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Farabaugh: Here’s the Cold Hard Truth about Mike Tomlin



Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

Somehow, every Steelers offseason, we do the same song and dance. It’s the annual Mike Tomlin debate. This year it’s exacerbated under the scrutiny of his likely impending contract extension. But it seems the annual crisis is that this all goes in circles. Supporters point out the obvious — the non-losing streak. Detractors point out the obvious — zero playoff wins since 2016.

So, let me try to embrace this conversation with some more nuance. There’s more to it than just those two things. For one, I think Tomlin has some elite traits that allow him to elevate his teams. Second, there are some traits that are maddening and contribute to that second stat. So, let me try to go down the pros and cons of Mike Tomlin as a coach.

Pro: Player Relationships

Is there a better trait that Tomlin has than the way he builds relationships with the guys around him? My guess is the answer to that is no. Really, Tomlin is the best in the NFL at this, to me. We have seen time and time again the impact he makes on an individual level. There is something about how Tomlin gravitates to the individual that makes him love football and life in general. It’s quite literally the essence of his love for the game.

So, sure there’s not a lot of surprise that Tomlin ends up being a lifelong mentor to many of his former players. That means a lot both on and off the field. It elevates Tomlin’s ability to rally teams that he coaches. The tight knit community he oversees is stronger because of his interpersonal ability.

Con: Hiring of Coaches

One other thing you always hear about Tomlin is his lack of a coaching tree. I don’t always think it’s that big of a deal, but it does stem from one of his biggest weaknesses. Tomlin’s inability to get the coaches on his staff right has been his biggest detriment in his career at times. In particular, Tomlin’s recent run of offensive coordinators has been the most eye opening. The run from Randy Fichtner to Matt Canada since 2018 has been a low point.

With Bruce Arians and Todd Haley, that was when Tomlin soared.  The Steelers need him to fix this issue first and foremost. A lot of the assistant coaches he has hired has left a lot to be desired. But his offensive coordinator hires in recent years is the biggest stain on his resume.

Pro: Culture Building

Tie it in with relationship building or whatever, but Tomlin’s one of the best culture builders the game has to offer. His strength as a coach with his relationship building lends itself to a stronger room that will fight for their coach. The Steelers have consistently fought back from holes in seasons and never seem out of many games. From 2019 onward, I would argue the Steelers have vastly overachieved to their talent level for most of the stretch.

In the past two seasons, in particular, the Steelers had little business being 9-8 in back-to-back seasons with a playoff appearance. Yet, they made it there. It’s a top tier trait that he has and he has yet to lose a team no matter what happens over the course of the season. That’s a tough trait to find in coaches.

Con: Lack of Analytics

I think this is one of the easier things that Tomlin can easily fix, but the Steelers are just not a team that embraces analytics as part of the game. Tomlin has often described this as a gut instinct for what he does as a coach. That’s fine, but how many times have there been a 4th-and-short they should have gone for but did not. It does seem at times that Tomlin does indeed live in his fears.

This could be an area where Tomlin is starting to come around, though. Earlier this year he revealed they use more in-depth, football-related analytics. They have a small analytics staff, and lost Will Britt to the Cowboys, so this is certainly something that needs some boosting. Regardless, Tomlin does need to get into the numbers a bit more rather than embracing with go-with-your-gut mentality around.

Pro: Gameplanning

I’m throwing this one in strengths, and I think it’s quite elite from Tomlin’s perspective. Most people lament Tomlin as an Xs and Os coach but if you watch the tape week in and week out, from a schematic standpoint Tomlin puts out some fantastic gameplans along with Teryl Austin. This past year when T.J. Watt went down, they tried just about everything, and their gameplan against the Buccaneers to snuff Tom Brady is one of the better coaching jobs I’ve seen. The team did everything to overcome the injuries in the secondary.

There’s never a blind moment defensively. And Tomlin is fantastic at getting ahead of the trends on the defensive side of the ball. He implemented a tite front before it was the hot thing at the NFL level and was a fledgling thing at the college level. Tomlin adjusted to 2-high schemes. He embraced defensive back specialization largely before it was a thing. The Steelers run everything, but their long standing scheme is always spruced up with modern innovations. Count me in as a believer in what Tomlin does.

Con: Coaching Management

This is one that I think is easier to see. Tomlin and frankly most head coaches are bad at clock management. He’s no different in that regard. But what has really been odd with Tomlin is his inability to win challenges. He’s just 36 of 86 in his entire coaching career on challenges and went 0 for 2 last season on them.

Since 2019, Tomlin is 5 of 16 on challenges, and that’s obviously a number that needs to improve. Whether Tomlin needs to hire someone to be his eye in the sky or whatever, his lack of challenge success is questionable and odd. Regardless, those basic in-game management things are traits that Tomlin leaves plenty to be desired upon.


That is all to say, there’s a lot of traits that can be frustrating about Tomlin but he’s got elite traits that make you understand why he is a great coach. And yes, no matter what, Tomlin is a great coach. The flaws, you can live with because the strengths are hard to ignore and show themselves so often in his success as a coach.

However, there’s those flaws that hold him back from being as good as he could be. The next time he makes an offensive coordinator hire, he has to get it right. Tomlin with an offensive coordinator is a proven successful formula. The Steelers make runs and win games when that happens.

I will say, Tomlin is the absolutely perfect coach for what they need now. In the retooling and rebuilding of this roster, they needed a coach with strong culture building aspects that could mold a new generation of players, and a new quarterback, to the NFL. His culture has already taken its roots within the Steelers and that makes Tomlin uniquely fit for where they are right now. The Steelers were not supposed to win playoff games in this two year stretch.

Tomlin will be extended. Bet on that. But when you look at Tomlin’s coaching record, understand it’s a nuanced record. He’s an elite culture builder and defensive gameplanner who has let the shortcomings on the offensive side of the ball, particularly at quarterback and offensive coordinator, cloud into his way in recent years. Now, Kenny Pickett could have a chance to end those quarterback woes.

Defensive coaches in today’s game must find that right guy as an offensive coordinator. They just do. What Tomlin does great is so hard to quantify with clear stats, but he’s clearly great at what he does. The question now for me is can he stitch together an offensive plan and philosophy over the next few years to get them out of playoff futility? That will go a long way to declaring which of these cons are seemingly there forever and which ones might just be temporary.

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