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Steelers Commentary

Bell: Mike Tomlin & the Steelers Path Out of NFL Purgatory



Mike Tomlin Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

The Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the Buffalo Bills on Wild Card weekend was the end to an eventful season that featured many twists and turns. If nothing else, the matchup between shined a light on the difference between being competitive and being contenders. Unceremoniously, it also marks their seventh consecutive season without a playoff win and that’s a cloud that continues looming large over the organizations head. The Steelers are firmly entrenched inside the NFL’s middle class A.K.A. purgatory. How they arrived there doesn’t matter as much as figuring out an effective exit strategy with no shortage of important questions to answer in the coming months.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin declined to answer post game questions about his potential future with the franchise as he enters the final year of his contract. Part of the storm-off was likely due to frustration fresh off a loss, but for the first time in his career, there’s at least a little bit of uncertainty regarding his plans moving forward.

To be clear, his job is not in jeopardy but his decision to step away or even coach elsewhere, ultimately lies solely in his hands. Until proven otherwise, you have to assume that he’s going to be the guy in charge next season. Following the season’s conclusion, it’s worth discussing Tomlin’s performance and the disconnect that exists between the local and national markets.

Since he was hired in 2007, only the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers have won more regular-season games than Tomlin’s Steelers. As CBS Sports analyst Tony Romo was quick to remind all of us on Monday, he has never once had a losing season, which is undoubtedly a remarkable feat. With a mid-season offensive coordinator change, three different starting quarterbacks and rotating doors at the linebacker and safety positions down the stretch, he found a way to lead this team back to the postseason once again. Even if he retired today, Tomlin’s resume is Hall of Fame worthy and you can make a compelling argument that he’s one of the best floor-raisers in the coaching industry.

But as the years go on, things are getting complicated. The Steelers back-doored their way into the playoffs and immediately found themselves as double-digit underdogs. Losing the game wasn’t all that surprising, but how they lost the game is more troublesome. They got off to a slow start leading to an early deficit, turned the ball over on offense and the defense got throttled in the process. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because that’s the exact same plot to each of the Steelers postseason failures over the past decade. In fact, they’ve now allowed 30 or more points while generating zero takeaways in five straight playoff losses.

To put things into perspective on how long it’s been since the Steelers won a playoff game, there are only eight franchises that have a longer active drought of postseason success. Every single franchise on that list has fired multiple coaches in that same span. This isn’t to suggest that Tomlin should be fired but to highlight that this stuff typically doesn’t fly as long in other markets. It’s also fair to point out that some of the challenges that he’s had to work through, such as winning in spite of an inept offense, is a direct result of his own decision making. Hiring Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator was certainly an uninspiring decision in the moment but to then bring him back in 2023 for continuity purposes just reeked of settling for mediocrity.

Even despite the shortcomings in the playoffs, there is still a path to Tomlin and the Steelers getting back on track. But it’s going to require some outside of the box thinking, honest reflection and serious aggressiveness that both this coach and the organization that employs him is not quite known for. The first step is getting serious about the offensive side of the ball and that includes finding a competent and innovative mind to orchestrate it all. This means that in-house promotions are off the table, as are former University of Pittsburgh coaches that you have had lunch with in the past. This is the most important hire of Tomlin’s professional coaching career and he’s got to nail it. Plain and simple.

The second step forward is an honest reflection of the team that is currently in place and the quarterbacks tasked with leading the way. When a legendary quarterback steps away, it’s never easy. For better or worse, the Steelers approached Ben Roethlisberger’s final season as a transition year prior to drafting his successor, Kenny Pickett, in 2022. Due to some combination of poor pre-draft evaluation, offensive coaching and lack of overall talent, that experiment has failed thus far. Since 2022, Pickett ranks 29th in EPA/play and 26th in success rate among signal callers with at least 500 snaps. He’s also struggled to stay on the field and wasn’t able to regain his starting job after his latest injury.

An even more damning reflection of Pickett’s struggles came over the final month of the season, with Mason Rudolph taking the reins and taking he offense to a level that it previously had not reached. During their three-game win streak to end the regular season, people were reminded that the Steelers have some young players on offense that are quite talented! George Pickens and Diontae Johnson had their moments and the run game was humming as well. All it took was competent quarterback play, too. Of course, Rudolph is now a free agent and is likely going to get a raise based on how he performed down the stretch. Whether or not that will be in Pittsburgh remains to be seen.

Rudolph’s run was certainly a bright spot to an otherwise lifeless season offensively but as we saw frequently throughout the NFL this season, backups are backups for a reason. The glitter eventually wears off and they come crashing back down to earth. Simply going back to Pickett to usher in the 2024 doesn’t inspire a lick of confidence, either. The only thing worse than missing on a first-round quarterback is falling into the sunken cost fallacy by sticking with that prospect for too long. When watching the quarterback play on Wild Card weekend, it’s never been more apparent just how hard it is to win without a real difference maker at the position, especially in an AFC loaded with flame-throwing aliens.

The other side of the coin here is that the Steelers roster isn’t completely lacking talent either. Beyond the young offensive pieces mentioned above, the defense is largely constructed with a healthy mix of really good veteran players and youngsters with potential. T.J. Watt will be 30-years old next season while Minkah Fitzpatrick and Alex Highsmith are both in the primes of their careers, all three of which are on expensive second contracts that lock them up for the foreseeable future. Cam Heyward is in the twilight of his career, but you can guarantee that he’d like to spend his final days playing on a contending team.

The rebuild phase has to end if you want to maximize what is left from this current core of star players on defense.  At this current point in time, those options are a bit unclear, but everything should be on the table here. If Kirk Cousins is open to the idea of moving residency in the offseason, he immediately becomes the best short-term option available. Could Geno Smith become available given Seattle’s organizational turnover? Chicago is sitting on the number one pick with a huge decision to make on Justin Fields. At the very least, Jacoby Brissett is a pending free agent that could be signed for cheap. There will be other names that will come up as we gain clarity in the coming weeks as well but adding a starting-caliber player to the room is a must.

One of the downsides to being in the middle of the NFL landscape is that you’re constantly picking towards the back half of the first round which is typically out of the range for the draft’s best quarterbacks. The 2024 class offers some tantalizing skill sets between Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and even Jayden Daniels but it would take a massive haul to move up high enough to snag one of them. If they’re in love with someone that much, then the risk could be worth the reward but a move like that doesn’t fit the timeline as well as a veteran passer would.

The Steelers are still ways away from being a real contender in the AFC but they’re too talented to completely bottom out which puts them in a predicament. How Tomlin and company choose to navigate themselves out of this position will be fascinating to watch in real time. But one thing should be painfully obvious: standing pat and running this thing back with Tomlin and this quarterback room would be doing the rest of the team a disservice. Non-losing seasons are nice but at what point does consistency become synonymous with complacency?