PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin appears to be at a strange crossroads to his career.
His team is struggled, having lost three straight games, appears to be headed for its second consecutive season without a postseason appearance and eighth straight year to fail to advance beyond the Wild Card round.
The last season that can be called a modest regular season success came in 2020, when the team was 12-4. They also had a 13-3 season in 2017. Both of those lost their first playoff game.
The last time the Steelers had a season they can truly be proud of is in 2016, when the lost in the AFC Championship Game to the best to ever do it in Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
The trajectory of the team coming into the 2023 season appear to be fairly clear. The Steelers are in the midst of a rebuild, mostly on the offensive side of the ball, as they moved on from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2021. In reality, that rebuild had been on-going, as the pieces of those 2016 and 2017 teams had all fallen away before Roethlisberger. He was the final one holding on at the end.
The rebuild started in earnest in 2022, when Kenny Pickett was the team’s first-round draft pick and heir apparent. The team got off to a bumpy start, but the second half was promising. It looked like the Steelers had something in Pickett and had some pieces around him.
Then came an extremely impressive 2023 offseason, starting with a bang in free agency and carrying on through a very well-regarded draft class. When the team first got onto the field together this summer, it looked great. The preseason was a marvel. The Steelers looked to be, if anything, ahead of the curve they had set in 2022.
Fast forward a few months, and things have collapsed. The Steelers offense struggled, Pickett failed to take a step forward, the defense has been decimated by injuries, and the team completely imploded in the first weeks of December with back-to-back losses to two-win teams and then blowing a two-touchdown lead in a game they called must-win against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.
The trajectory is in the mud. Where is this team going? Who are the key parts to move it forward? These are questions that the Steelers seemed to have the answers to 12 months ago that now they do not.
Whenever there’s a Plan B, it has to be different than Plan A. This will be obviously be different, no matter what — it’s not like they’re going to un-fire Matt Canada — but the processes that led to Canada being the coordinator, and this team seemingly falling apart at the seams when the going got tough must be examined and overturned, in order to prevent a repeat performance.
In Tomlin’s weekly press conference on Monday, he used the word “change” 11 times. He seems to understand that going forward, he’s going to have to embrace change.
But that isn’t always easy for someone that has been in their current position for 17 years. Mike Tomlin doesn’t see that as a problem.
“For me personally, I always pride myself in having a hardcore plan but being light enough on my feet and being open to change and trends,” he said. “That’s just a business model, if you will, or mode of operation that I approach my business with.”
That’s one thing to say. It’s another to implement it. If Mike Tomlin remains the Steelers head coach heading into 2024, his willingness to embrace change at this stage of his career will be the key to the Steelers getting back on track.