Championship.
In that way, the Steelers are very reminiscent of the mid-1990’s Houston Rockets. The Rockets were a loaded team with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and a fantastic coach in Rudy Tomjanovich, but they had to wait until Michael Jordan went on a conspiracy-laden NBA hiatus to try baseball in order to win their back-to-back titles. That broke up three Bulls title preceding the Rockets and upon his return the Bulls won three more in a row. Sometimes teams are just better than your team.
So if you take away the fact that Tomlin is a proven winner, has won a Super Bowl and been to another, has a great young core of talent on both sides of the ball, what is left for some fans not to like? It’s the one thing that Tomlin can never change — the color of his skin. There is a sub-set of Tomlin’s detractors that don’t like him because he’s black. These racists don’t like that a black man is in charge of their favorite team. It’s OK to cheer for black players doing the physical labor, but the concept of a black man leading them is a bridge too far. Although racism is a hereditary trait, the good news is that it is curable as future generations get more and more educated. As we advance as a society, racism will recede, albeit not at a linear progression and not as quickly as we all hope.