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Mike Tomlin is a victim of the nature of the NFL

Fans talk about Tomlin’s record, but ignore NFL history.

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

Calling Mike Tomlin a victim isn’t going to be a popular statement. To be frank, Tomlin isn’t a victim at all. He’s an incredibly successful head coach who has 16 years of being a head coach in the NFL. Only 23 coaches have held a head coaching job for more seasons in NFL history and only 14 coaches have coached as long or longer than Tomlin and won a Super Bowl. Obviously, we’re using a term like “victim” relatively here, but I’m still using it.

Because while Mike Tomlin is lauded and loved by NFL executives, other coaches, players and analysts, his record the last decade has many Steelers fans arguing he is a detriment to the team.

The evidence against Mike Tomlin

Since the 2010 Steelers lost the Super Bowl to the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers have been a successful NFL team in the regular season. It’s hasn’t been a good 13 years for playoff success with the Steelers winning only 3 playoff games while losing 7. I don’t care about playoff win percentage as a measure of a coach. Any stat that values missing the playoffs more than losing a divisional round playoff game is stupid. If you are the number one seed but get upset in the divisional round, playoff winning percentage views that as a worse season than going 0-17. So the losses don’t matter— throw them out. Playoff losses mean you made the playoffs but didn’t win the Super Bowl, any year you meet those two criteria you get exactly one playoff loss. Remember that when we get to the records, playoff losses tell you how many times a team made the playoffs but didn’t win it all. Playoff wins, on the other hand, are a big deal.

Mike Tomlin’s 3 playoff wins since 2011 isn’t good. Seventeen NFL franchises have won four or more playoff games in that time span, which is more than half the league. Furthermore, Mike Tomlin had Ben Roethlisberger for all but two seasons (2019 and 2022) in that time. Obviously doing worse than average with a Hall of Fame quarterback should qualify as bad.

The problem here is the context that is being ignored, and NFL history has a lot of context to add. Mike Tomlin didn’t just get hired to coach any team and then pull off winning a Super Bowl, he was hired to coach a team that was already good. In fact, they were more than good, they were great.

The downside of greatness... it ends

Chuck Noll was the head coach when the Steelers built their great 1970’s team. That team was great. Over a nine-year span, those Steelers won 88 of their 116 games (75.8%) and went 14-4 in the playoffs, winning four Super Bowls. The problem with all those great players being together for 8 seasons is at the end a whole lot of them got old at the same time. “Father time is undefeated” is a football cliche for a reason. You can’t be great forever, and when a team acquires 10 Hall of Fame players in a five-year span, those players are going to see their play decline at a similar time.

It happened quickly for that great Steelers team. They won the Super Bowl following the 1979 season, then went 17-15 and missed the playoffs the next two years. In fact, over the next 14 seasons the Steelers would win 113 of 216 games (52.3%) and win only 2 of the 8 playoff games they would play. They did that with Chuck Noll and two seasons of Bill Cowher, both Hall of Fame coaches.

It happened to other great teams too. The Miami Dolphins from 1970-1974 won 81.4% of their regular season games, went 8-3 in the playoffs, winning back-to-back Super Bowls and recording the NFL’s only undefeated season. The next 9 years the Dolphins won only 3 playoff games, while making the playoffs only five of the nine years. That streak of playoff struggles ended with Dan Marino’s rookie season when the Dolphins made it to the Super Bowl before losing. Even with a young future Hall of Fame quarterback and one of the greatest coaches in NFL history the Dolphins would go 6-6 in the playoffs in 12 seasons of Marino and Shula working together. Since Shula stopped coaching the Dolphins, the team is below .500 for the regular season and is 3-8 in the playoffs in 27 seasons.

Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr had an 8 year run where they won 84 of 110 games (79.2%) and went 9-1 in the playoffs, winning two Super Bowls and three NFL Championships. The next 25 seasons the Packers won 41.7% of their regular season games, with a 1-2 record in the playoffs.

Even teams that had extended periods of success with multiple quarterbacks and/or coaches had droughts after the stream of talent dropped back to normal. The Raiders and Cowboys both had great runs that lasted longer than the Steelers in the 1960’s, 70’s and early 80’s as they dominated in acquiring high-end talent and without free agency didn’t lose those player. But when Tom Landry’s Cowboys could no longer keep up their crazy run, they were below .500 and didn’t win another playoff game until Jimmy Johnson and those great 1990’s teams brought them back. And after that team got old? They have 4 playoff wins in 26 seasons.

The Raiders put both John Madden and Tom Flores in the Hall of Fame for coaching on their great run from 1967-1983. But after the 1983 Super Bowl win, the Raiders would win a total of 2 playoff games in the next 16 years. Even with long periods of sustained excellence, the Cowboys only won two Super Bowls with Tom Landry, while the Raiders won three in their great stretch.

The Raiders and Cowboys had their great stretches by constantly acquiring top end talent and keeping it since players couldn’t go anywhere in those days.

The San Fransisco 49ers With Joe Montana and Bill Walsh came along and won two Super Bowls before they drafted Jerry Rice in 1985. They would win two more with Montana and Rice, and go big in the first days of free agency to put together their fifth Super Bowl winning team with Steve Young and Jerry Rice leading the way. After that 1994 team was broken up by age and free agency the 49ers would go 5-7 in the playoffs over the next 17 seasons even with Jerry Rice’s career overlapping with Terrell Owens.

Since the free agency days it has been even harsher.

Buffalo had to wait 25 years to win a playoff game after their 4-time runner-up Bills team’s run ended.

The Broncos won back-to-back in Elway’s last seasons then won two playoff games in the next 14 years.

Green Bay had a good run with Brett Favre, but after 1997 they won three playoff games in 12 seasons even with Brett Favre leading directly into Aaron Rogers.

The Colts with Peyton Manning were a yearly contender, and then drafted Andrew Luck, but have a grand total of 4 playoff wins since 2009.

The Kansas City Chiefs went 24 years with one playoff win before Patrick Mahomes joined Andy Reid and Travis Kelce. We’ll see how good that team is when Kelce stops being unguardable.

The only exception has been Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who had a Super Bowl drought of 9 years in the middle of their history re-writing run. If Tom Brady’s play had dropped of when he was 35 the Patriots would have had 3 Super Bowl wins. Brady, like Jerry Rice, extended his team’s run of greatness by being so great for so long. The Patriots took 9 years to put together another team that could win it all even with Brady, with literally any other quarterback they would have been too late.

The Steelers 2000’s teams were great.

The Steelers great team was built in the end of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The last key piece of the puzzle was the quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger joined a veteran team that was ready to win. And win they did. From 2004-2010 the Steelers won the third most games in the NFL, behind Brady’s Patriots and Manning’s Colts, while the Steelers 10 playoff wins is #1 over those 7 seasons.

In 2011 Ben Roethlisberger was 29 years old and entering his best seasons as a quarterback, but the great team he had joined was getting old. Seven of the eleven defensive starters were over 30, and that team’s run, like all the other great teams before them, came to an end. The Steelers set to work rebuilding a defense that would see all of its star players drop off in production and retire over the course of only a few seasons, at the same time still building an offense, especially an offensive line to protect their no longer young star quarterback.

If you look at the 2016 playoff run and the 2017 season before the Shazier injury, you can see how close the Steelers came to getting back to the top. The 2019 Steelers defense was Super Bowl worthy, but Roethlisberger’s injury and his decline afterwards put to rest any dreams of getting one more with the Hall of Fame quarterback.

Looking at Ben Roethlisberger’s career with historical context is a story on how hard it is to recover from a great team getting old. Even with the right quarterback, you can’t just replace an entire defense while building an offense in a couple of years. Great teams aren’t easy to replace. If they were, they wouldn’t be great— they’d be common.

Mike Tomlin’s unique situation

One of the most unique parts of Mike Tomlin’s coaching career is when he took over the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s incredibly rare to see a head coach leave a team that is at the top of the NFL. Bill Cowher did that for personal reasons, and Mike Tomlin won the job of replacing a great coach on a great team. When we talk about the Steelers, we often separate Cowher’s years as coach and Tomlin’s years as coach, but it was one team. Sure, Mike Tomlin didn’t build the team he won his Super Bowl with as he would have had to dismantle a great team and start fresh which would be stupid. He had a great team and he won with it. Bill Cowher was in charge for three of the seven years, Tomlin for four. In year five of Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach the Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos when a young stud receiver demolished the Steelers secondary, and that defense would never be the same again.

When we judge Mike Tomlin for his record, we need to put it into context. The Steelers struggles since the 2010 season are in line with what every team since free agency has had to deal with, and again, only a few teams even before free agency were able to avoid that drop off when a great team got old. Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t able to be Tom Brady, and the Steelers weren’t able to acquire and hold talent like the Cowboys and Raiders of the 70’s. That’s hardly damning criticism.

Tomlin’s playoff record, especially the losses, since 2011 do matter. But the question is, were the Steelers a Super Bowl contending roster being sabotaged by coaching or were they a team that didn’t belong in the playoffs but overachieved to earn those playoff losses?

Look at the defense the Steelers had in the “Killer B” era, look at the offense from 2019-2021 and you might agree with me that Mike Tomlin is a coach that can get wins out of teams that maybe don’t belong in the playoffs.

But really, that’s all in the past now. The Steelers are getting younger and there is talent. The loss of those great players from the 2000’s aren’t relevant to this team, and neither is the poor timing of injuries to key players in the late 2010’s. The question now is whether or not Mike Tomlin can build this team into a contender.