The Philadelphia Eagles will return to the NFL Championship Game for the seventh time since 2000 after Saturday’s 38-7 NFC Divisional Round drubbing of their NFL East rivals, the New York Giants.
The Eagles have had four head coaches in that span, with Andy Reid taking them to the NFC title game in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2008 and the Super Bowl in 2004, but never winning a Lombardi Trophy in the City of Brotherly Love.
He was replaced in 2013 by Chip Kelly, who made the playoffs once in three seasons before yielding to Doug Pederson. Pederson, a former Eagles player, won Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl in his second season, but was fired three years later.
The Eagles replaced Pederson with Nick Sirianni, who has already taken them back to at least the NFC Championship Game in his second season with the team. Philly’s 14-3 regular season in 2022 was the best regular-season record in team history.
The success of Pederson and Sirianni following Reid has some wondering if the Eagles’ strategy of cycling through head coaches might work better than the Pittsburgh Steelers’ plan of replacing coaches only generationally.
The Steelers have had two coaches since 1992 with each of Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin winning one Super Bowl in that span — one more than the Eagles’ entire existence. Pittsburgh has had just three head coaches since 1969.
Since 2000, one year after the Eagles hired Reid in 1999, Philadelphia has won 217 regular season games, 15 playoff games, one Super Bowl, and two NFC Championships. In that same span, the Steelers have won 235 regular season games, 15 playoffs games, two Super Bowls and three AFC Championships. On the whole, the Steelers way has been slightly more successful.
But when you start to look at specifics, the comparison really fails to hold up. Each of the last three Eagles coaches were fired when they got themselves into a place that no Pittsburgh coach has been to in a very long time.
Pederson went 4-11-1 in 2020 and Reid went 4-12 in 2012. The last Steelers team to win four or fewer games was in Chuck Noll’s first season as head coach in 1969. The last veteran Steelers coach to win four or fewer games was Bill Austin, right before he was fired in 1968.
Kelly didn’t win a playoff game in his three seasons and had clinched a losing season when he got the axe in 2016. That has happened once in modern Steelers history, when an already Hall-of-Fame bound Noll went 5-11 in 1988 after missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons previously.
And even though the Eagles have had some success with their quick coaching hooks, the coaches they jettisoned have done pretty well for themselves. Reid finally won his Super Bowl with Kansas City in 2019 and has been to one more. The Chiefs have won the AFC West seven straight times and are in their fourth straight AFC Championship Game.
In his first year coaching since being fired in Philly, Pederson took the Jacksonville Jaguars to a division title this season after they went 3-14 last season. The two ex-Eagles coaches faced each other in the divisional round this season.
There hasn’t been a former Steelers head coach in the NFL since 1970. The last (and only) former Steelers head coach to win a playoff game was Earle “Greasy” Neale, the Philadelphia Eagles coach that was the 1943 Steagles boss and went on to win 1948 & 1948 NFL championships with Philly. After three straight NFL Championship appearances and two titles, Neale went 6-6 in 1950. The Eagles fired him. Some things never change.
On the whole, the Eagles way doesn’t seem to be clearly superior. The coaches they’ve fired have done just as well, if not better, elsewhere than they did in Philly, and though the Eagles have sustained significant success over the long haul, it hasn’t been better than what the Steelers have done in Pittsburgh.
It does make it clear that there’s more than one way to get to where the Steelers have been, and that maintaining head coaches for 20 years at a time isn’t necessary to have sustained, long-term success as a franchise.
What does that mean for where the Steelers sit with Mike Tomlin, without a playoff win since 2016, but without a losing season ever? Very little.
Tomlin and his future with the team should be evaluated on the merits of his recent coaching ability, not the franchise’s historic tendencies and what he did or did not do in years past.
But it’s hard to say they’re wrong to stick by Tomlin after his last four seasons of getting a team with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges, post-arm surgery and over-the-hill Ben Roethlisberger and a rookie in Kenny Pickett to consecutive seasons of 8, 12, 9 and 9 victories. That took some good coaching, regardless of the lack of the lack of postseason success, and that ability is all that matters in the near future.
That doesn’t mean that it might be the case forever. The Steelers shouldn’t keep coaches around just because that’s what they’ve always done.
But Tomlin has not yet hit the lows that each of the Philly coaches did before their firings, either. And with a young offense full of second- and third-year players and a still-strong defense, he doesn’t seem likely to any time soon, either.