Will the Steelers fire Mike Tomlin? Years of success can’t stop critics from searching for something different

If you think about it, the most amazing aspect of Mike Tomlin’s career as Steelers head coach might be the fact the team has retained him despite his 0-68 record in regular season games since the team appeared in its most recent Super Bowl.

Now, you might want to dispute those numbers, but I pay a lot of attention to the reaction in the Pittsburgh community to each Steelers game, and it’s become exceedingly obvious only the losses count.

After the most recent defeat, a dismal 24-10 acquiescence Sunday to the last-place Arizona Cardinals, three (at least) local sports talk hosts presented the case for his dismissal after his 17th season, with still no actual losing seasons recorded to date. Instead of acknowledging this for the astonishing achievement it is – especially given the Steelers had to replace quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after two games in 2019 and for good after the 2021 season — it’s become common to hear this record dismissed as some sort of novelty.

Seriously.

As if the job of a pro football coach were not to win games.

Tomlin has done that better than most since being the Steelers’ surprise hire in advance of the 2007 season. The poorest record of any Tomlin team has been 8-8, which happened in 2013 as the Super Bowl-level defense began to age, and again in the 2019 season in which they had to get by with the combination of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at quarterback.

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Rudolph, only four years later, has been relegated to the third spot on the Steelers’ depth chart at quarterback. Hodges since has been promoted to the position of Lainey Wilson’s boyfriend.

An ordinary coach, or a poor one, does not go 8-8 with those guys. They were not eliminated from the playoff race until the final day of the regular season.

When the 49ers’ terrific Kyle Shanahan lost starting quarterback Jimmy Garappolo in 2020, they finsihed 6-10 and last in their division.

Certainly Tomlin is not above criticism. It was his decision to elevate Matt Canada from (a slightly underqualified) quarterbacks coach to (a wholly unqualified) offensive coordinator in advance of the 2021 season.

As a college OC with more than 10 years experience, Canada produced only two teams that finished among the top 35 NCAA FBS teams in scoring. Three of his teams finished outside the top 80, and the average for his teams was 57th. Nothing about that indicated he was worthy of one of the 32 top jobs in that discipline. It would be like hiring someone as chief operating officer of a Fortune 500 company after they struggled to keep a McDonald’s franchise cooking.

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Perhaps even more egregious was retaining Canada after the 2022 season, when the team finished 23rd in total offense and 26th in scoring. It was done, quite obviously, in the belief a change in offensive coordinators would have a diminishing effect on starting quarterback Kenny Pickett after he’d just completed his rookie year.

Instead, continuing under Canada helped set back Pickett’s development. The Steelers were outgained by each of their first 10 opponents before Tomlin relented and fired his OC. After that move, the ofense produced its first 400-yard game in years, but Pickett lasted less than a half the next before being was lost for an extended period with an ankle injury.

Coaches do make mistakes. Bill Cowher did a terrific job for the Steelers in his 15 seasons as head coach, from 1992-2006, but he declined to embrace Kordell Stewart’s dazzling ability to run and tried to force his transformation into a pocket passer, and, when that didn’t work, even tried Kent Graham as a replacement. Cowher, as well, went through failed OCs in Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride. The issues that developed in those two positions under Cowher led to three losing seasons in a five-year period, something that’s never happened with Tomlin. His teams have found a way, in the most balanced and competitive NFL era in its 10 decades, to avoid consistent defeat.

The Steelers cannot allow Tomlin alone to determine the identity of the next person to take charge of the team’s offense. Whether it is team president Art Rooney II or general manager Omar Khan, there must be considerable input – and veto power – over the person who will succeed those installed to finish this season.

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They also can’t afford to allow the negative sentiment that develops over every misstep to overwhelm what the team has managed to achieve. Although the offense has been largely inept, although star defenders Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick missed extended periods with injury, although the three players signed to provide an inside linebacker core are all presently absent because of injury, the Steelers are 7-5 with victories over each of their competitors in the AFC North as well as the Packers, Rams, Raiders and Titans.

A week after they beat the Bengals and held QB Jake Browning to 19 completions and 10 points, he took his team on the road to Jacksonville and rang up 354 yards and 34 points. Since the Steelers held the Packers to 19 points, Green Bay has won three in a row, including defeats of Super Bowl contenders Detroit and Kansas City.

The Steelers have had just three coaches since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. The organization has believed in stability and been rewarded for this approach with far more victories than any other franchise, more playoff appearances and six Super Bowl victories, matched only by Tom Brady’s Patriots. Pittsburgh has had only four losing seasons since 1990.

The Jets have had four losing seasons since 2019.

The chase for the next big thing led the Chargers to hire Brandon Staley, who has gotten the team to a single playoff game in three seasons and now has the team at 5-7 even though they’ve got one of the most gifted young quarterbacks, Justin Herbert. Many Steelers fans were jealous of the Titans and Mike Vrabel after they went 23-10 over two seasons at the start of this decade. His current team is in the process of following up a 7-10 season with a 4-8 start. My goodness, Buffalo’s Sean McDermott has Josh Allen at QB and is only 6-6 on the year. And Bill Belichick’s Patriots are 2-10.

That’s how hard it is in the NFL. Attrition and attention to detail can undermine any team in a given week. To stand at 7-5 with all the Steelers have been forced to confront is evidence of Mike Tomlin’s excellence as a coach, something he’s continued to demonstrate through persistent criticism for more than a decade, even through the transition period from a Hall of Fame quarterback to whatever comes next.

The Steelers are criticized routinely for not winning a playoff game since 2016, as if all the regular season success is invalid, while every disappointing regular-season defeat is treated as Waterloo. 

It has been asserted in the Pittsburgh media that Tomlin’s presence in Pittsburgh is “stale.” I didn’t think one could tire of winning. But if only the losses count, it’s possible.

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