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The Steelers are not going to trade Mike Tomlin for a first-round pick

It’s a practical suggestion, but the logistics aren’t feasible.

Mike Tomlin the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 16, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In getting around to sorting out all your comments for the weekly Sound-Off, I’m noticing an incredibly ubiquitous refrain: “Trade Tomlin.”

To me, this is the elevated form of the colloquial FAHR TAWMLIM discourse that has permeated online spaces like this for the better part of — oh, I don’t know, let’s say the entirety of Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach of the Steelers. It’s an intriguing pivot, and one rooted in rationality and practicality: if the consensus states—or more accurately seems to reflect—that Tomlin and the Steelers are bound to split potentially as early as this offseason, and very possibly next offseason when his current contract expires, then it makes sense to leverage his demonstrated aptitude to get something in return rather than firing him and getting nothing.

And this is something that makes sense to me, a nominal blogger who writes for expendable gambling income and to whom the inner workings of NFL management might as well be particle physics. Do you know who else might draw similar conclusions, that the Steelers want to get value in return for a commodity they may intend to discard regardless? That would be the front office of any other NFL team that might be interested in acquiring Tomlin’s services.

It is not a realistic expectation for another professional football franchise, one composed of an armada of experts in business and football operations, to trade prime draft capital for a head coach who has one year remaining on his contract. I think we can safely kill this narrative and bury it deep. The Steelers are not going to trade Mike Tomlin for a first-round draft pick, largely because no team is going to offer the Steelers a first-round draft pick in exchange for Mike Tomlin.

I wrote about this in a bit more depth in the last Sound-Off column, but trades for head coaches are extremely infrequent (this page details about a half-dozen such trades over the last 25ish years) and when they do occur, there is usually some sort of unique circumstance that justifies such as big swing. Taking the most recent example, the Broncos went all-in before the 2022 season by bringing on Nathaniel Hackett as a ploy to entice Aaron Rodgers, but ultimately “settled” for Russell Wilson when Plan A didn’t come to fruition. The 2022 season went about as poorly as it could’ve: Russell, freshly signed to one of the biggest contracts ever, had by far the worst season of his career, Hackett was fired before the last game of the regular season, and the Broncos finished the year 5-12.

Denver, now stuck with what appeared to be an albatross quarterback contract, a barren stockpile of high draft picks, and no head coach, was left with little choice but to double down on their initial gamble that the team was on the precipice of contention. In response, they traded even more draft picks (where are they getting all these picks from??) to the Saints for Sean Payton and then paid him a bunch of money. That move has paid some dividends (the Broncos are currently 7-7 and, like the Steelers, unlikely to make the playoffs due to the Browns, Bengals, and Bills all winning last weekend), but certainly not to the extent that trades for Bill Belichick and Bruce Arians have paid.

Leaving aside what actually happened to the Broncos, though, let’s rewind and focus on the circumstances that prompted the decision to trade for Payton in the first place. How many teams in the NFL, right now, are a) locked into massive long-term quarterback contracts, b) close enough to actual contention that the thought of sacrificing a high draft pick now isn’t completely impalpable, and c) languishing under the existing coaching staff? Last week, I identified the Chargers as one such team, but then they got dog-walked by the Raiders and I’m no longer sure if point B. necessarily applies to them.

Of course, a lesser team presently locked into a rebuild could theoretically foot the bill for Tomlin, but they’d likely require assurance that he’d be willing to sign long-term. I saw the Panthers floated around in several of your comments, but the team owner—David Tepper—sucks immensely and I cannot imagine someone of Mike Tomlin’s pedigree subjecting himself to the infantilizing micromanagement to which Tepper subjected former head coach Frank Reich.

Moreover, the Panthers appear to have erred catastrophically by trading multiple first-round picks for the right to draft Bryce Young over C.J. Stroud. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a more attractive coaching destination for an NFL coach at present than the Carolina Panthers.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Steelers have leverage, too. If their asking price is a premium draft pick (or multiple premium picks), and it should be, then I think they’re going to have a hard time finding a willing trading partner who otherwise requires that pick (or those picks) to fill out the weak spots on its roster, including—potentially—a new quarterback. In other words, it makes a lot more sense to treat a head coach as a supplement to a franchise quarterback rather than a proxy for one in making these considerations.

All of this is to say — the Steelers will not trade Mike Tomlin. Please feel free to pass this along to the Old Takes Exposed Twitter account.