The Steelers are .500, and it stinks. They got stomped by the Chiefs, they tied the Detroit Lions, got swept by the Bengals, there’s plenty of reason for Steeler fans to be upset. As the head coach, Mike Tomlin would tell you it’s on him, that he’s responsible for the team, and that team isn’t winning enough.
I don’t want to come across as one of those fans posting “Win or lose, I’ll delude myself into thinking this team is the best”, or “If you don’t like losing, you aren’t a real fan!” That’s not me. You should not like the way this team is playing, you shouldn’t be happy about a .500 team, and you have the right to vent your frustration and anger. But it’s three days after that loss, and people are saying that Mike Tomlin needs to be fired, and they are using some bad arguments to do so.
That’s why I’m here, to sort through a lot of the arguments and show you why most of them fall flat. Let’s take a look at some of the main ones.
The Steelers are losing because they are poorly coached
This is the basis of any argument to fire a coach, is that they aren’t doing their job well. The problem is it isn’t true. On the balance of coaching vs the talent on the field the problem is the talent on the field. You can watch the games and see Kendrick Green failing at his responsibilities, you can watch the defensive line outside of Cameron Heyward getting blown off the ball. You can see the linebackers getting beat, you can see the drops, the costly fumbles. . . You can see the lack of execution.
That lack of execution is a much bigger problem than the scheme, because frankly, when a coach comes up with a scheme to be a great offense when the line is failing it will be the first. Just go watch the last Super Bowl and how Andy Reid’s fantastic offense with the immense amount of talent they have on the Chiefs fared with a line that couldn’t execute. The Buccaneers dominated that game by winning both sides of the line battle. Go ahead and tell me the last time the Steelers won both sides of the line battle this season. Go watch the games, I’ll wait.
The Steelers lack of talent is Tomlin’s fault
There’s a number of problems with this argument, but the main one has two parts. First the Steelers have a lot of injuries. I know, excuses, but if you are going to talk about the talent on the field you have to talk about the talent that is on the team but not on the field. Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu are big losses, Devin Bush’s injuries limiting him have hurt, Joe Haden missing games has hurt. But there is also the second part of the argument, and that is that the Steelers are 7-3 when T.J. Watt plays 50% of the snaps or more, and in those three losses he was visibly limited.
A 70% win rate would be 2nd best in the AFC, the Steelers would have clinched the division right now. But even one or two wins, like the Chargers game the Steelers lost by 4 with a very limited pass rush that was overly reliant on blitzing and put the DBs in tough spots to get any pressure at all. The only times the Pittsburgh Steelers have given up 300 yards passing were games Watt missed most of. The Chargers game when Watt was out, and the Raiders game he left early and his loss was instantly noticeable as Derek Carr went from throwing quick and running for his life to standing in the pocket and taking time to make throws downfield without any pressure on him.
The team is missing a lot of talent, and honestly is overmatched overall in most games, but when they have T.J. Watt, they still win.
Tomlin has wasted his Hall of Fame quarterback’s career
This argument is largely based on the fact that the Steelers failed to win or even reach a Super Bowl in the “Killer B’s” era. The Steelers had a great QB, the most productive wide receiver of his time and one of the most productive running backs of his time. That was a disappointing run, with a lot of promise that never came together. But that happens. Tom Brady has won 7 Super Bowls, but he didn’t get a single one with Randy Moss or Wes Welker, two of the best offensive weapons Brady has ever had, and they were big parts of a top tier offense for the Patriots, one that consistently outproduced the killer B’s, and yet the most dominant Championship winning athlete of the Super Bowl era didn’t get a single one with his the best offense of his career.
But it isn’t just Brady, How many Super Bowls did Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara win? How many did Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates win? Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Edgerrin James for 5 years and didn’t win a Super Bowl, and made exactly one conference championship game. Sound similar? It should. The Manning, Wayne, Harrison, James team won 54 games in the five years they were together, and went 3-4 in the playoffs making only one AFC championship game, which they lost. The “Killer B’s” won 53 games in the five years they played together, went 3-4 in the playoffs and reached one AFC championship game that they lost. Right now three of the four players from that Colts team are in the Hall of Fame, and Reggie Wayne has a shot to join the rest. They had even more talent, and a quarterback that was a seven-time first team all-pro (Ben Roethlisberger has never been a first team all-pro).
Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin won a single Super Bowl together. That’s the same amount that Drew Brees and Aaron Rogers have won, and both of them were consistently considered better quarterbacks than Ben Roethlisberger. Ben Roethlisberger’s idol John Elway won two late in his career, before that he was a fantastic quarterback with a litany of great games and terrible losses in the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger is in a three-way tie for 2nd place for the most Super Bowl wins of the Tom Brady era, an era where he was never considered a top 3 quarterback. That’s not a waste, the Steelers did more with Roethlisberger than most teams have done with their great QBs. It would have been great to get more, but only Tom Brady has actually done it in this era.
Mike Tomlin doesn’t develop talent, he just inherited it
This is the most ridiculous argument you will hear. Mike Tomlin inherited a talented team from Bill Cowher, just like Cowher inherited a talented team from Chuck Noll, but his impact on that team is pretty easy to see.
James Harrison is a prime example. Go look up Harrison’s stats from 2004 and 2005, and consider that he was a backup rotating in in those seasons. Cowher played him even less in 2006 even when he wasn’t injured, and yet Cowher continued to start Clark Haggans across from Joey Porter. Tomlin drafted Lamarr Woodley to start across from Haggans after letting Joey Poerter go for cap reasons. He got to camp and very quickly gave Harrison the starting job, and put Woodley in a rotation with Haggans, one that would see Haggans fazed out as the season went on. Harrison’s first year as a starter he was a Pro-Bowler, recording an interception, 7 forced fumbles, 17 QB hits, 8.5 sacks, 12 TFL and 98 tackles. Those numbers are better than almost every season of Joey Porter’s career.
Harrison turned his career around in 2004 when Keith Butler became his position coach, and he was good enough to be an impact starter for 4 games that year, games where (seriously, go watch the games) he was better than Haggans was, and yet he sat.
Harrison’s great seasons completely line up with Mike Tomlin. Cowher had three years of Harrison, got 4 sacks and had him sit behind Clark Haggans. Tomlin got 45 sacks, two first team all-pro selections, a DPOY and one of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history out of Harrison in the next 4.
It’s not just Harrison though, Ben Roethlisberger spent three years with Bill Cowher. The Steelers rejected the offensive minds behind the offense under Cowher after he retired to bring in Tomlin, and Ben Roethlisberger became a much better quarterback. Tomlin didn’t make him great, but he developed under Tomlin much more than he did under Cowher.
In fact you can look at most players that Tomlin inherited from Cowher, and you will see that those players were better under Tomlin than under Cowher. It shows up in the team stats too, while Cowher had one season in three (with the players he passed on to Tomlin) where the Steelers defense ranked in the top 3 in both points allowed and yards allowed (2004), Tomlin pulled that off in 4 of the next 5 seasons. The defense Cowher won with was better under Tomlin.
But it goes well beyond players he inherited, look at the talent the Steelers have had since Tomlin took over. The “Killer B’s” had a top running back of it’s era that was drafted in the middle of the second round and who was pretty good as a rookie. Tomlin hired James Saxon after that season because he thought Saxon could get the most out of Bell, Bell adopted a different run style and he became a top tier runner. Antonio Brown was drafted in the sixth round, showed promise, but was unstable and raw. Tomlin brought Richard Mann out of retirement to be an old-school coach for Brown, and it worked. Brown worked his tail off honing his craft, he went from catching under 60% of passes thrown his way in 2011 and 2012 to catching almost 70% over the next 4 years, while going from an athletic but raw route runner to one of the best route-runners in the game.
Even recently, Minkah Fitzpatrick was a talented but unhappy player without a natural position in the NFL when the Steelers traded for him in 2019. T.J. Watt was considered a reach as the 30th pick in the 2017 draft, he was a raw athlete without much to show for pass rush moves. How do people look at those two players now?
Tomlin has done a great job building up talent. That doesn’t mean he turns everyone into a star, he has misses, but he has a lot of key hits as well, and he gets a lot out of lesser talents as well.
The next coach could be better if the Steelers would only try
This sentiment of wanting something new and shiny is a common human trait. The Eagles won a Super Bowl with Doug Pederson, fans all over couldn’t help but think “what if my team got the next Doug Pederson?” Same with Sean Peyton, Pete Carroll, Sean McVay, and all the rest of the guys who come in hot and improve a team right away.
But look past those early seasons. Often new, young coaches come in with fresh ideas that the NFL has to adapt to. But the NFL adapts. Teams solved Pete Carroll’s defense, teams learned how to defend Peyton and McVay’s offenses. The Steelers don’t hire a hot new coordinator to be their next head coach just to get their offense or defense. Because few end up with the staying power of an Andy Reid, and even those guys typically have struggles.
Finding another Mike Tomlin would be incredibly hard, and we would have to put a lot of faith into the people making that decision. And that’s the last problem, and in my opinion, perhaps the biggest problem with moving on from Mike Tomlin. Dan Rooney took over the daily operations of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise in 1969, and one of his first actions was selecting Chuck Noll to be the head coach. In the next 47 years of running the team, Dan Rooney would only hire two more head coaches, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. If you think Mike Tomlin could be replaced with another great coach, you need to remember that Dan Rooney isn’t going to be hiring his successor. The next head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the first one not hired by Dan Rooney since Bill Austin in 1966.
That’s 55 years since the Steelers have hired a coach that wasn’t selected by Dan Rooney. I really hope that they won’t go back to the kind of success they had in those days, when a .500 team was far from the soul crushing disappointment we see it as now. But I’m not certain that anyone can match the success Dan Rooney brought to the Steelers, he was the best owner in NFL history, and you can’t replace that.
I’m not saying we need to keep Tomlin simply because Dan Rooney hired him, I’m just saying the expectation that this organization can find great coaches reliably was based on the leadership of a man who isn’t here anymore. That makes looking for an upgrade on a very good coach a much riskier proposition. Mike Tomlin is a very good coach, and fans would be smart to accept that.