Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher and the Problem of Perspective

I was reading the excerpt from Mr. Rooney about Mike Tomlin's job status and some of the corresponding reactions to it here on the site, and it struck me as amazing that we're even having a discussion about Coach Tomlin's job status.  I don't know if Mr. Rooney's endorsement of Coach Tomlin was designed to quiet any rumors about him being fired or not, but if so I wouldn't be surprised.  In the Internet age, rumor and fact are often passed off as interchangable.

I've been a Steeler fan since the 70s, so I remember the dark period between 1979 and 2005 when each and every season ended in disappointment.  I especially remember the end of the Chuck Noll era, which was depressing in the sense that the man who had won four Super Bowls for the franchise now seemed to struggle to keep pace with the rapidly changing NFL.  Granted, his teams lacked the talent to compete many seaons, but the league had converted to zone blocking schemes and run-and-shoot or West Coast passing games while Coach Noll stuck mostly to his inside traps and vertical routes.  When he retired, I think most of Steeler Nation was relieved.

It was with great enthusiasm, then, that Bill Cowher was received as our new head coach.  Much like it would be with Mike Tomlin, few knew who he was or what to expect.  But he got off to a quick start, and in his first three years he compiled a 32-16 regular season record and three straight playoff appearences.  There was an infusion of young talent on offense, including the dynamic Barry Foster at tailback, aggressive new schemes under coordinator Dom Capers on defense, and a general sense of optimism among the fan base that the Steelers were back.  And even though Coach Cowher's teams went 1-3 in the playoffs those first three seasons, including the absolutely devestating 17-13 loss at home to San Diego in the 1994 AFC Championship game, no one suggested Coach Cowher couldn't lead us or couldn't get it done.  His failures in the post-season those first three years seemed like speed bumps on the road to glory.

Contrast this to the current discussion about Mike Tomlin.  In his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, Coach Tomlin has gone 31-17 in the regular season, a record that is nearly identical to Coach Cowher's.  More impressively, he has gone 3-1 in the playoffs, including, of course, last season's Super Bowl win over Arizona.  This season's 9-7 finish and failure to make the playoffs was disappointing, but it doesn't seem in any way worthy of a single discussion about Coach Tomlin's job status.  So why are people even hinting that his job might be in jeopardy?  Why, considering he's been even more successful than the revered Bill Cowher was in his first three seasons here?

Three thoughts to answer those questions. 

Thought One: Style.  It's obvious that Steeler Nation dislikes Bruce Arians and his brand of football.  It's obvious that we long for a return to Tim Lester or Dan Krieder or Jon Witman leading the Bus into an angry  pile of humanity.  The Empty set was not conceived with the Pittsburgh Steelers in mind, and the Nation, unlike Coach Arians, is fully aware of that.  And so, for right or for wrong, we blame Coach Tomlin for not featuring a style of football that we're comfortable with or that we feel is best suited for this team.  Coach Cowher didn't go unscathed for his run-run-pass on third down philosophy, but it made more sense to us than the seemingly haphazard way this year's team went about it.  In short, we were more comfortable with Coach Cowher's style.  It was tougher and it felt more sound and it seemed to validate who we were.

Thought Two:  the Internet.  Had the Internet existed in the 1980s, Coach Noll's name would have been dragged through the cyber-mud from coast to coast.  Had it existed as it does today in the latter years of the Cowher era, people would have clamored for his head because he couldn't get it done in the big game.  As we all know, the Internet allows us to blurt out our most immediate, empassioned thoughts, sometimes without pausing to allow logic or reason to intercede.  Therefore, Coach Tomlin's capability as head coach of this team is called into question despite his significant success (so far) simply because we have a means to voice our immediate frustrations.  In a society that microwaves everything, we want things now.  And now, for the Steelers, is disappointing.  That disappointment, coupled with the Internet's access to instant gratification, has clouded some people's judgment of him.

Thought Three:  Success.  Why else didn't the critics come full-throated after Coach Cowher in 1994 after that dreadful San Diego loss?  Because we hadn't won a Super Bowl in fifteen years.  The fan base was disappointed and pissed-off, but we recognized that Coach Cowher had us on the brink of that then-elusive One for the Thumb.  At the time, being on the brink was good enough.  It's not anymore.  Once we got over the hump in 2005, and then again last season, many of our fans lost their patience for losing.  We're not going to win the Super Bowl every year but some of our fans believe that we should.  Or at least that we should make the playoffs every year.  Perhaps we should have made the playoffs this season.  Perhaps, given our talent and the terrible losses to some bad teams, we underachieved.  Then again, given the string of narrow victories and last-minute heroics, perhaps we shouldn't have won the Super Bowl last February.  "Should" is a difficult thing to define.  So often the results hinge on delicate and unforseen matters.  The important thing is to know that you have a Coach who will keep the organization competitive and in the hunt each year.  In Coach Tomlin, we have that man.  And I, for one, am glad that Mr. Rooney sees this.

To the fans who would like for Coach Tomlin to get more assertive with BA, I'm with you.  But isn't that really our biggest gripe?  Isn't that more than managable?  To use an old cliche here, let's not fail to see the forest for the trees.  Coach Tomlin will chop some wood if he needs to.  But he's got the bigger picture in mind.  And that's what really counts.

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