I know Steelers Nation is one of the most reactionary fan bases in the NFL. They call for the firing of coaches after one game and seemingly draw conclusions on the fly which are simply not viable. That’s why, as a writer covering the Steelers, I’ve tried to not overreact to one bad game. Instead, I react to trends and what I see after the game. Careful examination of the games as a whole reveals so much more than off-the-wall, reaction-based comments.
Simply put, during the past few years, you could call me a Mike Tomlin apologist. I’ve been defending him on these very boards for the past two seasons, and even at the beginning of this season. Tomlin has a lot of desirable traits for an NFL head coach. The man won a Super Bowl and, no matter your opinion on whether he won it with Bill Cowher’s players, Tomlin was undoubtedly a great coach during the early portion of his tenure with the Steelers.
However, as Tomlin began to breed his own culture, and make the team strictly his own, certain trends increasingly surfaced. The team would show up undisciplined in numerous games, they would play down to lesser competition, miscommunication would be glaring, and the locker room would resemble a drama-infested campground.
All of this was fine as long as the Steelers won, and win they did until they reached the playoffs, when those very characteristics would come back to haunt them.
Now, after beginning the season with high expectations, the Steelers have faltered to a 1-2-1 record. I have to point out just how similar the start of this season is to that illustrious 2013 season, in which the Steelers started out 0-4 and stormed back to an 8-8 record — narrowly missing out on the postseason.
It’s entirely possible the Steelers storm back and make the playoffs this season. If Ben Roethlisberger is “on,” this team can beat anyone. The issue is a perfect storm composed of Roethlisberger’s inconsistency, ineptitude in drafting, and developing, defensive talent, miscommunications, schematic shortcomings on both sides of the ball, and undisciplined penalties.
At some point, this all comes back to Tomlin. He’s been the constant in all of these pervasive issues for far too long.
I want to make something clear, Mike Tomlin is not a bad coach. He’s a decent coach who’s a fantastic leader of men. He gets his team to play for him when their backs are against the wall — just look at last week against the Buccaneers. In fact, I’m predicting the Steelers to win against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 5 simply because they’ll show up in emphatic fashion to crawl their way out of another hole.
There’s no doubt that Tomlin can lead a locker room and be a good players coach.
Yet, I have to ask how much tread remains on those tires? Tomlin looks increasingly like he might be done here in Pittsburgh. The tread on his tires is wearing thin and that happens to the best of them. He is absolutely in the top-half of coaches in the NFL, and he’ll find work quickly if the Steelers decide to let him go. But there comes a time and place when a fresh face is needed around a team. This even happened to the great Chuck Noll. Let’s not forget how Noll missed the playoffs six out of seven times at the end of his tenure, after which the Steelers had instant success with the hiring of Bill Cowher.
You have to question now if it isn’t time to start looking around. The season is off to a dismal start but if things turn around, my tune might change dramatically. But Tomlin and his staff have to rebound.
The problems aren’t limited to the ones I mentioned, but they point specifically to Tomlin. He has little-to-no clock management capabilities, poor in-game adjustments and questionable usage of challenges.
Nevertheless, Tomlin is facing his greatest challenge in the coming weeks with his team. The AFC is weak, and he has a chance to get them back on track with two critical wins heading into the bye week. The second-half schedule is a tough one, but Mike Tomlin teams have accomplished some improbable things in the past down the stretch. The journey to redemption from the slow start must start to hit the ground running in Week 5.
With that said, we cannot strictly blame Tomlin — we must blame his squadron of coaches as well. Keith Butler deserved to be fired after last season, but he certainly won’t be brought back if this defense continues to perform as it has. Joey Porter apparently cannot develop a pass rusher at all, and he too deserves to be fired. Randy Fichtner has come out with a rather disappointing start, but we obviously have to give him more time.
Thus, the question must be asked — is Tomlin the issue? Or is it the coaches he’s surrounded himself with? Tom Bradley, Karl Dunbar, and Darryl Drake must show to be at least competent hires.
So, am I on the fire-Tomlin train yet? Absolutely not, but it’s time for that seat to start getting hot. Tough times may not last forever, but Tomlin has to show his team is considerably improved during the next two weeks.
Steelers Nation is watching Mr. Tomlin — prove us all wrong and show us you’re still the man for the job.