Skip to main content

Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin: A Coach at a Crossroads?

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin

After Baltimore's 23-20 come-from-behind, overtime victory Thursday night against Pittsburgh, is it time to consider the future of Mike Tomlin as the Steelers' head coach?

Image placeholder title

On first glance, such a statement would seem to be blasphemous. Tomlin's contract runs through 2018, and the Steelers have never fired a head coach with time remaining on their contract.

In fact, they haven't fired a coach head since 1968, when Bill Austin's contract was not renewed following a lackluster two-year stint.

To illustrate how long ago that was, Art Rooney Sr. was still running many of the day-to-day operations of the team, so Rocky Bleier, who was only the third-leading rusher on his college team, was selected because The Chief thought Bleier was Catholic.

Bleier was, in fact, Presbyterian.

So Tomlin is safe, right? Absolutely!

But should he be?

It's true Tomlin has never had a losing season as a head coach, but, in theory, if the Steelers' head coaching position became available it would seem unlikely it would not attract anything but the best candidates. Even when coaching vacancies become available from teams with suspect ownership (Irsays, Bidwells, Snyder), the top available coaching candidates always turn up. The Rooneys and Steelers brand would figure to attract not only the cream of the crop of potential up-and-coming assistants and winning college coaches, but also perhaps induce legends to come out of retirement (Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy), if so desired.

The case against Tomlin:

1. Poor strategist

Fans love aggressive coaches, but the nation called out Tomlin for his decision not to punt on the Steelers' first overtime possession and not give the ball to Le'Veon Bell on 4th-and-one from the Baltimore 33 on the second in the loss to the Ravens.

Sure, in overtime possession is imperative. So is field position. A punt from the 39-yard line likely pins the Ravens inside the 20. Even if it were to go for a touchback, the Steelers have gained 19 yards.

While it is something of a convenient assumption to believe play calling and defenses would be exactly the same if Baltimore took over from the 20 (or worse) than the 39, it isn't so hard to believe that the Ravens, who had only one drive longer than 45 yards in the entire game, wouldn't be driving the length of the field. Baltimore gained three yards in its first overtime possession. If that's duplicated, perhaps on the next drive Josh Scobee isn't looking at a 51-yard field goal nobody thinks he can make but instead is looking at a 32-yard chip shot he can redeem himself with.

And even if the Steelers don't score, they have gained enough field position an ensuing 32-yard drive by Baltimore means a punt instead of a field goal attempt.

One can say this is hindsight, but that would be inaccurate. Phil Simms was most critical of Tomlin's decision not to punt on the first overtime drive at the time of the decision, not after the play was run, and so were you.

After nearly a decade at the helm, any head coach is going to have strategic decisions that don't work out and some that do. Tomlin is no different.

But it seems like the strategic decisions that have worked out for Tomlin, such as the onsides kick against Green Bay in 2009 that ultimately led to the Steelers having just enough time to win the game on the final drive, have been outweighed by the ones that haven't.

What about the call for Antonio Brown to pass on the first drive of this season, which stalled what had been a productive drive and eventually led to a 28-21 loss to the Patriots?

Then's there's Tomlin's decision to go for two from the 12-yard line in the playoffs in 2007, which ultimately led to two failed conversions and a 2-point Jacksonville win (ironically on a Scobee field goal).

Speaking of 2-point conversions, what happened to them? An extra point after either of the Steelers' touchdowns Thursday could have won the game.

Not letting Charlie Batch throw on third down late in games against Kansas City in 2009 and Baltimore in '10, which meant instead of getting into field goal range in overtime against the Chiefs and running out the clock against the Ravens. Those two missteps resulted in giving the ball back to each team to produce the winning scores, the latter on a short field.

Tomlin's track record now suggests he is okay with letting Michael Vick attempt win games with his arm when the running game is successful but wasn't okay with letting Batch do the same when his running game was mediocre.

Speaking of Batch...

2. Lack of Loyalty

The backup quarterback is a popular figure on any team and Batch is no exception. What is more curious is why Tomlin tried to grease the skids for Batch so often for the likes of Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon and ultimately Bruce Gradkowski when Batch never did anything to merit losing the job and in fact played his way to a roster spot more often than not at the end of his career.

It seems as if Tomlin's greatest fear as a coach is he will keep a player too long, yet at least two players, James Harrison and Brent Keisel, were let go prematurely.

Yes, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown had surpassed Hines Ward in terms of productivity in 2011. But were you really happy the way Ward's career ended? Not since "Franco Who?" was a Steelers great given such a bum's rush.

Whatever happened to Willie Parker? Sure, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor aren't the players they once were, but even though they have improved as the season has gone on, are you ready to say the likes of Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin and Shamarko Thomas are better than the recently retired veterans?

This also applies to former longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Four weeks into the season the Steelers are ranked 14th in the NFL on defense. The Tennessee Titans, LeBeau's new team, are ranked sixth entering the Monday night game that will wrap up Week 4.

3. Character of Players Brought In

Touched upon in this piece when Michael Vick was signed. To be fair, Tomlin cannot be held responsible for Ben Roethlisberger's alleged off-field troubles when he did not draft him, and general manager Kevin Colbert is as much a part of overall roster construction as anyone.

Granted, it seems a bit of an oxymoron to expect people who earn a living being violent to be choir boys off the field. But it does not excuse them for being criminals.

Some may say this is just a product of modern times in the NFL. But it often seems like the Steelers almost try to seek out such players. LaGarrette Blount's character issues went back to college. Every other team in the NFL passed on Michael Adams when he used illegal drugs during the Combine. The 3-0 Atlanta Falcons, whose fan base would have treated Vick like a prodigal son returning home if he was signed to become Matt Ryan's backup, instead opted to give Rex Grossman- REX GROSSMAN!- a try.

It's always a subjective argument as to how much character and camaraderie play in a team's success. But it should be said the last time the Steelers had a losing record, 2003, Cowher continued to praise what he referred to as the "fiber" of the team in press conferences.

The Steelers went 15-1 the following season and won the Super Bowl the next. 

For the Steelers to be elite, they must be able to get the ball downfield to Brown. Vick couldn't do that this past Thursday against the Ravens. Instead, when he went back to throw he appeared to have the same flaw that critics say prevents Tim Tebow from being successful; a long release.

Only Tebow had a better preseason than Vick a few months ago, with fewer sacks, more yards per pass, and more yards per carry.

It is said Tomlin is sympathetic to Vick because he is from the same Tidewater, Virginia, area Tomlin is. Linebacker Arthur Moats and Thomas are also from the area.

But if that's the case, then how is that any different from The Chief taking Bleier because he thought Rocky was Catholic?

The Bottom Line

Tomlin will take a lot of heat on the social media and talk show circuit this week and rightly so. Still, it would seem this season would have to become a total disaster for Tomlin to not return in 2016. It simply doesn't add up that after signing him to an extension this offseason the Steelers would fire him at the end of the season, especially since it would go against the organization's history.

And as bad as the loss against the Ravens was, it still leaves Pittsburgh at 2-2, and the Steelers can make up their current deficit in the AFC North by sweeping the Bengals.

What could lead to the eventual end of Tomlin as Steelers head coach would be if Pittsburgh lost its Oct. 18 game against Arizona. It would be very embarrassing for Tomlin to lose to Bruce Arians, an offensive coordinator the team let go after the 2011 season, especially when it is considered the Cardinals have four former Steelers assistants or players on their coaching staff as well as Pittsburgh sports legends Buddy Morris and Roger Kingdom.

Throw in the fact Carson Palmer is only 5-7 lifetime as a starter against the Steelers, and even if a potential loss only evened Pittsburgh's record to 3-3, the perception would be a mistake was made following the 2011 season.

Of course, a victory against the Cardinals would wipe all of the bad memories from the Baltimore game away, even if the Steelers lose to San Diego this Sunday.

The only way Tomlin would lose his job before his contract would end would be if the Steelers posted losing records this year and the next, which was enough to get Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe to resign following the 1999 season. There would be talk time is running out on Roethlisberger's career, Tomlin would resign but another team would scoop him up, and a more offensive-minded coach would be brought in to try and get Big Ben one last title and groom a successor.

Or, Tomlin could develop a little more loyalty for his veterans, be a little bit more sensible with his strategy, and put more emphasis on character when making personnel decisions.

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.