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Steel Curtain Sound-Off: Mike Tomlin on the hot seat, the NFL’s anti-T.J. Watt bias, and more

This week we’re covering the loss to Arizona, the road ahead, and Mike Tomlin’s hot seat.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium on Sunday, November. 26, 2023. Photo by Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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).

“Honestly this might be okay. We don’t need this mentally charmin soft team buying into their own hype anymore. Mitch will maybe win 1 out of the 4 if we’re lucky, we’ll get a higher draft pick, Tomlin is still likely to preserve is absolutely asinine, completely and utterly meaningless .500 or better streak, and we miss the playoffs. This team has NO BUSINESS anywhere near the postseason and this is the football gods putting us out of our collective misery.

Then in 24, we can add a center, a second center just to be sure Mason Cole never sees another snap for this team, a tackle, a QB or 2, an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator, a special teams coordinator, several corners, 5-7 inside linebackers since 4 will be on IR by week 6 next year anyway, ah who am I kidding…this team will be trapped in purgatory for eternity as long as Lucky Sperm Art II and Tomlin are running the show.” – JV2K13

The Steelers season reached its nadir Sunday thanks to a 24-10 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and this comment in particular appears to capture the ethos of the current state of things (bonus points to JV2K for concisely addressing both bargaining and acceptance in a single stream of consciousness; a grief masterclass).

I wrote last week that parity runs rampant in the NFL and that overall records are little more than kindling for the false underdog narratives that fuel media discourse but probably don’t exist within the context of the locker room’s actual lexicon. I don’t mean to suggest that players aren’t necessarily motivated by what could be interpreted as disrespect against their teams, but I also don’t think a single member of the Cardinals announced, “Hey gang, let’s go shock the world today!” before running out of the tunnel to face a Steelers team currently averaging fewer than 16 points per game. Point spreads are more helpful for informing fans’ perspectives about whatever game they’re watching than they are gassing players up to play David in a battle versus Goliath. They’re professionals, and self-motivation is in their job description; they don’t need all the extra thoroughfare.

In a similar vein, I believe in tanking as a legitimate organizational ambition, and the fact that the Cardinals traded away a first-round pick in last year’s draft to goose their prospects in this year’s draft is indicative of how their management views the team’s shorter-term outlook. And as a team clearly in the midst of (or in the very nascent stages of) a rebuild, the Cardinals are better off losing. HOWEVER, I think what tends to get left out of tanking discussions is that the teams doing the actual tanking are comprised of professional athletes and coaches, all of whom have a vested interest in performing above expectations to solidify their longer-term career prospects. Like, the best-case scenario for the New England Patriots is that they lose the remainder of their games, secure the number one pick, and draft Caleb Williams (or whoever; I’m not splitting hairs in this article, you guys can feel free to do so in the comment section), but that strategy is a tough sell for current quarterbacks on the Patriots. “Hey Mac Jones, please continue to perform as if you gained object permanence yesterday; we need to draft your replacement. Thanks!” It’s illogical.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that the Steelers most recent loss is indisputably gross, but if you zoom the lens out far enough as if you’re observing an exoplanet from a telescope, it’s easier to ignore that the atmosphere of said exoplanet is composed entirely of spiders. Any given Sunday, etc.

Of course, attributing the Steelers' most recent loss wholly to parity isn’t telling the entire story. The Cardinals played well—James Conner had 100+ rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns, and Kyler Murray made a number of genuinely outstanding throws; neither of these things occurred purely by happenstance—but the Steelers appeared to simply give up midway through the second quarter after Kenny Pickett shredded his ankle into Big League Chew and they subsequently failed to convert on 4th-and-goal from inside the one-yard line. The Steelers then allowed Murray to engineer a 15-play touchdown drive that put the Cardinals up 10-3—converting what felt like a million third downs in the process—and that, as they say, was that.

JV2K13 is a reliable purveyor of keen insights (I mean that sincerely) and while I think there is truth to the notion that the Steelers are floating around aimlessly in a foggy purgatorial hellscape, it could be that they remain on the precipice of legitimate contention and that they sort of resigned themselves to losing that last game once the starting quarterback got injured, meaning that everything that occurred thereafter didn’t provide an entirely accurate representation of the team’s true capabilities (they are 7-5, after all, and still occupy a playoff spot as of this writing). That is, very admittedly, a wildly naïve perspective about Sunday’s outcome, and one could just as easily argue that the Steelers’ seven wins resulted from their opposition not performing in accordance with their true capabilities. One could also argue that watching and correspondingly rationalizing this current iteration of the Steelers has smoothed the contours of my brain to a bowling ball-like consistency and alchemized my cerebrospinal fluid into Mountain Dew Baja Blast. Equally valid arguments, both.

Art Rooney II is responsible for this mess. he is a lucky guy to have inherited a great dynasty and has no clue on what it takes to maintain one.

1) He learned the wrong lesson about what makes a franchise elite. the whole only 3 coaches for so many decades is not something to praise a team for necessarily. Noll should have beenn let go in the 80s. He did not adjust with the times. A coach should not be held to such high esteem that it holds back a franchise.

2) Tomlin is not Noll’s equal. And it is even crazier that he has more job security than Noll. What is concerning is Tomlin backs all his dumb decisions. I understand you dont want to give away your real thoughts about what went wrong all the time to the public. But damn, I think he is really that clueless. He needs to be traded for a first round pick or two as long as there is a contingent of football folks stupid enough to believe that Tomlin is still a great coach. He is flat out a joke. He would never consider hiring a guy like Spagnaulo or Jim Schwartz to coach his defense. He just hires lackeys for the most part because he goes by his comfort level.

3) When too many players make mistakes, maybe it’s not the players. Maybe its players with the lack of focus caused by a second rate coaching staff leading them.” - insaneman

Art Rooney is very decidedly not too stupid to ask what is going on with his team, because he is fully cognizant of its inner workings. Listen: I get the impulse to assume that the guys who wear bespoke suits to the games care as much about the outcome as the ones who wear Zubaz overalls and face paint, and that owners of bad teams are so disgraced among their peers that they eat chateaubriand alone in silence and simply cannot imagine showing their faces at the yacht club until things get back on track, but I can assure you that Rooney’s—and every other professional sports owner’s—principal concern is turning a handsome profit. And, buddy, business is a-boomin’, and it will remain so more or less indefinitely because the NFL is a monolith. Winning is great for business, sure, but it absolutely is not compulsory, so Rooney and Co. will continue to pocket boatloads of money regardless of how many games the Steelers win, how many people attend or watch those games, or how much merchandise they sell. So, it’s not that he isn’t aware, it’s just that profit supersedes everything else.

This is because the Steelers are a brand, and Steelers market their continuity and stability and Family Business and The Steelers Way in the same way that Apple positions itself at the cutting edge of technology and luxury. And what better way to uphold the veneer of continuity than adhering to the same management practices that have persisted since the 1970s?

Cynicism aside, the Steelers have excelled in running a successful business that also yields desirable results on-field, so they are due credit for that. At least they aren’t the Pirates.

As for Tomlin, there’s little point plumbing those depths too extensively, because it’ll take a lot more than a verbose blog to talk most of you from one side of the fence to the other concerning Mike Tomlin. I will say that teams frequently contend on the strength of their defense, but it isn’t often that teams with offenses as putrid as the Steelers remain in the playoff hunt. The Steelers are 7-5, and for whatever blame gets foisted on Tomlin for the losses, he deserves at least some credit for the wins. He is now two years removed from Ben Roethlisberger (three if you’re inclined to count that final season in which Great Value brand Ben Roethlisberger helmed the offense), so the idea that his success was wholly incumbent upon Hall of Fame quarterback play or Cahhr’s players or whatever else doesn’t strike me as an especially cogent one.

That all said, the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately?” kind of league, and the Steelers in particular are an organization for which postseason wins represent a barometer of their prosperity, so Tomlin’s lack of recent success on this front is inarguably grim. Even so, I can’t envision any scenario in which Tomlin is not the head coach next season. Unless…

Tomlin’s seat needs to be hot after losing to New England this Thursday...” - arkansoul

Oh, buddy, Thursday Night Football this week is gonna be a national disgrace. And I hope it is. I hope viewership is almost entirely restricted to Steelers and Patriots fans and that both Amazon and the NFL lose money as a result.

Not that it’ll matter to either entity. Thursday Night Football is a dismal abyss, the snarling inbred love child of corporate greed and unchecked commercialism. It exemplifies the wanton hubris with which the NFL governs itself, not to mention the league’s blithe disregard for player health and safety that borders on contempt and its absolute derision for the viewers at home. Jeff Bezos sits alongside Roger Goodell in a luxury suite, sipping expensive brandy and shouting to the groundlings below “Eat the slop from your troughs, you vile pigs.” Carissa Thompson reports that she spoke fluent Pig Latin to two little piggies, who consumed so much slop that they felt unbothered by speculation about lupine lung capacities and shoddy building materials. Adam Schefter will send congratulatory tweets to Thompson for her journalistic integrity and to the wolves for their bravery. And like sick dogs returning to their vomit, we’ll oblige and watch the Steelers defeat the Patriots by the score of 4-2. Clowns in a perverted circus.

Anyway, getting around to actually addressing the comment — I’m not sure if this was intentional or a syntactic inconsistency, but I like that the commentor eschewed speculative language and presented losing as somewhat of a foregone conclusion. The Patriots are so bad. They held their last opponent to 6 points and said opponent still covered the spread. Unimaginable, profoundly unserious stuff. However, the Patriots have held each of the last three opponents to 10 points or fewer, which does not bode well for a dogwater Steelers offense coming off its worst loss of the season and down its starting quarterback.

As such, I am inclined to agree with Arkansoul’s take. The Steelers are already in a rock fight for a Wild Card spot that will grant them swift evisceration at the hands of Kansas City or Miami and falling to 7-6 with a handful of difficult games remaining could put them outside the playoff picture altogether. If that were to happen — them missing the playoffs largely because they lost back-to-back weeks to two of the three worst teams in the NFL — I think it’s fair to conclude that Tomlin’s proverbial seat would be cast aflame.

Starts with a head coach who’s best known for “never having a losing season”.

Lowest IQ football team in the NFL and it’s not even close. It’s never a question of “if” they will make a mental mistake, it’s now how many and how big of a situation will they be in.

Mike Tomlin is supposed to be “ a great leader of men” but his team consistently underperforms, looking undisciplined and unprepared so clearly it’s not on him, it must be the trainers.” – wood1098

There is veracity to the third part of this. I do think Pickett’s injury and the failed fourth-down play thereafter were huge shots to the morale, but the Steelers have certainly demonstrated a penchant for losing to purportedly lesser teams during Mike Tomlin’s tenure. However, the Steelers are (or were) among the least-penalized and least-turnover-prone teams in the NFL this season, and part of the reason they’ve managed to overcome their stagnant offense is by limiting mistakes elsewhere.

Everything is 20/20 in retrospect, but I started to get bad feelings about this game when I saw this graphic on Twitter:

48-10! 37-10! I understand that columnists are supposed to be purposely bombastic to garner attention and generate discourse (I personally would never... [*someone in the crowd throws a rotten tomato*]), but what evidence could have possibly informed these declarations?

The Steelers are nominally “better” than the Cardinals based on their overall records, but a side-by-side rendering of the rosters doesn’t put either team head and shoulders above the other. The Steelers have a better defense, but the Cardinals have a better quarterback, and the respective offensive skill players and offensive lines are probably a wash (the Cardinals' line might even be a little better than the Steelers' line). Hence, while I do agree the Steelers underperformed against the Cardinals, I think any talent gap that separates the two teams is marginal.

Please feel free to borrow this blueprint to talk yourself into rationalizing even the gnarliest losses.

Also, how do we expect Kenny not to get injured when this is what he is working with?” - Yinzer

In the words of famed lyrical wordsmith Chad Kroeger, look at this photograph:

Like any great work of art, taking the time to analyze the particulars of this image yields intensely nuanced semiotic interpretations. What the artist was trying to communicate here is that for all the bad press afforded to Kenny Pickett and Matt Canada, the unsightly façade of the Steelers offense is underpinned in large part by cartoonishly inept offensive line play. To the left, we see tight end Pat Freiermuth running into open space in the seam and—critically—Pickett’s sightline and hips pointed directly in Freiermuth’s direction. This could have been a nice little 10- or 15-yard completion!

To the right, though, is havoc and hilarity in equal measure. Two Cardinals defenders, unimpeded, categorically unbothered, making a free run toward Pickett, and two Steelers linemen, disoriented, utterly bewildered, inexplicably blocking each other, belly to belly looking like the “b” and “d” in—fittingly—“subdivide.” The reddish flag looming in the foreground represents an apt metaphor for the whole ordeal.

Mason Cole and James Daniels count roughly $17.5 million against the cap next season, by the way. Yikes!

“It’s certainly not the reason they lost today but yes, these egregious non-holding calls against the best defensive player on the planet need to stop. It’s been going on for years and someone needs to take a stand. Hopefully Tomlin is heading that charge behind the scenes.

There’s clips going around on social media with all the obvious blatant holding calls not called against him over the years. I mean what the hell?” - RenoSteelersFan

The “best defensive player on the planet” in question is T.J. Watt, who spent part of the postgame mewling about how the NFL is being mean to him. Watt, like every stud pass rusher in the history of organized football, is frequently the subject of offensive holding that escapes referees’ purview. “There is offensive holding on every play” is a well-worn axiom, and I would imagine that similar clips depicting blatant un-called holding could be easily compiled in support of Myles Garrett, Nick Bosa, Danielle Hunter, Khalil Mack, and anyone else who makes a living rushing the passer.

I think holding is one of those things that, like pass inference, is probably technically enforceable on virtually every play but is mostly left to the officials’ subjective interpretation, how egregious the penalty was, the context in which it occurred, etc. NFL games already take too long and flagging something like offensive holding with greater regularity is only going to prolong them further, which benefits nobody aside from owners (boo!) and the NFL (boooooo, hiss).

In Watt’s defense, his animus in this particular instance is well-founded because he was injured during the play in question, which does suck but is also the kind of thing where you’re left with little choice but to charge it to the game. Get well soon, big fella.

Yuck. Would have been really nice to see Pickett for a few more games without Canada’s influence. Might have to consider going QB round 1 next draft.” - dinner

Yeah, I admit I’d started sipping the Pickett Kool-Aid after that game against the Bengals. He looked like a completely different quarterback in that game, and I was excited to see if languishing within Matt Canada’s offensive system is what primarily stunted his development. Alas.

I am very confident in stating that the Steelers will not draft a quarterback in the first round, though. This is partly logistical. Caleb Williams and Drake Maye will almost assuredly be off the board by the time the Steelers make their selection. Bowl games, the Senior Bowl, and the NFL Combine will shake up the current ranking of top quarterback prospects, but even if someone like Jayden Daniels (unlikely) or Michael Penix Jr. (interesting…) is still available, the Steelers must be fully committed to the idea that selecting another quarterback is essentially communicating their abandonment of Pickett as the franchise quarterback. That’s not outlandish to the point of being outright impossible, but assuming Tomlin is the head coach next season, I would imagine that management would prefer to see a full season of Pickett under a new coordinator before making any formal decisions about his longer-term career prospects.

After today’s game, I’m wondering if the money I spent yesterday on tickets and parking for the Indy game was money well spent..... at least I won’t get rained on.” - wbrianr

Nah, you made the right decision. I know I just said a bunch of insanely cynical stuff about the NFL and team owners above, but the game-day experience is worth the price of admission. And I say that as someone who has only ever seen Steelers games at Heinz Field and dealt with the North Shore’s byzantine infrastructure, which functions as if it was developed by the most misanthropic civil engineer in history.

I remember every Steelers game I’ve attended in person fondly. Whether they won or lost the game is immaterial. My advice to you is to drink everything in and luxuriate in the minutiae. For me, it’s the fleeting refreshment of the brisk cold hitting your face after leaving a cramped bar to head toward the stadium, or the long walk from the parking adjacent to PNC Park along West General Robinson Street, with each tailgate imbuing the air with their own unique sounds and smells. I cannot remember the final score of every game, but I can vividly recall where I sat, and most importantly, with whom. I am sincerely hopeful that your experience is a good one, regardless of who wins that game.

short yardage....and..............wait for it.........wait for it .....shotgun.” - Pittsblitz56

Buddy, I’m saying. It wasn’t long ago that I’d be like “lol, okay boomer” whenever someone derided the Steelers for lining up in shotgun on short yardage, but now when I see Pickett standing five yards behind the center on third-and-1, I react like it’s a personal affront. If you’re keeping score at home, 32 is apparently the age at which Steelers fans become their own fathers.

Anyway, yes, on down and one or less, I want the quarterback’s knuckles scraping the center’s perineum.

“Watching this game was worse than prepping for a colonoscopy.” Fuqua shoes

I’ve never had a colonoscopy, so I Googled “colonoscopy prep” for enlightenment. Per Kaiser Permanente:

· Three days before your colonoscopy, eat only low-fiber foods. Also, stop taking any fiber supplements or anti-diarrheal medication.

· Two days before, continue eating only low-fiber foods.

· One day before, go on a clear-liquid diet.

· The evening before, drink half of a prescription laxative drink to clean out your colon for the procedure. (You’ll finish it the next morning.)

I then consulted a low-fiber food chart and discovered that it looks a lot like my current diet. As if I’m gonna be here like Oh no, I can’t eat any Brussels sprouts, noooo, I guess I’ll just slam home a mountain of pulled pork. Get outta here. The day before would be rough and I cannot imagine taking that prescription laxative drink to the face is much fun, but colonoscopy prep doesn’t look bad at all. I’ll be sure to document my first colonoscopy in rigorous detail in a blog post.