PITTSBURGH — “The standard is the standard.”
Of all of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s unique sayings, that might be the most ubiquitous.
It’s also the one that’s just as much about the place that Tomlin coaches than it is about his particular style.
In Pittsburgh, the standard is the Super Bowl. That’s a standard that was set long before Tomlin arrived in the Steel City and will likely remain long after he’s gone. When you’re the franchise with the most Lombardi Trophies, anything short of adding to that case is a disappointment.
On Sunday, the Steelers suffered that disappointment, in somewhat spectacular fashion, giving up four first-quarter touchdowns to before dragging their way back to a respectable final score in a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
That is, respectable anywhere else. Not in Pittsburgh, where first-round playoff losses, even on the heels of 12-4 regular seasons, draw ire and not adulation.
While that standard is a well-earned one when it comes to the level of play that the football team has shown it is capable of achieving, it’s not a particularly good one when it comes to evaluating the participants.
On Sunday, the Steelers’ first play of scrimmage saw center Maurkice Pouncey snap the ball 20 yards over the head of his quarterback and into his own end zone for seven Cleveland points. If it wasn’t so horrifying to watch for the Steelers faithful, it would have been hilarious. You couldn’t even make such an absurd way to start the game.
As the game went on, and the Steelers defense faltered time and again on the way to giving up 48 points on the day, it was undrafted rookie corner James Pierre and outside linebacker Cassius Marsh, freshly plucked from Indy’s practice squad, playing big roles, as injuries and COVID-19 conspired to leave the once-ridiculously strong defense a feeble parody of its former self.
Those aren’t excuses. Every team has dumb and weird things happen. Every team has injuries and absences. Truly great ones find a way to overcome those things in the big picture.
On the small scale, though, that’s more than enough to cost a team one game. And in the playoffs, you don’t get a mulligan. So while the focus on this season-ending Monday is rightfully on the team’s 0-1 playoff record, the 12-4 regular season probably provides a better picture of how good and how successful this truly team was.
One-game playoffs are by their nature very random events. It doesn’t take a lot for a good team to be beat a great one or a mediocre team to beat a good one.
“You know, it’s always a cumulative body of work,” Tomlin said. “One performance can put an exclamation point on decision making and things. We also assess the cumulative.”
So when Tomlin was asked after the game how he should be held accountable for failing to win a playoff game in his second straight postseason appearance, he leaned on another one of his pet sayings.
“It is what it is,” Tomlin said. “Our record is our record. Our performances are our performances. Don’t run away from that.”
The record is what it is. The Steelers had a wildly successful first three-quarters of the season, stumbled down the stretch, and face-planted in the postseason. That means that in Pittsburgh, the team failed to meet the standard for success, and that has many talking about Tomlin’s future.
Fortunately for Tomlin, the Rooney Family also seems to have a pretty keen understanding about the volatile math of the playoffs. After all, grading every season on a Super Bowl or bust, pass-fail grading scale, would involve a lot of failing grades. But the Steelers have had more stable leadership than any other NFL team, with just three coaches going back to the 1960s.
Chuck Noll went four years without winning a playoff game twice, once from 1980-83, going 0-2 and didn’t make the playoffs at all from 1985-88. Bill Cowher missed the postseason three straight years from 1998-2000. Tomlin is on his second such four-year span, going 0-2 from 2011-14 and now 0-2 from 2017-20. That’s a lot of failing, and a lot of guys that kept right on with their jobs.
The standard may be the standard in the fans’ eyes, but it’s clear that in the evaluation of coaches, the Rooney family has other methods. Perhaps Tomlin has failed in some of those areas, as well. His strategy on Sunday was questionable in many facets and in-game management has never been a strength. The way the game started, with a 28-point deficit and the fact that it came at the hands of the Browns likely did Tomlin no favors.
“There’s pain associated with where we are right now,” Tomlin said. “Ain’t no running away from that. That’s football and that’s life.”
There are many questions about what the Steelers team will look like after an offseason that is sure to be full of turmoil and turn over. It’s possible that may include change at the head coach position, but it seems overwhelmingly more likely that it will not. It’s hard to argue with what has led the Rooneys and Steelers to so much success. It’s part of why the standard is the standard.