Saunders: You Can Forget Firing Tomlin, Steelers Will See it Through
What the Pittsburgh Steelers are asking Mike Tomlin to do might be impossible, but they’re probably going to give him lots of chances to try.
Tomlin is attempting to navigate the post-Ben Roethlisberger era of the Steelers and bring the team back to winning the Super Bowl, the stated annual goal of the franchise that hasn’t been reached since 2008.
Of course, that 14-year gap between titles isn’t exactly unprecedented in Steelers history. Chuck Noll led the team for 12 seasons following his final Super Bowl win before stepping down after the 1991 season.
Noll was 60 when he retired from the Steelers. Tomlin is a decade younger than that, and he doesn’t sound like a man that is interested in stepping aside any time soon.
Bill Cowher had the big drought at the start of his career, taking 14 seasons to win his first and only Super Bowl in Pittsburgh. That stretch included multiple playoff failures, four AFC Championship Game losses, and two 6-10 seasons.
But neither Noll nor Cowher did what the Steelers are now asking Tomlin to do, and that’s navigate from one Super Bowl-winning quarterback to the next.
Noll won all four of his Super Bowls with Terry Bradshaw at the helm. After Bradshaw retired in 1983, Noll tried Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley, Bobby Brister and Neil O’Donnell before hanging up his whistle and clipboard.
Cowher rolled through O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox before hitting the jackpot with Roethlisberger in 2004.
So far, Tomlin is on his second attempt in five games at replacing Roethlisberger, as rookie Kenny Pickett has taken over for Mitch Trubisky already. History says it probably won’t be that easy for the Steelers to find their next Super Bowl winner — and not just the Steelers history.
In the entire history of the Super Bowl, only three coaches have won the big game multiple times with the same franchise and different quarterbacks. Bill Parcells won one with a backup. Joe Gibbs won three with three different quarterbacks, but it was always clear that the offensive line and the running game was the star of the show for those Redskins. Only George Seifert made the transition from one franchise quarterback to the next, spanning the Joe Montana and Steve Young eras for the San Francisco 49ers.
Seifert is also the only head coach to manage the feat since the start of free agency in the NFL, and that came partway through his tenure.
There are several others in Tomlin’s shoes. Bill Belichick has cast his lot with Mac Jones. John Harbaugh hitched himself to Lamar Jackson. Could Pete Carroll have found something in Geno Smith?
History says they’re in for a long haul and that the established pairings of Andy Reid/Patrick Mahomes and Sean McVay/Matt Stafford or a newcomers like Sean McDermott/Josh Allen or Nick Sirianni/Jalen Hurts are more likely Super Bowl winners.
So the Steelers have Tomlin setting out on a venture that history says is unlikely to succeed. And yet, according to their own established standard, they probably owe it to him to let him try. The Steelers haven’t fired a head coach since 1969.
Noll and Cowher also had long stretches without Super Bowl wins. Both suffered playoff failure. Both had multiple losing seasons. Both went through far more than two attempts to find a franchise quarterback.
In that time, the stability provided to the franchise by sticking with those men as coaches and leaders has become the defining characteristic of the franchise, even more than the six Lombardi Trophies that line the walls of the hallway outside Art Rooney II’s office.
The Steelers’ historic loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, their 1-4 start to the 2022 season, and the prospect of what looks like it could be a 1-7 slide before the schedule relents, has some in town questioning Tomlin’s future with the franchise.
It’s certainly fair to question whether Tomlin will succeed in his current venture. But whether or not the Steelers should let him try seems pretty clear based on the way the team does business, and that model has led them to plenty of success in the past.