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Saunders: Steelers Playing it Safe With Mike Tomlin Makes Sense — for Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers are playing it safe by retaining longtime head coach Mike Tomlin, and that continues to be the play that makes sense.

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Steelers HC Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin against the Green Bay Packers, Nov. 12, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended the contract of head coach Mike Tomlin, locking up their longtime head coach through the 2027 and ending any remaining speculation that the Steelers might at some point look beyond Tomlin and to their next head coach, to the dismay of some portions of fanbase, and to the relative disinterest of many more. Given the team’s recently lack of success, it’s unlikely to be one that is inspiring a lot of folks at the moment.

It’s a safe play. Tomlin is a likely Hall of Famer, a legendary figure for a club with as deep of a history as any in the league. He’s also still at least a pretty good NFL coach. He has infamously never had a losing season, willing some very mediocre Steelers teams over the last five seasons, with very iffy quarterback play, to five .500 or better seasons and three playoff berths.

The Steelers have a very stable coaching history, with three head coaches since 1969. The franchise places a very high level of value on that stability, and also has little interest in the kind of tear-it-all-down rebuild that often accompanies head coach turnover.

Tomlin is very unlikely to flame out in spectacular failure. And that’s not something that would be likely to be said for his replacements.

But is taking the safe approach best, or would the Steelers be better off taking a swing a young up-and-coming head coach who might be better? Certainly, such coaches exist.

Kyle Shanahan has turned the NFL on its ear, getting to the Super Bowl twice and the NFC Championship Game twice more in the last five years, despite never possessing significant talent at the quarterback position, so far the only coach to crack that particular code. Sean McVay and Nick Sirianni are also recent young winners that teams took chances with.

But if you’re going to argue on taking a chance, you should at least know the odds, right? How often do new head coaching hires succeed, and how often do they fail? How often are they more successful than Tomlin has been, even in some of his leanest years?

It turns out, not very often.

There were 28 coaches hired into the NFL between 2020 and 2023, nearly an entire’s league’s worth of turnover. Those 28 coaches have gone a combined 419-509, for a .452 winning percentage. Tomlin, even in one of the worst stretches of his career, was 40-26-1 in that span, for a .604 winning percentage.

Nick Sirianni eagles steelers

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni stands on the field before a NFL preseason football game against the Miami Dolphins, Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

There are coaches with better records. Sirianni is 34-17 and took the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl. Mike McCarthy has gone 42-25 with the Dallas Cowboys. Those are the only two to win more games than Tomlin in that stretch.

DeMeco Ryans went 10-7 and won a playoff game in his first season, so he’s off to a promising start, even if his .588 winning percentage is slightly behind Tomlin. The rest? It’s hard to argue that many would be upgrades over the coaching the Steelers have been getting.

The median result, coming in at No. 14 on the list, is Dennis Allen, at 16-18 (.471). Just nine of the 28 (32%) have a winning record.

NFL HEAD COACHES HIRED SINCE 2020

Nick Sirianni .667
Mike McCarthy .627
DeMeco Ryans .588
Kevin O’Connell .588
Mike McDaniel .588
Kevin Stefanski .552
Shane Steichen .529
Doug Pederson .529
Todd Bowles .500
Brandon Staley .500
Dan Campbell .480
Sean Payton .471
Dennis Allen .471
Brian Daboll .456
Arthur Smith .412
Ron Rivera .396
Josh McDaniels .360
Robert Saleh .353
Joe Judge .303
Matt Eberflus .294
Matt Rhule .289
Nathaniel Hackett .267
Jonathan Gannon .235
David Culley .235
Lovie Smith .206
Urban Meyer .154
Frank Reich .091

So, could the Steelers find a better coach than Tomlin by moving on? Yes. Is it likely? No. How unlikely? There’s something like a 7% chance of hiring a coach with a better record than Tomlin, according to the recent four-year sample. And that ignores the really bad cases. Nine of the 28, more than one-third of the time, new head coaches failed to even win a third of their games.

It’s about the time of year for church festivals in Western Pennsylvania. So let’s take that as an example for contextualizing those odds.

You’re staring at two chuck-a-luck wheels. One wheel seems very balanced and fair in its distribution of spins — truly random. It hits its big payout infrequently, the small payouts infrequently, and busts entirely more often than not.

The other wheel seems like it’s less balanced. It lands on the same spots more often. It hasn’t hit the big payout in a long time, but you have seen it happen. In the meantime, it’s been hitting the small payouts frequently, with no busts whatsoever.

What is the better bet? I think that’s an easy answer. From a statistical perspective, keeping Tomlin is a decision that is obviously more likely to be a better move than replacing him.

Pro sports are not gambling, though. In many ways, the Steelers are victims of their own success. The small payout isn’t going to satisfy anyone’s expectations. They’ve won lots of big payouts in the past, and aren’t going to be happy until they do again.

To really know the right or wrong answer to the question, we need to look into that unbalanced wheel and figure out why it has stopped paying out the big prize.

What are the major reasons the reason the Steelers have not had more success lately?

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger

Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during a celebrity flag football game at Acrisure Stadium on May 21, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Some of it is certainly the natural ebb and flow of a hard-capped league. Teams can’t be good forever. The Steelers sacrificed a good bit of their salary cap future to attempt to put together one last winning effort for Ben Roethlisberger. When that failed, they entered an inevitable downturn in terms of the amount of talent on the roster.

They also went through an extended period of draft struggles, hitting on just one first-round pick in a four-year span from 2016-19, and failing to get significant contributions from their below-the-top-line draftees, as well.

The quarterback play has been atrocious, with an injury to Roethlisberger torpedoing the 2019 team and ending hopes of another Super Bowl with that group. Post-elbow surgery, Roethlisberger was an average to below average starter, and Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett were worse than that the last two years.

No one can fault anyone for Roethlisberger getting old, but the team’s first two attempts at a succession plan have failed, and Tomlin certainly owns some level of responsibility for those.

Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger Randy Fichtner

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner int he huddle with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and others during a playoff game against the Cleveland Browns on Jan. 10, 2021. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The club has also had significant struggles when it comes to the offensive coordinator position, without consistent success there since Bruce Arians was forced out years ago.

How much of all of that Tomlin’s responsibility? It’s less clear. Rooney had his hand in several of those moves, including forcing out Arians in the first place and many of the OC hires.

The changes in the way the team has operated in the offseason under Omar Khan should give a good amount of credence to the level of control Kevin Colbert had over the roster construction. Consistently drafting better would go a long way.

Tomlin won a Super Bowl with a great team early in his career. He then had a great team that underachieved. Recently, he hasn’t had a great team. Whether he’s capable of doing it again is certainly in question.

But no amount of coaching is going to elevate a mediocre team to a Super Bowl. So there is very little downside to the Steelers continuing to employ Tomlin right now. They’re building a roster, with the hopes of putting together a contender sometime in the near future. They have a good defense. They’ve drafted a ton of the necessary pieces on offense.

If they can again get to the point where they have a Super Bowl-level roster, and Tomlin is unable to get them over the playoff hump at that point, then taking the risk laid out above would start to look like a lot better bet.

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Jesus Christani
Jesus Christani
June 11, 2024 12:30 pm

Mike Tomlin is on The Hot Seat… Fire Mike Tomlin… he only won one Super Bowl with Bill Cowher’s team… In fact, The Pittsburgh Steelers are still Bill Cowher’s team… The Steelers should hire Bill Belichick or Josh McDaniels to replace Tomlin…

A shout-out to The DUMMIES in Steelers Nation…

Dave
Dave
June 11, 2024 4:54 pm

I’ve held a similar opinion as you Alan, nice piece. Had these arguments with fellow fans who’ve wanted change for nearly a decade. Yup, they said Vrabel and Belichick were far superior coaches but they were both recently fired. McDermott was another name ranked ahead of Tomlin but ‘wide right” derailed another great Bills team yet again like a bad dream. All three of those guys are great coaches but winning a championship in the NFL has always been elusive. Just ask any diehard Browns fan who along with Detroit deserve a trophy as much as any team. We’re fortunate… Read more »