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It is the incurable virus of the NFL, this January spate of second-guessing. Even in the league’s most celebrated tapestry of iconic head coaches, none has been immune to it. Not Vince Lombardi. Not Bill Walsh or Chuck Noll. Not Don Shula or Tom Landry. Not even Bill Belichick, whose unmatched career is pocked with trades that were (briefly) called into question, or failed draft choices that faded with time, or even the occasional team-related investigation by the NFL.
This is the reality that undoubtedly steadies Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers ownership now. The inescapable fact that even the most hardened dynasties in league history have not been immune to criticism. And in turn, the acceptance that some of that criticism was warranted. This is where the Steelers and Tomlin are situated, at the crossroads of failure and self-reflection. And that might be the best thing that could have happened to a franchise that showed signs of having gotten a little arrogant.
Before we get into that, let’s dispel this f-word nonsense. Tomlin isn’t remotely worthy of getting fired. Not now and not anytime soon. Not because Tomlin has a Super Bowl ring and has never suffered a losing season in 11 years as Steelers head coach. Not because only Bill Belichick has a better record since 2007. And not even because there would be a multiple-team fistfight to hire him if he was a free agent. Tomlin isn’t getting fired because that’s a sucker move after a 13-3 season, and the Steelers aren’t a sucker franchise. Yes, it’s been nine years since Tomlin won his Super Bowl. Yes, some fundamental tuning appears necessary. But lest anyone forget, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady went through a nine-year stretch without a Super Bowl win. It happens to the best of them.
That’s not to say Tomlin isn’t worthy of some condemnation. At the very least, Pittsburgh’s stunning home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars revealed some fundamental issues. Some can be pinned on coaching, which couldn’t have had the Steelers as focused as they needed to be against Jacksonville. When a home team of Pittsburgh’s talent level falls behind 28-7 in slightly less than two quarters, it reeks of a coaching miscue. Either the game plan was fundamentally flawed or the players were caught emotionally flat-footed in a fit of underestimation. Maybe some percentage of both.
Whatever the math, it culminated in one very bad half and a memorably poor performance that gets permanently stapled onto Tomlin’s resume. But this was also just one very meaningful game in an extremely disjointed season. Considering the wire-to-wire drama and distraction, it’s fairly remarkable the Steelers finished 13-3 and were an arguable call from beating the Patriots and securing the top seed in the AFC at 14-2.
That’s worth keeping in mind while critics pick apart the Jaguars loss – that there was definitely a circus element wrapped inside this Steelers season. The James Harrison divorce was both messy and distracting. The Le’Veon Bell holdout was an early sideshow. The Martavis Bryant trade fuss. The late-season Marcus Gilbert suspension. And of course, the horrific Ryan Shazier injury, which could have knocked the entire locker room off its emotional axis.
Frankly, that axis wasn’t great in the first place. Tomlin continues to be the emotional compass for this roster, and he made a mistake by openly talking about meeting the Patriots in the AFC title game before it happened. Even with a mature locker room, that’s a fine-line motivational tactic for any NFL head coach – using future revenge to stoke a fire down the stretch. There’s an argument to be made that this locker room in particular can’t handle that kind of prodding without it getting out of control.
This Steelers team hasn’t maintained the same type of veteran cornerstones to anchor the culture. Gone are guys like Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, Larry Foote, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor and a younger James Harrison. Replacing them are leaders like Bell, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Mitchell. In some respects, the latter has been a chirpier bunch, especially when Tomlin has led the way with some of his comments.
Tomlin made a point to call that kind of thing overblown and something the Steelers ignore as part of the modern-day NFL. That is sometimes done if it backfires, as it clearly did against Jacksonville. And he might be right. It might be something that gets overplayed in the media and ultimately doesn’t win or lose football games. But it definitely creates the opportunity to distract, and that’s something extra Pittsburgh didn’t need this season.
Tomlin already had a lot to manage this season. He didn’t need more. Particularly with the hindsight of the stress fractures between former offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In fairness, the strain isn’t a surprise. Everywhere he goes, Haley tends to maximize certain players and then eventually wear thin. But you can bet that dynamic leaked into some of the less-than-perfect-functioning offense this season.
The Haley situation, however, can’t direct all the blame away from Tomlin. Instead, Tomlin’s reputation will absorb some hits coming out of this failure – particularly amongst some critics inside the league who see him more as a motivator/psychologist/cheerleader than an elite X’s and O’s coach. And it’s fair to wonder if Tomlin could have clipped some of the problems earlier than he did. The Harrison issue in particular. If he was as disruptive as some Steelers players framed him following his departure, it’s worth questioning why Tomlin didn’t step in far earlier than he did.
There is plenty of blame to go around in the bigger picture. The Steelers’ roster – while certainly talented – is by no means a finished product. The defense still lacks talent and depth in the secondary. The linebackers, particularly without Shazier, are not going to consistently clean up problems against the run. The pass rush on the edges needs to improve in quality and consistency. And on offense, start by finding another long-term answer at right tackle, where Gilbert’s health seems unlikely to hold up.
Eventually, all of the talk in Pittsburgh will become a little more rational. And the urge to pile everything onto Tomlin will become less severe. As it has for decades with this franchise, the steady hand of consistency will move Pittsburgh forward into necessary changes. Some on the coaching staff. Some on the roster. And most certainly, some in the game-planning fundamentals that broke down against Jacksonville.
But Tomlin and the Steelers will endure and move on, because this is what good, consistent, franchises and coaches do – absorbing and prevailing through criticism rather than succumbing to it.