As you know, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is not the most popular man in town right now, and that won’t change anytime soon, what with his team heading into its bye week on a two-game losing streak.
Colin Cowherd, who has a show on Fox Sports Radio, piled on this week by pointing out Tomlin’s coaching history since 2012, which includes an overall record of 41-30 and a 19-22 mark against teams with losing records.
Cowherd said that Pittsburgh’s sub-.500 performance against bad football teams isn’t so much about talent but about the emotional inconsistency of Tomlin’s players.
In other words, Cowherd blames coaching and not talent.
Judging by many of the comments in the article Jeff Hartman posted on Wednesday, it’s clear that you might agree with Cowherd’s sentiments.
If that’s the case, I think you and Colin Cowherd are being unfair.
Why do I say that? For starters, the Steelers weren’t really a good football team themselves in 2012, and they certainly weren’t anywhere near good in 2013.
In-fact, you can make a very strong case that Pittsburgh started to decline during its 12-4 season in 2011. The Steelers got their butts whooped pretty good by Baltimore in Week 1 (35-7), and after the game, Warren Sapp boldly stated that Dick LeBeau’s defense was “old, slow, and it’s over.”
People bristled at that, but when you re-examine things, Sapp was mostly right. It didn’t seem so at the time, especially since Pittsburgh won 12 games and the defense finished first in yards, but go back and look at that schedule. You talk about dogs—2011 was filled with them.
The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers were a team comprised mostly of old Super Bowl heroes who were in their last days with the organization. This was particularly the case for a defense that saw a sharp decline in sacks (35) and takeaways (15) from the previous season.
The trend never corrected itself in subsequent years, because the younger players were either inexperienced or far less talented than those old heroes they replaced, and the veterans who stuck around (Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, etc.) were shells of their former selves.
And that was just the defense.
There may not be enough time in the day to talk about the massive change in philosophy on offense, after Bruce Arians was fired following the 2011 season and replaced by Todd Haley.
The thing about a decline in talent is, you don’t really notice it right away. Eleven games into the season, the 1998 Steelers were 7-4 and looking very much like Bill Cowher’s seventh-straight playoff team. But there was something off about those ‘98 Steelers, and five-straight losses later—including debacles against the pitiful Lions and even sorrier Bengals—they were 7-9 and watching the postseason at home for the first time since 1991.
The 1999 team was even worse (6-10), and though the 2000 edition got it together after an 0-3 start to finish at 9-7, it wasn’t enough to avoid missing the playoffs for a third-straight season.
2012 was a lot like 1998 around here. There was just something off about the Steelers through nine games, this despite their 6-3 start. Ben Roethlisberger was doing okay in Haley’s new system, but Antonio Brown wasn’t quite Antonio Brown just yet, Mike Wallace was a lame-duck receiver and Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer were the primary running backs. Following an injury to Roethlisberger during an overtime victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field, the wheels essentially fell off the wagon, and Pittsburgh dropped five of its final seven games—including three in a row after Roethlisberger returned to action—to finish 8-8 and out of the postseason.
The 2013 Steelers were bad on paper, and bad on the football field, as they got off to starts of 0-4 and 2-6. Some of those losses were to teams with losing records—Titans, Vikings, etc.—but the Steelers weren’t playing down to the level of the competition in those games; they were playing at their level of competition.
The fact that Pittsburgh recovered from such a disastrous first half of the season—in-addition to the overall lack of talent and 2-6 record, Maurkice Pouncey, Larry Foote and LaRod Stephens-Howling were all lost for the year in Week 1—to finish at 8-8 and a field goal miss away from making the playoffs was, in my opinion, a testament to Tomlin’s coaching greatness.
The thing about an increase in talent is, you don’t always notice it right away. The 2014 Steelers stumbled a bit out of the gate and were 3-3 after a couple of bad losses to the awful Buccaneers and the annually awful Browns, but there was just something about Haley’s offense. The talent was evident the year before, after Le’Veon Bell came on the scene at running back in Week 4 and Kelvin Beachum replaced Mike Adams at left tackle.
After rookie receiver Martavis Bryant made his debut against the Texans in Week 7, it was on. Suddenly, the Steelers had a juggernaut of an offense that included the most productive receiver in the NFL, an All-Pro running back and a talented offensive line that afforded its franchise quarterback the best protection of his career (just 33 sacks in 608 passing attempts), as Roethlisberger threw 32 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, while leading the NFL with 4,952 passing yards.
After starting out 3-3, Pittsburgh won eight of its final 10 games to finish 11-5 and clinched its first AFC North title in four years. Unfortunately, Bell suffered a hyper-extended knee in Week 17, an injury that pretty much put an end to the Steelers’ postseason before it really began.
Loss of man hours became a theme for the 2015 Steelers, as Roethlisberger, Bell, Bryant, Beachum, Pouncey and Shaun Suisham all missed significant time (or the entire season) due to injuries or suspensions.
Still, the Steelers fought through this adversity to finish at 10-6 and grabbed the final wild card spot. Sadly, despite an emotional victory over the Bengals in the wild card round, Pittsburgh left Paul Brown Stadium severely compromised for the divisional match-up against the Broncos due to a concussion sustained by Brown after a dirty hit courtesy of linebacker Vontaze Burfict (you know, during the game in-which Cowherd claimed Tomlin’s men were out of control?) and a shoulder injury to Roethlisberger.
This season, suspensions are again a theme (Bell and Bryant, once more), as are injuries (Ryan Shazier, Cam Heyward, Marcus Gilbert and, of course, Roethlisberger), yet, the Steelers are sitting at 4-3 and in first place in the AFC North.
The 34-3 debacle in Philadelphia was unfortunate, but guess what? The Eagles are a good football team. The 30-15 loss to the Dolphins was less excusable, but Pittsburgh went into that game without its two best defensive players and maybe its most consistent offensive lineman in Gilbert (and let’s not forget about the meniscus tear sustained by Roethlisberger during the game).
What am I saying in all of this? The Steelers have been an inconsistent football team over the past four-plus seasons because of talent, not coaching.
For as good and talented as the offense has become in recent years, its key players just can’t stay healthy (or free of suspension). As for the defense (wrote over 1,100 words and haven’t mentioned the transition from LeBeau to Keith Butler), it’s got issues that the coaches have been trying to correct on the fly in recent years, with both young talent and new philosophies (it would help if Shazier and Heyward could stay on the field together as much as possible), and it hasn’t always been pretty.
Starting in 2012, the Steelers went from a Super Bowl juggernaut, to a team in transition, back to a Super Bowl contender. Yet they remained in playoff contention the entire time (even during the transition years) and never finished with a losing record.
What Tomlin has done over the past four-plus years with keeping his team “buttoned-up” and in contention during a major roster (and coordinator) overhaul is kind of remarkable, but not too many people seem to realize it.
If Colin Cowherd wants to criticize Tomlin for his performance since 2012 based on stats alone, he can do that. However, if he would examine things a little closer, he may have a different opinion of the head coach’s abilities.
I won’t hold my breath on that last one.
I won’t be giving Mike Tomlin a pass, either, and that’s because great head coaches like him don’t need one.