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The case for retaining Matt Canada has become the best case for firing Matt Canada

Matt Canada has been his own worst enemy, and the writing is on the wall.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers
Uh oh. I think they’re talking about me again.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Many Pittsburgh Steelers fans expected the team to fire offensive coordinator Matt Canada after 2022’s deeply mediocre numbers, which were highlighted by their abysmal 18.1 points per game and utter lack of explosiveness. But despite the outcry from the cheap seats, Canada was retained for one more year.

This may feel infuriating, but keeping him around was not without argument. In fact, there were two meaningful reasons to retain the OC, one centering around the 2022 offense’s improvement, the other on creating stability for the young franchise quarterback.

Unfortunately, two weeks into the new season, those reasons are showing signs of collapse. In fact, it’s becoming reasonable to claim that those very contentions have become two of the most prescient arguments for canning Canada sooner rather than later.

Let’s take a look at the debate:

Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp
What do you say we forget everything we learned last year and run another jet sweep?
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Reason not to fire Canada No. 1:

The offense improved dramatically last year; firing a guy when his unit starts to ‘get it’ seems dumb.

Here are some interesting numbers for the Steelers over the final nine games of 2022:

Rushing yards per game: 146.0
Third Down Conversion Percentage: 54.3%
Average Time of Possession: 32:37

If they’d have maintained these numbers for the full year, those 146 yards on the ground would have placed them 7th in the NFL. In fact, that total would have represented the best per-game average for any Pittsburgh team since 2004, when the 15-1 squad ran for 154.0.

That third down conversion rate, meanwhile, would have led the league by a mile this past year. Buffalo was the only 2022 club to convert north of 50% on the season, and they only converted 50.3%. Moreover, the Steelers' 54.3% would have been this team’s best conversion rate since Pro Football Reference started tracking the numbers a quarter century ago.

Meanwhile, the Steelers' 32:37 time of possession would have been second in the league last year and would have been the best for Pittsburgh since Mike Tomlin’s rookie season as a coach in 2007.

That is to say, this team won two conference titles and a Super Bowl with less time of possession than they maintained for the last nine weeks of 2022. They added a second Lombardi without running the ball this well. And it’s entirely possible that no Steelers team has EVER been more efficient on 3rd down.

These aren’t just “improvements over a mediocre opening stretch”; this is a spectacularly good ball control game. And it wasn’t a small-sample-size fluke; they maintained that pace for over two months, while playing against Baltimore (twice) and New Orleans, both of whom sported top 5 defenses, as well as the defending AFC champs, Cincinnati. It’s fashionable in the fan base to blow off the late-season push with, “the opponents sucked,” but that’s dishonest. This team was demonstrably better.

You might have been frustrated with the team’s lackluster opening, with their season-long red zone struggles, or the low point totals that struggle produced. But this was an impressive run. It would not have been absurd to assume Matt Canada had finally figured it out — that he’d learned how to tailor the offense to his players’ strengths, and that if they could add any explosion at all, this offense could be great.

Why it’s a reason to fire him now:

Because Canada seems to have completely forgotten this formula.

During the anemic opening stretch of 2022, in which the Steelers went 2-6, they failed to break 100 yards on the ground in five out of eight contests and only converted 33.6% on third downs. The team was borderline unwatchable, with numerous three-and-outs every week and too many “drives” ending agonizingly quickly.

So how did they have such a dramatic turnaround at the bye week? Well, a quick comparison might help:

First eight weeks: 44 pass plays per game / 17 rushes
Final nine weeks: 33 pass plays per game / 32 rushes

Note: Sacks and scrambles are counted here as “pass plays,” since that’s what Canada called.

It’s a simple equation (which means it’s probably oversimplified) but it sure looks like the Steelers were more effective if they leaned on the running game at least as much as the pass. If there’s one thing that changed in the back-9, that looks like it.

So how is it looking in 2023?

First two weeks: 44 pass plays per game / 13 rushes

Note: Again, sacks and scrambles are counted here as “pass plays,” since that’s what Canada called.

You might claim that these numbers are a little skewed by a blowout in week 1, during which the pass/run ratio was 52/9 (46 passes, five sacks, one scramble). But even against the Browns, where the game was always close, and where the Steelers defense was playing out of its mind and desperately needed a break, the offense simply couldn’t stay on the field. Counting sacks and scrambles, Canada dialed up 36 passes against 17 runs. The result? 28.6% on third down; 24:32 TOP. (And that’s in the game these guys won.)

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we’re re-running the WRONG part of last season.

Inasmuch as Canada seemed to “get it” last year, he seems to have backslid into a style we all know doesn’t work. There was some noise this summer that Mike Tomlin had put handcuffs on the offense over 2022’s second half, which led to that ball control success but stymied explosiveness. If that’s true, he appears to have given Canada more slack this year — likely under the assumption that the OC would remember what worked, and just add some downfield explosion. Instead, we’re watching the same flatline offense Canada trotted out last September.

If you have to learn the same lesson two years in a row, maybe you shouldn’t be the one making decisions.

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada (left) instructs quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) in drills during training camp at Saint Vincent College.
I’m not joking, Kenny. What the hell is a “tight end”?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Reason not to fire Canada, #2:

It’s dangerous to keep changing coordinators when you’re developing a young franchise passer.

Case in point: Alex Smith.

Smith was the #1 overall draft choice in 2005, and ultimately brought both the 49ers and Chiefs to the brink of the Super Bowl, before taking an outmanned Washington Football Team to the playoffs. That’s not a bad career at all.

Smith was clearly talented, but it took him a staggeringly long time to look like a legit NFL passer. Why? Well, it may have had something to do with his seven different offensive coordinators over his first seven seasons in the league. That’s a lot of learning of new systems, new terminology, and new expectations. It speaks well of Smith that he could hang on long enough to find some success. But one wonders how his career could have looked if he’d have landed in a more stable place.

It’s easy down here to just say, “Fire this guy! Replace that guy!” But the disruption is real, and it can ruin a promising career. Matt Canada isn’t anyone’s first choice to develop a young talent, but you can see how it could be better to err on the side of “stable” rather than simply toss the OC overboard after a frustrating game or two — especially given the 2022 improvements.

Why it’s a reason to fire him now:

Because Pickett seems to be regressing a little this year. And a bad coach can do real damage to a confident young passer.

Let’s take these individually.

First, despite his supersonic preseason, Pickett’s decisiveness and decision-making have looked shaky since the lights came on. I suspect this has something to do with my prior observation, about how the offense rests too much on his shoulders, though the over-simple play-choice puts him in a bad position too.

Pickett is a promising talent, but he’s still in his NFL second season (the Cleveland game was only his 14th career start). Sometimes you have to create a game plan to get the kid comfortable. A good coach has a play or two designed to get a couple of easy completions early, to pick up five yards on first down so he’s not always behind the chains, or to change up the pace so opposing pass rushers have to hesitate. We know what Kenny looks like when he’s comfortable — we saw it in the 4th quarter against the Raiders and Ravens at the end of last season (to say nothing for the ‘23 preseason). He may eventually be bigger than a lame system (like Big Ben became). But for now, you have to meet him halfway.

Secondly, while I maintain you have to be careful dumping a coordinator (see above), there’s also evidence that it can be the best thing you can do. I pointed at one former #1 to make that point (Alex Smith); let’s look at two others to counter it: Trevor Lawrence and Baker Mayfield.

Lawrence was once billed as the surest quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. But he was genuinely bad as a rookie — leading the league in interceptions while guiding the Jaguars to a 3-14 record and a rare second consecutive #1 overall draft position.

And yet, Lawrence and the Jags won a playoff game the very next season, and the former Clemson Tiger has become a dark horse MVP favorite this year. Did he simply discover how to play the position in year two? Nope. Lawrence (a terrific prospect) had been completely sandbagged as a rookie by one of the worst coaches in league history, Urban Meyer. After that horror show (in which Meyer was cut loose before his first year was even over) Jacksonville hired Doug Pederson — a good coach who once played quarterback, and could mentor Lawrence. And overnight, the guy who everyone knew was super talented, started playing like he’s super talented.

Meanwhile, one of the more unexpected 2023 success stories (so far) has been the resurgence of Baker Mayfield, who was chosen first overall by Cleveland in 2018, to be groomed by Hugh Jackson and our old friend Todd Haley. Cleveland, of course, is a nightmare organization, and midway through Mayfield’s rookie season, the Browns fired both Jackson and Haley, in favor of empty-suit Freddie Kitchens (first as OC, then HC).

Kitchens certainly didn’t groom Baker, but cutting the dead weight at the top gave the young QB room to breathe, and to play with the confidence that he displayed in college. The result: Mayfield set an NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes, and posted a 6-7 starting record on a team that had been 1-31 the prior two years.

* Mayfield is also a warning, let’s admit. Like Smith, he’s currently under his sixth OC in six years, and inconsistency has been the rule as a result. But it’s hard to look back at his rookie season and not see that he needed a change in order to thrive.

On this team, I’d rather see a mentor like Pederson training Pickett, as opposed to an overmatched meathead like Kitchens. But whoever calls plays can’t be much worse than Canada’s been. If the coordinator is in the way, maybe it’s time for a new coordinator.

Will the Steelers knuckle down and replace Canada mid-season? I don’t know. History says, probably not, but there’s not that much history to go on. They essentially fired offensive line coach Adrian Klemm with a couple of games to go in 2021, so nothing’s truly off the table. Maybe Tomlin will reinstate the handcuffs and try to rein Canada in by the bye week again this year. And maybe it will work. But the arguments for retaining him are getting harder and harder to make.

This Steelers defense is championship caliber, as we learned against Cleveland Monday night. An offense that can hold the ball and drive the field makes this team truly dangerous.

It’s time. Throw the dead weight overboard, and let’s go win this thing. Go Steelers.