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Steel Curtain Sound-Off: Trading Mike Tomlin, questioning why T.J. Watt’s concussion isn’t a bigger deal, and more

This week we’re discussing the Steelers’ offseason plans, shining a light on the massive implications of T.J. Watt’s concussion ordeal, and more

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin reacts on the sidelines against the New England Patriots during the fourth quarter at Acrisure Stadium. New England won 21-18. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Steel Curtain Sound-Off, where I journey through the irradiated morass of the comments section here at Behind The Steel Curtain dot com, and I return with your takes (...and respond).

“I think it’s fair to ask questions about Tomlin. Even outstanding coaches can plateau. I think Tomlin’s been a great coach, but I do wonder if he’s falling behind his contemporaries. Looking around the league, the top teams are innovating while the rhetoric out of Pittsburgh continues to be wanting to return to the smash mouth football days of old. I think a coach like Tomlin can still succeed, but he needs elite, forward thinking and innovative coordinators that allow him to be a player’s coach.” – Ethan McCourt

There’s a lot packed into this, and I mean that as a compliment; this is a profound, thoughtful comment. I, too, have wondered if Tomlin’s—and the Steelers’—inability to surmount the proverbial hump has been exacerbated by his steadfast insistence in maintaining The Standard. There is an interesting duality to the whole thing about Tomlin never having a losing season in that it gets deployed almost pejoratively in blogs like this but also functions as a counterpoint to conversations about disrupting the existing paradigm. Why innovate purely for the sake of innovation?

Of course, for most of Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers had little need to innovate. His first couple of seasons were defined by historically robust defensive play (which yielded a pair of Super Bowl appearances) and for a large chunk of the last decade, the Steelers had arguably the league’s best offense, helmed by a franchise quarterback who tossed darts with laser precision to a fleet of All-Pro-caliber skill players from within an impenetrable phalanx formed by one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. (If the mid-to-late 2010s Steelers’ failure to win a Super Bowl is a black mark on Tomlin’s resume, then it ought to contain a footnote indicating that the ascension of those Steelers collided with the second act of the Patriots dynasty. If nothing else, those Steelers teams were actually fun to watch.)

An unbiased observer could argue that the current version Steelers—helmed by two quarterbacks who are neither franchise caliber nor fully cognizant of the nuances of their physical selves misfiring passes to visibly disgruntled skill players from within what is nominally a pocket but in actuality is explosive decompression on display—is the result of divine retribution. The fact that the Steelers are at present in a bit of a backslide and that, I don’t know, let’s say the Texans are a relatively complete outfit with a franchise quarterback are corollaries of how things should function in a league whereby premium draft capital is allocated in accordance with the previous year’s standings and the salary cap ostensibly levels the playing field. The Patriots may have defeated the Steelers last week, but the only “winners” were degenerate gamblers who parlayed the over with the Patriots money line and the malevolent deity who saw fit to render two once proud franchises to their present accursed iterations.

Obviously, if you’re reading this you likely aren’t an unbiased observer, so screw all of that stuff I wrote above. If the expectation is that the Steelers are indeed the rare team who can continue to deftly circumnavigate the myriad budgetary and roster-building constraints that hamstring most other organizations and maintain lofty their Super Bowl aspirations, then everything that ails the Steelers cannot be placed squarely on Mike Tomlin: what we’re witnessing this season is a top-down systemic failure.

It isn’t like the Cowboys, 49ers, Dolphins, Eagles, Ravens, and any other contending team you want to throw in this list ascended to the league’s pinnacle purely by dint of coaching masterclasses; they did so in large part because they employ franchise quarterbacks, and because their coaching staffs designed the frameworks of the offenses in a way that maximizes their respective quarterbacks’ foremost skills. It is worth noting, too, that in addition to having franchise quarterbacks, each of these teams also has multiple premium skill position players and/or S-tier offensive lines. In an alternate universe where Mike Tomlin coaches in Dallas and Mike McCarthy is back home in Pittsburgh feasting on French fry sandwiches, the Steelers and Cowboys have identical records to those in our present reality. The Steelers might even be worse off.

I am very genuinely not trying to extol Tomlin propaganda or engage in any bad-faith contrarianism, by the way. That game against the Bengals a few weeks back was a case study in dead cat physics, and the one against the Patriots was debatably the worst-coached game of Tomlin’s career. If losing back-to-back weeks (at home) to teams occupying the league’s cellar is what ultimately pushes the Steelers outside playoff contention, I really could envision this offseason being curtains for Tomlin in Pittsburgh. I think this particular outcome still remains unlikely, but it no longer strikes me as completely implausible.

But I also think it’s fair to wonder if the version of the Steelers we saw against the Patriots is a clearer manifestation of what the Steelers actually are than what we saw in any win this season. Maybe it’s not so much that Tomlin won’t innovate as it is that he simply can’t. The Steelers have a good defense (though this unit is very much deserving of maximal scorn in light of its recent performances) but there is not a system in the world that is going to magically transform the offense into anything resembling a formidable unit, not until the numerous holes on the offensive line get patched and the quarterback situation gets figured out.

The idea I’m sort of skating around is that if we’re positioning Mike Tomlin as the primary architect of bad losses, then he ought to receive due credit when things go well. Are the seven games the Steelers won a testament to Tomlin or an indictment of him? I’m genuinely asking.

“Man I do not get the infatuation with Bienemy. Hmmm, lets see, Mike Tomlin in 24 or Eric Bienemy...Hard pass on EB.

As far as trading Tomlin? He does not deserve to be treated like that, and it aint ever gonna happen...unless HE asks for it.

Mel Keiper is not the guy I want advice from for the the Steelers next QB - or any other player.” - JoeBwankenobi

This comment was offered in response to one of many comments advocating for the Steelers to trade Tomlin for draft capital, as if real-life NFL franchises operate in accordance with Madden trade logic. Putting aside the fact that no player or coach deserves to be traded as long as they are abiding by the terms of their contract or unless they request the trade themselves, the Steelers aren’t going to trade Tomlin. Trades for under-contract coaches aren’t unprecedented, but they are extremely rare and nearly always the result of desperation plays from teams that fancy themselves a coach away from contention.

The most recent example that springs to mind is the Denver Broncos trading for Sean Payton, who at the time was still under contract by the Saints. The trade made sense in theory: the Broncos had traded multiple premium draft picks for a presumptive franchise quarterback, to whom they awarded one of the most expensive contracts ever before he’d played a snap, only to see him languish under the tutelage of a clearly out-of-their element head coach in what was ultimately a lost season. With little immediate recourse—cutting Russell Wilson would have yielded a monumentally high dead cap, and no draft picks were remaining in the stockpile to select a viable replacement—the Broncos over-corrected by making a splash play for a big-name so-called offensive guru. The early returns were not great, but the investment has since paid dividends, as the Broncos have angled their way back into contention and sit just a game behind the Chiefs in the AFC West.

This begs the question: how many teams right now are a) locked into outrageously expensive quarterback deals for the foreseeable future AND b) genuinely on the precipice of contention AND c) actively being held back by their current coaching staffs? In charitably applying these criteria to every team in the NFL, I’m led to one result: the Chargers. Could the Chargers theoretically decide that Mike Tomlin is the missing piece and go all-in on making a run at the Super Bowl in 2024? They could, yeah! Will the Chargers, who are owned by notorious cheapskate Dean Spanos, pony up the ten or so million dollars it’ll cost to pay one year of Tomlin’s contract when their current head coach is on the books for a fraction of that amount and forfeit a reasonably high draft pick to compensate the Steelers? Absolutely zero chance.

Assuming that Tomlin is still the head coach of the Steelers next season, I would favor bringing on (Commanders offensive coordinator) Eric Bieniemy on as offensive coordinator if he’d be open to a lateral move. What better way to boost your head coaching prospects than by overseeing an offense that averages an utterly volcanic 16.2 points per game? (There is also zero chance this happens.)

Rounding off the triumvirate of impossibilities, I’ve seen Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s name thrown around this blog a lot as a potential Tomlin replacement. Johnson bears all the hallmarks of the hot-shot offensive mastermind archetype, and so he will almost assuredly be the hottest commodity once open season on filling head coaching vacancies gets declared. If Johnson effectively has his pick of teams and every team who wants him is willing to pay top-dollar...well, he’d have to really love Kenny Pickett to pick the Steelers over a team like the Patriots or Bears, where he’ll be able to hand-select his quarterback of the future.

I also enjoy dumping on draft analysts at any given opportunity but then I check myself by remembering that I sincerely thought Jarvis Jones was going to be what Von Miller ended up being and that T.J. Watt would be a bust. I thought the Steelers should’ve extended Mike Wallace instead of Antonio Brown, and I thought they should’ve drafted Eddie Lacy instead of Le’Veon Bell. I thought Ryan Shazier was a terrible pick and that Martavis Bryant had Randy Moss potential. Granted, I am not being highly compensated by ESPN for my services, so proffering those frigid insights in this space isn’t gonna land quite the same as him going on live television and asserting that Mitchell Trubisky is a better NFL prospect than Patrick Mahomes, but nobody is completely immune to bad takes, especially when their entire catalog of takes is composed of inferences they drew from watching tape. Scouting NFL prospects is largely guesswork.

And to Kiper Jr.’s everlasting credit, he is as ravenous as any tape hound in the business. I do not have the time nor the energy to watch hundreds of hours of college football and formulate my own prospect rankings, so the Mel Kiper Jr.’s of the world provide an informed point of reference from which to perform armchair analysis. That, in my opinion, is an invaluable service, and one that makes the lead-up to the NFL draft infinitely more compelling. It allows me, in real-time, to determine how excited I should be. If it wasn’t for Mel Kiper Jr., how else would I have known that Artie Burns was a reach? I would’ve had to wait until the regular season to see just how fitting a moniker his surname turned out to be.

Plus, Kiper Jr. and his ilk function as convenient scapegoats. It isn’t your fault for over-drafting some rookie running back in your fantasy league, it’s Mel Kiper Jr.’s fault for comparing him to LaDainian Tomlinson!

“There are no unbeatable teams in the AFC, injuries and general lack of good play have leveled the field a lot.” - rtrupert

I’d take this a step further and say there are no unbeatable teams in either conference. Three weeks ago, I’d have listed the Eagles as the league’s foremost contender, but then I published a blog in which I foisted some overly effusive praise on Jalen Hurts and the Eagles proceeded to immediately get pants-ed in front of national audiences by actual contenders. In that same blog, I also slandered the Cardinals and Patriots with impunity—the latter of which I declared was so hapless that Madden would show a warning before using them in an online game—so the takeaway is that any optimism reflected here should be considered a death knell. Alas, I’ll digress.

The AFC is a bit less top-heavy than the NFC, but I think it provides a more compelling product. The Eagles, 49ers, and Cowboys are so far ahead of every other team in the NFC that it seems a foregone conclusion that one of those teams will represent the conference in the Super Bowl, whereas the relative parity in the AFC means that whoever wins that side of the bracket is anyone’s guess. And the temperature of the burning questions surrounding each AFC contender? Supernova!

  • If this current iteration of the Chiefs repeats as Super Bowl Champions, does Patrick Mahomes stake a legitimate claim as the greatest quarterback of all time?
  • How on earth did the Ravens ever entertain the possibility of parting ways with Lamar Jackson, whose current MVP odds (+500, as of this writing) are not remotely reflective of his singular criticality to the Ravens offense?
  • With the playing field looking more even than ever, could the Steelers claw their way back into contention and leverage their winning brand of mistake-free football to make a run?
  • Now that the Jaguars have finally assembled the requisite component parts to form a viable contender, can they consistently play to their elevated potential?
  • Can the Dolphins defense do enough to support its championship-caliber offense? The Browns defense can ask the same question of its offense.
  • Why did it take the Broncos so long to realize that Courtland Sutton has the dawg within him? (If Sutton played for the Chiefs he would break the single-season receiving touchdowns record, but the final stat line would look insane. Something like 57 catches for 930 yards and 24 touchdowns.)
  • Jake Browning is playing lights-out for the resurgent Bengals, and they’re saying that Joe Burrow might be a system quarterback?? They’re saying!
  • Where exactly was Sean McDermott on the morning of September 11th, 2001?

The only absolute certainty in the AFC is that the Patriots will not win it. Tee hee.

“1) Chiefs are 8-5, shit happens in the league, including losing to Cardinals (see Cowboys) and Patriots (See Bills). I think people just look to take out their own inner anger on Tomlin for some reason

2) Zach Wilson just had a better stat line than I think Pickett is even capable of.” – steelers724

I touched on this briefly in one of the sections above, but I think there’s an expectation that the Steelers should always be good simply by virtue of being the Steelers (Minkah Fitzpatrick effectively said as much in a recent locker room diatribe). We’ll beat this dead horse until its distended stomach explodes gore in a radius farther than that pass Trubisky launched into Burgatory on 4th and 2 against New England, but “underdogs” exist in name only in the NFL. We can add the Dolphins, who just got clowned by the Titans on Monday Night Football, to the commenter’s list.

None of this is to excuse the Steelers for their godawful performances over the last two weeks, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that the Steelers' overall record (both now and at the time of each of those games) is a red herring. Perhaps the reason they lost to a 2-10 Patriots team is because they were secretly a 2-10 team wearing a 7-5 costume. Sure, that’s an all-around bleak way of looking at things, but what we’ve seen unfold over the past two weeks could be little more than a regression to the mean. Or not! I don’t know, man. It’s impossible to be anything but agnostic about this team. Go Steelers.

The Zach Wilson thing provides a good Rorschach test for illuminating how broken you are as a fan. Me, personally, my first thought was “Well maybe with a bit more practice and experience Kenny Pickett can be as good as Zach Wilson,” at which point two bulky guys in white jumpsuits showed up at my house and stuffed me into a padded van. I’m writing this dispatch from an institution upstate.

“After watching some videos and finding out that the independent neurologist was not signaled to evaluate him by anyone... this is a major failure by the medical staff and the NFL independent neurologists.” - kdsteel

This comment is in reference T.J. Watt taking a direct shot to the head on the first play of the game against the Patriots, exiting briefly, and then later re-entering the game wearing a tinted visor, which would be almost cartoonishly hilarious if it didn’t involve potential brain damage. This whole situation is currently under review by the NFL (who I assume are in no hurry to render any judgments on the matter because doing so could *gasp* make professional football look unsafe!) and NFLPA and this feels like a way bigger deal than what it’s being made out to be. Teams that fail to adhere to the established concussion protocol are subject to fines up to $150,000 and, potentially, forfeiting draft picks.

The NFL recently updated and further clarified its protocol following its investigation into Tua Tagovailoa’s brutal concussion from last season, and there is a real-world possibility that the Steelers and NFL’s independent medical staff not only eschewed those standards but purposely obfuscated any outwardly apparent symptoms like light sensitivity by giving Watt a tinted visor.

For his role (or lack thereof), Mike Tomlin is pleading plausible deniability, which is a bad look either way because if the above description does turn out to be an accurate rendering of the events that transpired, then Tomlin is either complicit or clueless. Moreover, the Steelers could—and, quite frankly, should—lose draft picks over this ordeal, and I say that as an ardent supporter of the team who recognizes the criticality of the upcoming draft. I realize this whole thing is mostly rooted in conjecture and hearsay, but. yeah, this is a huge deal. Hopefully, there is a straightforward and innocuous explanation for everything.

“Who is the insider? That article cites an interview with Ray Fittapoldo, a PPG reporter. If Fittapoldo cited conversations with people inside the Steelers, then I think it would be fair to call it an insider report, but it’s just his opinion that the Steelers are unlikely bring Tomlin back as a lame duck.” - maffiemd

Yeah, this is a good point. Attribution is a vital component of any story (blogs included), and I think a beat reporter (who is decidedly not an insider) who was speaking somewhat informally on some radio program is not the most credible source. That would be like someone citing me in their article, ya know?

If I recall, the intel wasn’t even that good. I think the original “report” indicated that the Steelers were supposedly “50/50” on whether to retain Mike Tomlin beyond this season. You can ascribe the same measure of ambivalence to anything. I am 50/50 on whether I want to order something on GrubHub later. It’s a non-story.