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A tale of two NFL head coaches

Comparing the career records of Mike Tomlin and Sean Payton tests assumptions about NFL head coaches.

NFL: Preaseason-Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

A chief point of pride for every football fan and pundit is their judgment concerning the home team’s head coach. Perusing the career records of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton reveals some remarkable similarities, particularly in view of the sharp contrast in their public images these days.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter recently penned an article reporting that Sean Payton is assembling a tentative, all-star staff in the expectation he will return to the NFL coaching ranks in 2023. In the article, Schefter extols Payton as the leading candidate to fill one of several likely vacancies around the league this offseason. Additionally, Schefter emphasizes that Payton would command a top-tier salary for any team desiring his services.

At the same time, more than a few fans and pundits in the Steelers’ media universe have openly called for the team to fire Coach Tomlin. These critics hold that too many seasons have passed without a serious Super Bowl contender in the Steel City. They claim that the contemporary game has bypassed Tomlin — some even suggesting an unholy alliance exists between Tomlin and the Steelers’ ownership which supposedly grants the coach lifetime tenure. In the national sports media as well, the Steelers’ head coach hasn’t received nearly the positivity which Schefter and others have lavished upon Payton.

Given the sharp contrast in these two circumstances, it’s worthwhile to compare the career record of the coach currently on everyone’s A-list with the coach winding up his 16th year with the Steelers. When making this comparison, the similarities are striking. To start with, Payton and Tomlin have nearly identical career durations (16 seasons for Tomlin vs. 15 for Payton) and practically indistinguishable winning percentages falling between 63% and 64% (including the Steelers’ most recent win on Christmas Eve vs. the Las Vegas Raiders). Payton’s career regular-season record is 152-89-0 while Tomlin’s record is 161-93-2).

When citing Tomlin’s overall career record, critics invariably bring up his middling playoff record of 8-9 (.471). But while Payton’s teams had five more playoff appearances, his record in the playoffs is only marginally better than Tomlin’s (9-8, .529). Additionally, whereas Tomlin still hasn’t experienced a losing season with the Steelers, Payton’s teams posted 7-9 season records in five of his 15 seasons with the Saints. Each coach has a single NFL championship to his credit.

The similarity between Tomlin’s and Payton’s careers extends to their earliest experiences. In their inaugural season as head coach, each was fortunate to have a future Hall of Fame quarterback on the roster. Tomlin inherited the young, improving Ben Roethlisberger while Payton’s windfall occurred when Drew Brees rejected a contract extension offer from the Chargers and was signed by New Orleans in the spring of 2006 as a blockbuster free agent.

Because he was hired as the Saints’ head coach only two months before the deal for Brees was consummated, Payton deserves no more credit for recruiting or signing his franchise quarterback than Tomlin does with respect to Big Ben. But unlike Tomlin, Sean Payton has never been widely accused of being carried on the coattails of his great quarterback. Nor has it been suggested that Payton owes his career success substantially to personnel decisions made by his predecessors.

Some might point to the fact that Payton inherited a 3-13 Saints team whereas Tomlin inherited a recent Super Bowl champion Steelers squad. But lest we forget, the Steelers team Tomlin took charge of in 2007 was not a defending NFL champion. The 2006 Steelers were 8-8 and out of the playoffs in Bill Cowher’s final year as HC.

During the 2005 season in New Orleans, damage from Hurricane Katrina had forced the Saints to play all of their regular-season home games away from the Superdome, while Payton’s predecessor Jim Haslett failed to inspire any confidence with players or fans. The Saints plummeted from a .500 team in 2004 to resemble the NFL’s dumpster fire in 2005.

By simultaneously solving their coaching conundrum and acquiring Drew Brees in 2006, New Orleans got the same kind of jump-start which drafting Big Ben had given the Steelers two years earlier. This enabled the Saints to win seven more games in the 2006 season than they had won the previous year. Beyond the impact of their coaching upgrade, this indicated the overall Saints team wasn’t nearly as bad as their 3-13 record in 2005 had suggested.

Considering how closely Tomlin’s and Payton’s careers and records have tracked, it strains credibility that one man should be lauded as every troubled team’s savior-in-waiting while the other is considered fortunate by many in the Steelers’ blogosphere to still be holding onto his job. But of course nobody can convince fans or pundits to disavow their judgments about Coach Tomlin which, by now, have become petrified.

Detractors will continue to defend their turf regardless of anything else Tomlin accomplishes during his coaching career. Ironically, it wouldn’t be a surprise during the upcoming offseason to see some of Tomlin’s critics smitten by the possibility that the Steelers might emerge as high bidder in the Sean Payton Sweepstakes. But the essential parity of these two coaches’ overall records should at least cast substantial doubt on the prevalent notion that Coach Tomlin suffers in any meaningful respect compared to former Coach Payton or, for that matter, to others currently coaching in the NFL.