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Putting Tomlin’s (lack of) recent playoff success in context

If the standard is Super Bowls, why are we debating playoff records?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

No Steelers fan is satisfied with missing the playoffs. Pittsburgh’s last playoff win was Jan 15, 2017 against Kansas City in Arrowhead Stadium. Since then, the team has suffered through a post-season dark age that younger fans have never before experienced. Critics of Mike Tomlin will use these stats as their Exhibit A.

6 years without a playoff win. 3 playoff wins in 12 years.

The current winless drought in the playoffs is the largest since the Immaculate Reception, but from a further view, it’s not the team’s darkest era. In the 15 seasons from 1980 to 1994, the Steelers had only 7 playoff appearances and 3 wins. These years were largely under the leadership of Chuck Noll, but rarely mentioned as part of his legacy. His final 12 seasons only produced 2 playoff wins.

In terms of today, no Steelers fan is satisfied with zero playoff wins in the last 6 seasons, but do not underestimate the difficulty in qualifying for the post-season year after year. There is more playoff turnover today than ever. The league’s success depends on it. Half of this year’s teams are new to the tournament. It’s impossible for more than 25% of the league to win a playoff game in any given season. Only 6 teams did it last year. Going into this post-season, 1/3 of the league has gone longer than 6 years since their last playoff win. In fact, 2 of the teams in this year’s dance have some of the longest playoff droughts: Miami (21 years), and the Giants (10 years). Basically, 6 years is long, but it ain’t that long.

What is the worth of an individual playoff win, if it takes a generation to achieve? The Browns have more playoff wins (1) in the last 6 years than the Steelers, but it was their only significant win in more than a quarter-century. The Falcons have more playoff wins (1) in the last 6 years than the Steelers, but they haven’t made the post-season since 2017.

14 years without a championship

No Steelers fan is satisfied with anything less than a Super Bowl. But winning a Super Bowl is hard. Sure, one can spin a narrative that Tomlin is the head coach with the longest Super Bowl drought. But only 10 teams have won a Super Bowl more recently than Pittsburgh. More than half of the league hasn’t won a title in at least 28 years. Almost a third of the league hasn’t won a Super Bowl or pre-Super Bowl championship in more than 50 years. 12 teams have never won a title.

Consider this list of coaches who have never won a championship: Marv Levy, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer. John Harbaugh has as many post-season accolades as anyone: the only head coach to win playoff games in 6 of his first 7 seasons, the most road playoff wins ever. But he still only has 1 Lombardi.

Tomlin is 6th in playoff wins among active coaches and 25th all-time. All the coaches with more wins, except Harbaugh, have been in the league longer than Tomlin.

5 active coaches have more playoff wins than Tomlin, but Reid, Harbaugh, Carroll and McCarthy all have the same number of titles. 8 current coaches have Super Bowl wins. Only Belichick has more than 1. Tomlin’s 2 AFC championships are only bested by Belichick (9) and Andy Reid (3).

The NFL is a zero-sum league: 1 winner, 31 disappointments. If the standard is Super Bowls, why are playoff records even part of the conversation? If it’s in an effort to lessen the accomplishment of zero losing seasons, it’s a futile endeavor.

Kyle Chrise is the host of the BTSC podcast “What Yinz Talkin’ Bout.” New episodes are released every Thursday. Check out the latest episode in the player below: