Steelers Draft History: Bill Cowher vs. Mike Tomlin

Karl Walter

Along with the debates over who the Steelers should have picked and when, there has been an undercurrent of discord in Steeler Nation over the outcomes of recent drafts, and the inevitable comparison of the quality of players drafted by Mike Tomlin versus those picked by former head coach Bill Cowher.

The 2013 NFL draft is over and both optimism and pessimism abounds albeit without basis, until the interminable wait for the opening of the Steelers training camp is fully endured.

Given that General Manager Kevin Colbert has been responsible for the selection of players during both coaches' tenure in almost equal parts, it might be interesting to see how, using Colbert as the constant, these two coaches actually stack up against one another.

In 2000 Bill Cowher was in his eighth year as head coach of the Steelers, having succeeded legendary coach Chuck Noll in 1992. By this time Cowher had compiled a record of 86-57 (.597 winning percentage) and had led the Steelers to playoff appearances in his first six years and one lost Super Bowl, although in the three years prior to the arrival of Colbert, from 1998 through 2000, Cowher struggled with two losing seasons in a row while finishing 9-7 in 2000 and compiling a 22-26 record and failed to make the playoffs all three years.

By comparison, Mike Tomlin in his first six years after having succeeded Cowher in 2007 has compiled a record of 63-33 (.656 winning percentage) and has been to two Super Bowls, winning one and has not had a losing season, but has failed to make the playoffs twice.

There were probably as many mitigating factors effecting the Colbert/Cowher draft picks in Colbert's early years as there were effecting the Colbert/Tomlin picks; Cowher obviously wielded the greater control over the selections than Colbert, given Cowher had just gained that control and Colbert was new. Tomlin most likely had less control than he probably would have liked, being the "new kid on the block" and the Steelers in a "keep the core" mode with the players Colbert had been involved in selecting (to one degree or another) that formulated the powerhouse teams of the early 00's leading up to the "One for the Thumb" Super Bowl victory in 2005.

The metric used in this analysis is the ubiquitous Pro-Football Reference measurement of Career Average. As PFR.com puts it:

CarAV - career approximate value. The Career AV is computed by summing 100% of the player's best-season AV, 95% of his second-best-season AV, 90% of his third best, and so on. The idea is that the Career AV rating should weight peak seasons slightly more than "compiler"-type seasons.

As an additional means of equalizing the disparate number players drafted resulting from the differing number of years as head coach between Tomlin and Cowher, I have taken the CarAV metric for each player and divided it by the number of years each draft pick has played football in the NFL (CarAV per Year).

One final factor must be considered; it is commonly accepted that it takes five years before a draft class can be adequately "measured" to allow the player time to adjust to NFL game speed, the complexities of the game and to simply physically mature. Thus, the following measurement of the Tomlin/Colbert draft picks isn't a fully comprehensive one since only his 2007 draft class has reached the five year mark. Also, the CarAv metric does not break out which team the player is on; thus the CarAv score for a player drafted by the Steelers but who played with another team at some point in his career takes the player's whole career into account. We're not measuring necessarily how well the selections did for the Steelers, but the quality of the selection itself.

In addition, Cowher's selections have had more time to play and improve than Tomlin's. Therefore, I have taken each player's CarAv score and divided it by the number of years he's played to come up with the CarAv per Year score; the only way to fairly compare groups of players with disparate number of years in the league, or when Cowher had one more year under Colbert than Tomlin currently does.

In his first six years as head coach working with Colbert, Tomlin has drafted 50 players while Cowher drafted 54 during his final seven years working with the Steelers' GM, and Cowher's selections have a career length average of 4.6 years as compared to Tomlin's 2.2 years. Tomlin's draft picks have a CarAv per Year (total PFR CarAv score divided by number of years played) of 3.5 as compared to Cowher's 4.3.

Taken together, the Tomlin/Colbert five best draft classes have a cumulative CarAv per Year score of 3.11, while the five best Cowher/Colbert classes have a score of 2.93

The tables below rank each class for each head coach working with Colbert.

Tomlin_20cowher_20table_medium

via dl.dropboxusercontent.com

A side-by-side comparison shown graphically might be easier to digest:

Tomlin_20cowher_20graph_medium

via dl.dropboxusercontent.com

Again, only the 2007 Tomlin/Colbert draft class has reached the five year mark where classes are usually graded, and its CarAv per Year score of 3.5 is thanks to such players as Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, and the recently resigned Matt Spaeth and William Gay. Interestingly however is the fact that the 2007 class isn't the highest rated Tomlin/Colbert class; that would be the draft class of 2010 which has a CarAV per Year score of 3.8 and includes such players as Maurkice Pouncey, Antonio Brown, Jason Worilds and Emmanuel Sanders.

Much has been written recently about the failed draft class of 2008, with a score of 1.46 and in the tables above it ranks as the worst of all, and will be the subject of a forthcoming article.

But what is interesting is the class of 2004 whose score of 2.1 which doesn't even make it into Cowher's top 5 draft classes despite the presence of Ben Roethlisberger and Max Starks. Roethlisberger's CarAv per Year score of 8.68, even when combined with Max Starks' 4.25 isn't enough to rescue the 2004 class from ignominy in comparison to the Tomlin/Colbert classes when such stellar players as Ricardo Colclough, Nathaniel Adibi, Bo Lacy, Matt Kranchick, Drew Caylor and Eric Taylor weigh down the class (note: here's a perfect example of how stats can distort a discussion - the 2004 draft class measures miserably when compared to others, but it features a two time Super Bowl winning quarterback and a long tenured offensive tackle - sabermetricians take heed).

There are far too many variables in draft selection, and too much is unknown about the process by those of us outside the Steelers organization, to state anything as fact in comparing the Tomlin/Cowher draft classes but a few assumptions can be made.

The first is it appears that while overall scoring lower, the Cowher/Colbert draft classes were more consistent; there appears to be a narrower range of scores than with the Tomlin/Colbert classes which at least initially appear more "boom or bust" but overall score higher, despite the established draft successes of a Roesthlisberger (2004) or Troy Polamalu (2003).

Graph_20of_20colberts_20draftees_medium

via dl.dropboxusercontent.com

Another assumption could be drawn that Cowher wielded a lot of influence during Colbert's initial years and thus many if not most of the picks made could be attributed to Cowher, although Colbert was a 10 year professional when hired by the Rooneys, presumably for his established track record. The most widely known purported fact supporting this is the "belief" that Cowher rated Philip Rivers over Ben Roethlisberger, and it was only by the petulant intervention of Eli Manning's father and the subsequent trade between the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants that gave the Rooneys (and presumably Colbert) the opportunity to overrule Cowher in favor of Roethlisberger.

Conversely, it can certainly be assumed that Colbert had by 2007 won the trust of the Rooneys and thus with the transition of Tomlin replacing Cowher as head coach, Colbert would be the guiding hand in deliberations with the new and very young head coach on player selections until Tomlin established himself and gained the front office's trust.

Further supporting Colbert's influence on Cowher is the fact that Cowher's best draft score years were with Colbert and not Donahoe as illustrated below:

Cowher_20donahoe_20chart_medium

via dl.dropboxusercontent.com

When you overlay the Tomlin/Colbert draft scores, you can see the duo of Tomlin/Colbert is by far the most dynamic overall of the three Head Coach/GM combinations the Steelers have employed since 1990.

All_20three_20coaches_20graph_medium

via dl.dropboxusercontent.com

While time may act against Tomlin's ranking in this comparison to Cowher, it is also possible that with the turnover in player personnel the Steelers have undertaken the past two years, and presumably over the next couple of years as well, Tomlin's more recent picks will see more playing time and the full magnitude of the caliber of player Tomlin and Colbert have selected will manifest itself. For Steeler Nation's fervent hopes of that elusive Seventh Heaven Lombardi, here's hoping Tomlin's early lead over his predecessor only gets wider.

NEXT UP: JUST HOW BAD WAS THE 2008 DRAFT? and WHERE DO STEELERS RANK IN DRAFT PROFICIENCY?


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