2013 marks Mike Tomlin's seventh season as the Pittsburgh Steelers' head coach, a time that showed a sharp turn in the results when Bill Cowher was leading the team. In his first six seasons Bill Cowher made the playoffs in each season, but would miss the playoffs for the next three seasons. Every week there are comparisons between the two coaches with fans favoring one or the other; some talk of Tomlin's inheritance of several all-stars on a team that was constructed before he became the team's coach; others mention how Tomlin has equaled Cowher's record in the Super Bowl in a shorter span of time; but there are several interesting factors to consider in a discussion that makes a fair comparison between the two coaches' careers.
After the Steelers' first non-winning season under Mike Tomlin, most Steelers comment boards have their fair share of fans calling for his ouster. Most criticisms focus upon the recent draft history of the Steelers and talk about how many of the players were drafted/acquired prior to 2007, when Tomlin became the team's head coach. Despite the accusations that the team may be on the verge of a letdown in its success pattern over the past decade, Tomlin's similarities and differences from Bill Cowher make for an interesting review of both coaches' careers and the value of the merits brought to the franchise by each coach.
Mike Tomlin became the coach of a team with several great players that had proven successful in an already established system. Originally questions existed on whether he would switch the Steelers' defense from Dick LeBeau's 3-4 to the Cover 2 scheme that he worked under with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That would require that the Steelers' front-seven use a 4-3 instead of 3-4. Skepticism on the possibility of the switch grew when in his first year, the Steelers selected two linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley, in the first two rounds of the draft. However, time proved that Tomlin was determined to use the proven system that worked for the team, and that changing the defense was a non-issue.
Tomlin took a team that went 8-8 the year before his arrival and lead them to the Super Bowl in his second year. Although it was not as if he constructed the team from scratch, anyone who add a Lombardi trophy to the collection at Heinz Field deserves credit for their leadership. When people talk about the players that were in Pittsburgh before Mike Tomlin's arrival they usually do so as a demerit to his success. Instead this must be looked at as one of his larger accomplishments. He has turned the talent of a team into the success of a franchise, something Pittsburgh fans wish the Penguins did this past season. There are plenty of coaches who are highly respected in the history of the NFL who had a lot of talent but never won a Super Bowl as a head coach. A perfect example is Marty Schottenheimer, the former head coach of the San Diego Chargers who had arguably one of the best offensive weapons of the 2000's decade in running back LaDainian Tomlinson and never made it to the Super Bowl. Every year the Chargers were a preseason favorite of analysts because of their talent at several positions, but they always fell short of their goal.
So why do people always make the reference of the players Tomlin inherited for a bad thing when Bill Cowher also inherited several key players from Chuck Noll? Sure, Noll did not hand Cowher his superstar team from the 1970's, but he gave him one of Pittsburgh's greatest cornerbacks in the franchise's history, Rod Woodson, as well as a number of key players who would start for the Super Bowl XXX team, Cowher's first AFC championship year. Players such as Carnell Lake, Ernie Mills, John Jackson, Justin Strzelczyk and Hall of Fame center Dermontii Dawson were all part of Noll's last team in 1991 and played a role in the Steelers's season that year.
However as Cowher entered his seventh season, all that remained of his inherited players was Dawson and Lake, and the team plunged to its worst record under Cowher at 7-9. Ironically enough it was the draft prior to Cowher's worst season at the time, that the first cornerstones of the future Super Bowl XL team was drafted.
In 1998 the Steelers drafted Alan Faneca in the first round, Hines Ward in the third and Deshea Townsend in the fourth. The following years would include other stalwart players like Joey Porter, Aaron Smith, Clark Haggans, Marvel Smith, and Casey Hampton. These were the primary contributors that came out of the last drafts from seasons where the Steelers missed the playoffs for consecutive years. Kevin Colbert would continue to add pieces in the seasons that followed, but those players were instrumental in the run to the Steelers' fifth Super Bowl victory, and some of them also were part of the Super Bowl XLIII season. The next time the Steelers missed the playoffs, their draft position yielded them their franchise quarterback to date, Ben Roethlisberger.
While most clear-minded Steeler fans recognize that head coaches are not the solely responsible for their drafted players and that general manager Kevin Colbert plays a primary role, there are similarities in the early drafts of both the coaches. Cowher's first draft yielded the best middle linebacker the team would see in the 1990's, while Tomlin's first draft brought in both Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley. The first pick of both of the coaches' second drafts ended up as busts in both Deon Figures and Mendenhall (although Mendenhall had good moments, he was not worthy of a first round draft pick). Both coaches would lose in the Super Bowl in their fourth season with the team, and lose in the playoffs in the following year. Now as Tomlin enters his seventh season, like Cowher was in his seventh season, he is down to his last group of inherited players. Speculation grows as fans and analysts wonder if the players he has been drafting will produce successful years for the team.
When people discuss which coach is better, there must be an understanding that the word "better" is always one of the more subjective and useless terms in football comparisons when not used in a proper context. For example, it makes more sense to say, "Franco Harris was a better receiving running back for Terry Bradshaw than Jerome Bettis was for Kordell Stewart" rather than just to say "Franco Harris is a better running back than Jerome Bettis." The former statement adds more context for the discussion than the latter statement and includes more variables to make distinctions between the two players.
Similarly it would not be enough just to say which coach someone believes to be better. The state of the franchise was different for each coach at the beginning of their tenures in Pittsburgh. What should be measured are their levels of achievement with what they had on their team. Cowher's six straight playoff appearances is the second longest streak of seasons in the playoffs--the longest was Noll's eight years between 1972-1979--and yielded the team's first AFC championship since the Super Bowl XIV season. Although the Steelers missed the playoffs twice in Tomlin's first six years--which was all part of an elaborate uncontrollable higher power--they did equal Cowher's Super Bowl record for his entire career.
This seventh year under Mike Tomlin brings forward a period where either the team will continue the success experienced under his leadership, or they will revisit the same drought in playoff experiences under Bill Cowher. Either way, Tomlin is a great head coach for the Steelers because of his winning seasons and championship accomplishments.