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It’s time to have the Mike Tomlin conversation

Mike Tomlin continues to be the most polarizing man in Pittsburgh

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Since he took over as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007, Mike Tomlin has been a polarizing figure to the fan base. When Pittsburgh won in those early years, it was with “Bill Cowher’s team,” according to his naysayers. To his strongest defenders, though, he can do no wrong, is not to blame for any of the Steelers’ issues, and should be the head coach until he decides he doesn’t want to be- no questions asked. As per usual, the fairest assessment of Tomlin lies somewhere in the middle. So let’s have the Mike Tomlin conversation- the good, the bad, the ugly- all of it. Because there are healthy helpings of all three.

Yes, whether you want to admit it or not, there has been a lot of good in Mike Tomlin’s now-17 season stint with the Steelers. Pittsburgh has been to three AFC Championship games, two Super Bowls, and won Super Bowl XLIII in which Tomlin became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl at the time. He has the third-most wins of any active head coach, is 16th all-time in wins, and is ninth all-time in games over .500. On top of that, he has consistently raised the floor of the Steelers. In 2019 when Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season with an elbow injury, Tomlin and the Steelers’ defense had the team sitting at 8-5 until a final three-week stretch that featured the likes of Baltimore and Buffalo was too much to get them into the playoffs. The Steelers also overcame a 2-6 record in 2022 with a rookie quarterback and finished the season by winning seven of their final nine games to get to 9-8.

All of those are remarkable feats, and Tomlin deserves his flowers for being one of the best coaches of the last two decades. The Steelers have remained one of the most respected organizations in sports throughout his tenure, and as long as Ben Roethlisberger was under center and Tomlin was wearing the headset, it felt like there was always a chance that they could get to the Super Bowl.

However, ever since 2016, the Steelers have been a mediocre franchise cosplaying as a contender, and relying on historical lure to keep fans engaged and hopeful.

This is a list of how the Steelers have finished their last six seasons:

  • 2017: 13-3, lost in Divisional round
  • 2018: 9-6-1, missed playoffs
  • 2019: 8-8, missed playoffs
  • 2020: 12-4, lost in Wildcard round
  • 2021: 9-7-1, lost in Wildcard round
  • 2022: 9-8, missed playoffs

Six years, three playoff berths, and no playoff wins. Now, obviously there is some context needed for a select few of these. The aforementioned Ben Roethlisberger injury in 2019 really handicapped the team and it’s a miracle they won eight games- fair enough. And in 2021, the Steelers started 1-3 with a quarterback in Big Ben who was a shell of himself, and yet they rallied to make a playoff spot. They went on the road and faced a Chiefs team that was two tiers above them in every aspect of the game and got boat raced in a game in which everyone expected that result- fine.

The rest of these, though? There are no excuses. There is no excuse as to why Blake Bortles and the Jaguars waltzed into Pittsburgh and dropped 45 on the Steelers to send them home. There is no excuse for a Browns team who was riddled with Covid, and without their head coach, to still be able to come into Pittsburgh and drop 48 points. And there is certainly no excuse as to why a 7-2-1 team with Hall of Fame talents at quarterback, running back, and receiver fell out of the playoff picture completely.

There are more heartbreaking losses that predate 2017, though. The loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in 2012- that will hurt forever. The playoff loss to Denver in 2015, a bad loss to the Ravens in the 2014 Wildcard game- there isn’t a shortage of losses in the playoffs that Pittsburgh should have won. And look, are they going to win every playoff game? No, that’s an unrealistic expectation to have, and the occasional blunder happens to every team. The thing is that it isn’t occasional for the Steelers, it’s routine. Mike Tomlin is 8-9 in the playoffs, and five of those losses should have been games Pittsburgh won. His .471 winning percentage in the playoffs is the fourth worst amongst head coaches in the top 20 for wins all-time and places him behind the likes of Lovie Smith, John Fox, and Ken Wisenhunt in that category.

I’m not going to ramble on about the fact that Tomlin hasn’t had a losing season because we hear enough about it. But for the non-Steelers fans reading this, the aforementioned losses and shortcomings are why Steelers fans have stopped caring about that feat. It can no longer be about just getting to the playoffs, or finishing the season with nine wins and patting themselves on the back for extending a meaningless record. No, for Tomlin and the Steelers, they need to start winning playoff games again. Because any other coach around the league would be let go for going through two presidential terms without so much as a single playoff win.

The lack of a coaching tree is something that Tomlin gets knocked for, as well, and it’s very fair. I see those on the other side who blame the Rooneys for the lack of quality coordinators, but I don’t buy it. When Bill Cowher was the head coach, his coordinators included Jim Haslett, Dom Capers, Chan Gailey, Dick LeBeau, Mike Mularkey, and Ken Wisenhunt- all six went on to become head coaches.

For Tomlin, the only one of his coordinators that went on to become a head coach was Bruce Arians, but Arians was already a very well-established name around the league. The same can be said for Todd Haley, who was previously the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Randy Fichtner left a lot to be desired, but he looks like Bill Walsh compared to Matt Canada. And on the defensive side of the ball, Teryl Austin was given the job rather than hiring Brian Flores as defensive coordinator. Tomlin’s inability to bring in good coordinators has hurt the team. We can rightfully complain about Canada’s incompetence, but Tomlin is the one who brough him back after last season, and he’s the one that still hasn’t fired him. At some point, this all comes back on him.

Is all of this to say that Mike Tomlin’s seat should be scolding hot and that he should be fired after the Steelers’ next loss? No, of course not. But I would say, at the very least, his seat should be warm. Lack of pressure brings lack of motivation. Why should Tomlin go out and get top-tier coordinators if he knows he won’t be fired regardless? Too much security is a bad thing, and the fact that a coach who hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2016 season has arguably the most security of any coach in the league is indefensible. Right now, Tomlin is a college professor with tenure. There is no need for him to come up with new curriculum when he knows he isn’t going anywhere. And for that reason, the fans have suffered.

We can acknowledge that Mike Tomlin is one of the all-time great coaches who will one day be in the Hall of Fame. But it’s also time for everyone, not just fed up Steelers fans, to acknowledge his flaws- flaws that have become more visible in recent years as the game seemingly passes both him, and the franchise by.