The Steelers 2022 season seems like a train wreck, one which someone has filmed in slow motion, and it does not seem poised to get much better anytime soon.
There is no lack of blame for potential causes. Matt Canada’s play calling is simply horrible, and you could see the look of angst on his face late in the 4th quarter of the Bills game. Some people want to blame the offensive line too. There is a degree of truth to the offensive line’s struggles, but keep in mind the offensive line didn’t give up 38 points and 552 total yards either.
Others will undoubtedly blame the fact that T.J. Watt has missed four games, as to why the Steelers lost. If that is true, you must ask why there is not more talent around him so that in the event of his absence the team should be able to still win. In the 70s, if Joe Greene missed a game, it didn’t mean doom and gloom. Heck injuries have decimated the Steelers defense, but even then, the defense was still reasonably healthy until the Jets’ game.
The point is that all of these play a role in the Steelers season going sideways. It’s not like suddenly, at the start of 2022, they just became a bad team. They have slowly drifted that way for quite a while. Yet one question needs to be asked. How did the Steelers get to this position? Well, the simple truth is that this is a Mike Tomlin problem.
After watching the Bills pound the Steelers it became clear that the team’s journey to get to this spot and to have their worst beating since 1988 culminated at the hands of poor decision-making over Tomlin’s tenure. This treatise is not an indictment that the Steelers need to fire Tomlin at the end of the season but rather that the Rooneys need to put Tomlin on notice that what he has done is not working.
Tomlin’s winning season streak is totally meaningless
It seems that heading into the season, too many people are focused on the fact that Tomlin, as head coach, has never had worse than an 8-8 record. Yet, while the record unto itself is impressive and something not many coaches can accomplish, for the NFL it’s a relatively meaningless stat. In the NFL, the goal is winning Superbowls. You need a winning season to achieve that, but what has Tomlin done as a head coach? He won the Superbowl in 2008, yet with a team, he largely inherited from Bill Cowher, then he lost to the Packers in the Superbowl in 2010.
Between 2007-2010 in the playoffs, Tomlin had a 5-2 record. Since 2011-2022 he has a 3-7 playoff record. The Steelers have not appeared in an AFC Championship game, have not won a Superbowl in 14 seasons, and have not even appeared in a Superbowl in 12 years. Adding to it, between 2011-2022 they will have missed the playoffs five times.
So ok great, he has not had a losing season since 2007, but as Bill Cowher’s players faded off, they have fared worse in statistics, both offensive and defensively, as a team. In 2020 he was 11-0 after 12 weeks, and then the team collapsed faster than a house of cards in the wind, nearly getting humiliated by the Browns in the wildcard game.
It makes you wonder, had Cowher stayed on as a coach, how much further he could have taken the Steelers. Sure It took Cowher a while to fix things in Pittsburgh. In his 4th season, he made a Superbowl but still lacked a quarterback to have a complete team. He drafted Roelithberger and finally won the big game. He finished with a 12-9 playoff record, while Tomlin’s is 8-9, and 5 of those wins are partly due to the team he inherited from Cowher.
Let’s step outside the Steelers and look at Bill Belichek. With his quarterback Tom Brady, he won six titles in nine appearances and played in 13 AFC conference games. Nineteen of his first 20 seasons were winning seasons and if you count his time in Cleveland, add another three losing seasons. Yet in 2022, Belicheck is poised to have another losing season. Ask Belicheck if he would trade six titles to maintain a winning season streak. The likely answer is no. Even he will tell you it’s about winning championships.
The Steelers, for some reason, have been enamored by Tomlin’s regular season success; they have missed the bigger picture. Something here must change going forward.
Tomlin is not an efficient team manager
One huge criticism of Tomlin, which appears to be true, is that he has a problem surrounding himself with good assistant coaches. In the words of Mark Madden, a Pittsburgh-based sports journalist, Tomlin is a “megalomaniac.”
He ran off rising coaches to ensure they did not take the limelight or that they might not be a threat to his tenure as head coach. The problem is glaring, and Sunday’s loss to the Bills only magnified it. Tomlin had Bruce Arians, and after 2012 he was gone. Tomlin said in a press conference in 2012 that Arians was retiring. Well, that is not exactly true.
On HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumble, Arians later admitted Tomlin told him he was letting him go at the end of the season. Mike Florio wrote a more descriptive piece explaining that Tomlin fired Arians. The point is that from the loss of Arians, the job went to Todd Haley, Randy Fichtner, and Matt Canada.
The succession seemed to get worse and worse. Now with Canada, how many people have screamed to have him fired amid the 2022 season? Considering no one thought he did a stellar job in 2020, the offense only seemed to work when Roethlisberger usurped Canada’s control and called his own game in the 2nd half.
Although, to Tomlins’s credit, on Tuesday at his weekly press conference, he did hint they might fire Canada, or he might step down at the end of the season or at some point. However, he wants to keep continuity for his rookie quarterback at least for now.
Then Tomlin had Mike Munchak. The official story is that he took a similar job in Denver to be closer to family. The unofficial story is that the Steelers just let his contract expire and chose to let him go. They could have made him the offensive coordinator over Fichtner. The prevalent theory, true or not, is that Munchak could have been a coach-in-waiting threat to Tomlin, and that’s the real reason they let him go.
Then look at the defensive side of the ball. Despite being the head coach, Tomlin also seems to have this need to be the defensive coordinator also. First, depending on which theory you subscribe to as to why Dick LeBeau resigned from the Steelers. Was it because of the poor play of the Steelers defense, injuries, or because Tomlin wanted to install Keith Butler? After Butler’s tenure, Pittsburgh reporter Gerry Dulac broke a tweet that Butler did not call defensive plays, but Tomlin did. Butler confirmed Dulac’s tweet. Seems clear Tomlin wanted a yes man, not LeBeau.
So then, after Keith Butler goes, Tomlin promotes another puppet, linebacker coach Teryl Austin. Austin’s qualifications, you ask? He was the defensive coordinator for the Lions from 2014-2017 and had an 11-4 record in 2014, two 9-7 records one 7-9 season. He left after the firing of Jim Caldwell.
The lions interviewed him as head coach but didn’t hire him. Later, he also interviewed for head coaching vacancies with the Browns, Giants, Eagles, and Titans. He later alluded that some interviews may have only been to satisfy the Rooney Rule requirements. Nonetheless, he then became the Cincinnati defensive coordinator in 2018. He was fired before the end of the season after the Bengals had three consecutive games of allowing 500-plus yards for the first time in team history.
He then became the Steelers linebacker coach and is now the defensive coordinator. Why? In 2022 the Steelers defense has allowed an average of 347.2 yards per game; this isn’t an Austin problem it’s a Tomlin problem. Tomlin is pulling double duty as the head coach and Defensive coordinator.
Which leads one to ask, so why hire Brian Flores as a linebacker coach? Sure he is a talented coach but wouldn’t it have made more sense to install Flores as defensive coordinator? Yes, he can likely coach linebackers well. Yet it seems, being a former head coach, perhaps he should be calling the defensive plays. Tomlin does not want that, in any case. Not on the offensive side of the ball and surely not on the defensive side of the ball.
Cowher, while he was head coach, at least knew the value of surrounding himself with talented coaches as well. Dom Capers, Tim Lewis, and Dick LeBeau were his defensive coordinators. Cowher also had Ken Whisenhunt, Chan Gailey, Ron Erhardt, and even Mike Mularkey all decent offensive coordinators to varying degrees. Cowher was not concerned about a winning streak; he wanted titles and was not past putting others in assistant positions that could achieve that. To that degree, Cowher had a mindset like Belicheck
Tomlin needs to show he can build a team
Face it when Bill Cowher retired; he had built a Superbowl-contending team. Then he handed the team off to Mike Tomlin. It’s not like Tomlin did much to keep them serious contenders going forward. When the Steelers lose one player, and they can’t win, that’s not a good sign. Plus, Tomlin mismanaged the quarterback situation to one degree or another.
Now before blaming Tomlin completely, the Steelers ownership needs to take their share of the blame. The Steelers as an organization are miserly and similarly handled the quarterback situation. The notion of protecting Tomlin’s season-winning streak comes into play here.
The Steelers had to replace Roethlisberger, so what did they do? Instead of taking a gamble on pursuing a trade for Rodgers or Mayfield, signing any of the quality free agents, they take the cheapest course available to them. The Steelers rarely make a gutsy gamble. They found the worst quarterback on the market, signed him on the cheap, and then doubled down on drafting a quarterback. In reality, they should have either pursued a quality free agent or gone with the rookie Pickett.
They could have at least got a lineman in the draft, a cornerback, or safety, and waited until 2023 to draft a quarterback. No, they did not do any of that; god forbid they worry about Tomlin’s winning streak over winning a title. Yet, that’s Steelers ownership for you.
Then Tomlin, the defensive guru, has a defense in which one player is missing, T.J.Watt, and the team loses that week. Look at Buffalo. How many players have they lost defensively, and yet it does not matter; they still steamroll everyone. Buffalo did the unpopular thing of older players allowing them to get more talented younger players in a team-building effort. Cowher gave Tomlin, and it has gotten progressively worse since 2011, and he has not done much to add enough talent to keep them Superbowl Contenders. Keep in mind that this is not totally a Mike Tomlin issue.
In hindsight, some of his draft choices have been a bit questionable. Yet some of that blame falls on Kevin Colbert. He made very few trades mad draft choices designed to protect Tomlin’s winning streak rather than build a Steelers team that can make Superbowl runs each season. Tomlin, in some capacity, needs to remake the Steelers in his image in order to step out of Cowher’s shadow and truly make the Steelers his team.
Until he can do that, his talent as a head coach needs re-evaluating by the Rooneys as to his future as head coach. Otherwise, Steelers fans will be echoing the sentiment of Vince Lombardi “What the h**l’s going on out here, everybody grabbing out there nobody tackling. Just grabbing everybody. Grab, grab, grab”.
Now people will argue about whom you will replace him with; there are few available options. Yet that’s true. Yet the name of the game is winning titles, and if someone else can build a superior team to win titles, then perhaps the direction the Rooney family needs to go.