On Thursday morning, the Pittsburgh Steelers curiously gave their head coach, Mike Tomlin, a one year contract extension. Tomlin is only 47 years old and has never had a losing season as their head coach, so it struck me as odd that they didn’t extend him longer. Some speculate that he wanted to be signed on as long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was, potentially considering retiring at the same time as his quarterback. Others wonder if maybe the legendary Rooney family is getting tired of not winning championships and they didn’t want to commit to Tomlin long-term.
Curiously enough, a coach that has reached double digit wins twice as often as he’s missed the playoffs has outstayed his welcome in the mind of many a Steelers fan. So I ask the question, are they right? Or perhaps even more interestingly, is Mike Tomlin actually underrated?
Is Mike Tomlin Underrated?
Before we get started, let me just read off Mike Tomlin’s current list of achievements. In his 12 years as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he has a record of 125-66-1 (.654% win percentage), six AFC North Championships, two AFC Championships, and a Super Bowl ring. With the exception of two consecutive 8-8 seasons, his Steelers have always had at least nine wins, and he has a winning record in the playoffs.
His offenses have ranked top ten (in yards) six times, including the last five years, and his defenses have ranked top ten (again, in yards) nine times, including both of the last two seasons. Tomlin has the second highest win percentage of among active coaches (the next up is Bruce Arians at .619%), and 11th all-time (among those with at least 100 games coached). The Steelers are rarely ever bad, and during Tomlin’s era, they’ve barely approached mediocrity. So why don’t the fans of his team value him?
The Bill Cowher Argument
A lot of people will discredit Mike Tomlin’s success in Pittsburgh for one simple reason. When he took over for Bill Cowher in 2007, the Steelers were only two years removed from a Super Bowl win and still featured many of the same players. Tomlin inherited a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, a Hall of Fame safety in Troy Polamalu, and a ton of other players, including James Harrison, that made the transition easy on him.
And honestly, it’s hard to dispute that Mike Tomlin would’ve enjoyed the same early success if he’d gone to another team. Unless you’re Jim Caldwell, it’s hard to run a team with Super Bowl pedigree into the ground. But I’ll remind everyone that the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005. Even if you want to put Tomlin’s two Super Bowl appearances aside (like James Harrison did), saying he inherited a great team that made him look better than he was, wouldn’t he have fallen apart by now?
It’s been 14 years since Bill Cowher’s Steelers won the Super Bowl, and the franchise hasn’t had a losing season since. How many teams are as good or bad as they were 14 years ago without any hiccups? Basically just Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and my Oakland Raiders, right?
The Gruden Effect
Speaking of my Oakland Raiders, current and former head coach Jon Gruden had a similar issue. He was traded from Oakland to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back after the 2001 season and he also inherited a decent roster. He ended up on a Buccaneers team with a loaded roster built by Tony Dungy, and in his first season, he won a Super Bowl, trouncing his former team.
However, that would be the last playoff game he won in Tampa Bay. Over the next six years as the team’s head coach, the legendary 2002 defense would slowly decline and he’d only make the post-season on two other occasions, losing in the first round both times. The so-called offensive mastermind never put together a decent unit on that side of the ball and ultimately he was fired, ironically after the Raiders ended his playoff dreams by beating his Bucs in week 17 of the 2008 season.
The Numbers Game
Throughout Gruden’s time in Tampa Bay, his offense was never great, but the defense would experience highs and lows. He’d enjoy five more seasons with a top defense, including four years in the top five, but his offenses never really matched up, which is pretty damning when you consider he was meant to be an offensive coach. Ironically, his defenses were never as good as they were after 2005 when one of his defensive assistants, a defensive backs coach named Mike Tomlin, left to take a defensive coordinator job in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, without Jon Gruden coaching him in Oakland, Rich Gannon enjoyed a little more success. By infamously running the exact same offense in 2002, Gannon put up career numbers, leading the Raiders to the Super Bowl. But after that season? He was never the same. Injuries hurt, but in a different scheme, Gannon was never as good again as he was with the Raiders and the silver and black haven’t won a playoff game since.
That’s an example of someone using another coach’s team to win a Super Bowl. He showed up, used what he had, and was never able to duplicate his success. Sure, Tomlin hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 2008, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been close.
Shades of Black and Yellow
Bill Cowher’s defenses are the stuff of legend. He was crucial in the development of legendary linebacker Derrick Thomas as the defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, and then he spent twice as many seasons with top five defenses (seven) as head coach than anything higher than ten. The centerpieces of Tomlin’s Super Bowl defense were signed or drafted by Cowher, so it’s easy to discredit that championship win.
But unlike Gruden, Tomlin has managed to reinvent the team and find success. Troy Polamalu is gone. So is James Harrison. Larry Foote is nowhere to be seen, Ike Taylor and James Farrior aren’t anywhere to be found at Heinz Field. Even Hall of Fame defensive back and coordinator, Dick LeBeau has been gone for nearly five years.
Did Bill Cowher draft T.J. Watt or Ryan Shazier? What does Bill Cowher know about Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, LeGarrette Blount, Martavis Bryant, or JuJu Smith-Schuster? Sure, Cowher’s Steelers had an elite defense every year, so we’re supposed to ignore the seven top ten defenses that Tomlin has coached. But what about those top six offenses? Recently, Pittsburgh’s defense has been a shadow of it’s former self but the explosive Steelers offense has kept them competitive.
We’re supposed to ignore that success because the Steelers haven’t won a Super Bowl, something a franchise tied for the most championships in league history has grown accustomed to, even if Cowher’s offenses only broke the top ten seven times in his entire career. There’s no way to attribute the offense’s success to Cowhere when the only holdover has been Ben Roethlisberger.
The “Big Ben” of It All
Therein lies another argument. Tomlin not only inherited a great defense, but also a franchise quarterback, and there’s no question that when it’s all said and done, Roethlisberger will almost certainly end up in Canton. That’s why I included that seemingly irrelevant story about Rich Gannon earlier. See, Gannon was something that Roethlisberger has never been, the Associated Press NFL MVP.
Now, Gannon also played with Jerry Rice and Tim Brown in Oakland, and literally only succeeded in this scheme. But I’d like to remind everyone exactly what kind of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was at the beginning of his career.
During the three years where Ben played under Bill Cowher, he threw for 8,519 yards, 53 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions. That means he was averaging 208 yards, one touchdown, and one interception a game. You could argue that times were different and quarterbacks didn’t pass for as much, but in 2005, the year they won the Super Bowl, Ben was 21st in passing yards, and 15th in passing touchdowns.
However, during the first three years of Tomlin’s era, Ben threw for 10,783 yards, 75 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions. That’s 234 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception a game. It was during this span where Ben first threw for more than 20 touchdowns or 4,000 yards in a single season and came into his own as a starting quarterback.
It’s true that Cowher drafted Roethlisberger and that he was the starting quarterback when they won the Super Bowl, but it’s not like he looked like a Hall of Famer during their time together. It wasn’t until Tomlin took over that Ben went from game manager to the reason they were winning games. You wouldn’t credit Jerry Glanville for drafting Brett Favre when Mike Holmgren was the head coach that saw him become a Hall of Famer, would you?
And last but not least, the “Tomlin is only good because Kevin Colbert is a great general manager” argument. This is almost fair, because obviously it’s easier to win with a talented roster, and Kevin Colbert is most certainly a very good general manager. But I present to you in opposition, the 2016 Los Angeles Rams roster.
This is a roster that included Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, Lamarcus Joyner, Alec Ogletree, William Hayes, Robert Quinn, and Tavon Austin… and won four games. They went 4-12 and never looked competitive. A year later, they were NFC Champions and a Super Bowl contender. Two years later, they were NFC Champions. The big difference? Sean McVay.
I’m not saying that Sean McVay is Mike Tomlin, or that the situations are the same. I’m just saying that coaching matters, and while losing deep in the playoffs every year must be so very hard on you poor Yinzers, I assure you, it could be much, much worse.