Should Mike Tomlin Get More Credit for Steelers' Sustained Success?

Conor Orr
Sports Illustrated
It's time to put Mike Tomlin's performance under proper perspective. No other coach (except Bill Belichick) could channel the Steelers' chaos into first place.

Should Mike Tomlin Get More Credit for Steelers' Sustained Success?

It's time to put Mike Tomlin's performance under proper perspective. No other coach (except Bill Belichick) could channel the Steelers' chaos into first place.

Covering the NFL under the media’s current state-of-play, we’re often required to give either far too much, or not nearly enough credit to the coaches who aren’t actually out there hurling themselves into oncoming traffic in order to make something happen.

After the Steelers dressed down the Panthers on Thursday night, scoring more than 50 points and holding a humming offense to two scores in practical time (a final Christian McCaffrey touchdown—a dagger for those playing against him in fantasy football—was added with a few minutes to go in the fourth), we should take a moment to put the job Mike Tomlin has done this season under proper perspective.

This doesn’t just happen. We often describe Pittsburgh’s eventual emergence out of whatever early-season tumult they’re experiencing like some inevitable mechanism, but a football team is not a garage door opener. It doesn’t just glide along the tracks.

One of Tomlin’s best players staged an unprecedented contractual revolt this offseason, refusing both a low-on-guarantees, long-term deal and to sign the franchise tag. His best receiver continues to demand top-billing in the offense, which at times creates friction with an ornery veteran quarterback and places a heavy burden on the shoulders of a new offensive coordinator.

Half of these issues could sink a team. Just ask the New York Giants. Talk to the Green Bay Packers about how they’re balancing the emotional tedium associated with an underperforming offense. Check in on the Cowboys a few weeks from now.

Tomlin constantly battles the shadow of the coach he replaced, even though he’s got a better career winning percentage and the same number of conference titles and Super Bowl wins in fewer games. Bill Cowher was great, don’t get us wrong. He was perfect for the city and the teams he coached. He was tough and fair. But Tomlin can be those things too.

There is an art form to stoicism. It’s Tomlin’s chosen avenue, and it’s much more difficult than one can imagine to stand there and not hurl one of his three high-maintenance stars under the bus when something goes wrong. All of them are old enough and mature enough to handle it. Maybe once it would feel good. Few coaches can take that on for weeks, months or, in Tomlin’s case, years.

Le’Veon Bell might come back at some point. Steelers team president Art Rooney II said before the Panthers game that it could be as soon as next week. For most teams, this would be like accepting a pin-less grenade. But at this point, would we be surprised if business gets handled?

Tomlin has his shortcomings. One could argue that he’s never very hard on his best players when they speak out, say stupid things, do stupid things or act in a way that could negatively impact the franchise.

Try, though, and place this current roster in another locker room with another head coach. Is this team, for all the chaos and palace intrigue, in first place anywhere else but New England? Are these players still quick to protect one another? After a gutting end-of-season loss, do they want to come back and re-sign?

Some of this could be their collective character. Saying that one person is holding this all together like a support beam on a bowing bridge is, again, giving one person too much credit. But when a coach is perpetually under-credited for being a stabilizing force year after year, a little hyperbole is alright every now and again.

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