Mike Tomlin must be on the Steelers hot seat at season close

Head coach Mike Tomlin # of the Pittsburgh Steelers walks from the field after their win over Las Vegas Raiders at Acrisure Stadium on December 24, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images)
Head coach Mike Tomlin # of the Pittsburgh Steelers walks from the field after their win over Las Vegas Raiders at Acrisure Stadium on December 24, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images) /

The Steelers season is finishing up, and as Black Monday arrives, Mike Tomlin shouldn’t be sitting comfortably right now.

The Steelers season has been an overall disappointment. While the late-season comeback has made their record favorable, anyone that has followed this team knows they haven’t played well. The offense has been a middling unit and the defense hasn’t played at the elite level many expected them to play at.

While the NFL season will continue into the playoffs, one of the first major events in the offseason is the Monday after the regular season wraps up. Dubbed “Black Monday”, this is the day synonymous with lackluster coaches getting fired. This season will be no different, as a handful of head coaches will receive their pink slips. My question is, should Mike Tomlin be on the hot seat at all this off-season?

Tomlin hasn’t been bad for the Steelers

Let me start off by saying I do not think Mike Tomlin is a bad coach. Quite the opposite, as he has an established track record of sustained success in the NFL. That is no small feat. The pro game is full of ebbs and bumps in the road, and even great coaches fall short on occasion. Just look at the great Bill Belichick, who suffered a losing season right after losing Tom Brady.

A lot of people belittle the fact that Tomlin has yet to suffer a losing season until 2022, but that is quite the accolade in coaching. Given Tomlin’s tenure with the team, never once having a losing season is an accomplishment. There isn’t a coach out there that can make the same claim.

Tomlin has his fair share of issues as well

That doesn’t exclude Tomlin from criticism though. While never having a losing season is an impressive feat, Tomlin has also underwhelmed for the majority of his coaching career. While early playoff and Super Bowl success was a staple in Tomlin’s coaching reign, he has failed to keep that momentum rolling.

Tomlin’s playoff record has been abysmal in recent years. The team has struggled more in the regular season and if they make it to the playoffs, they bow out quickly. Again, the game will always have bumps, and the Steelers can’t be in every Super Bowl, but this team hasn’t felt like a legitimate competitor since the mid-2010s.

That is a perfect antithesis to the “never have a losing season” argument. That is fine to have, but when your playoff record is also mediocre, it doesn’t mean much. Sure, the team had its share of struggles to deal with, from an aging Ben Roethlisberger to the meltdown of the killer B’s, to the surprise loss of Ryan Shazier. Every team can make a list of reasons that they have struggled, but at the end of the day, the coach needs to overcome that.

Tomlin hasn’t stayed up to date with the league

My main argument against Tomlin, outside of the playoff performances, has been his inability to update his plans to what has been successful in the league. While some of that blame also falls on former GM Kevin Colbert, Tomlin hasn’t tried to mimic some of the successful strategies the rest of the league has done.

Free agency is a prime example, as the team is still playing the bidding war far too conservatively. While the team had to bear the burden of a franchise quarterback against their cap for the entirety of this span, the league was getting creative in how to work the cap and get big deals done.

This led to guaranteed money and voidable years being added to reduce cap charges, something the Steelers rarely do. While using these tools recklessly is a bad thing, timing them right to land a difference maker is huge.

Look at the Bengals. A laughingstock in the NFL until recently, the team made the necessary changes in free agency to add core pieces to their roster. Names like Mike Hilton, Vonn Bell, Trey Hendrickson, and Alex Cappa have all signed deals and become core members of that roster. Cincinnati, before this, was a frugal team like the Steelers. They saw the changing times, took advantage of a rookie-deal quarterback, and are now a top contender in the league.

The Steelers have just recently started to open the proverbial floodgates of bigger free agents, but it still pales in comparison to what other teams are doing. Mike Mitchell was the first “big” deal when he netted a 25-million-dollar contract to join the team. Ladarius Green was the next big target two years later.

Neither were great, and Green was a flat-out bust of a signing. The team has still dipped its toe in for bigger free agents, but it pales in comparison to what the league is doing. No, the Steelers don’t need every blue-chip free-agent prospect, but they need to target some bigger names to bring this roster back to relevance.

This also connects to coaching. Tomlin has a non-existent coaching tree in the NFL, something unheard of for a coach as tenured as him. You see teams flock to the top teams in the NFL every year to promote one of their coordinators, yet the Steelers are rarely ever targeted for coach poaching. That says a lot as to how the rest of the league views the Steelers coordinators.

The team has opted for safe options, and it hasn’t played out. Again, the rest of the league was targeting innovative and quarterback-focused offensive coordinators. The Steelers opted for in-house names like Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada to lackluster effect. How great would it be for Kenny Pickett to have a creative coordinator that has a track record of developing quarterbacks? Instead, he has the bleak Canada who calls the same five plays a game.

The draft is yet another area this team falls short of. Again, Colbert is sharing in some blame here, but Tomlin also has a say in who should be the team’s picks. Successful teams build through the draft, but the Steelers have been more focused on athletic potential and character as opposed to what the prospect actually did in college.

This has yielded some fine results, but very few lasting picks. The team has gotten some good rookie production, but a lot of the players were hard to justify keeping around past their rookie deal. The team hasn’t been able to get the most out of their draft classes.

The draft focuses have been miserable as well. Since the team rarely addresses needs in free agency and opts for short-term fixes, the drafts are focused on certain positions. This led directly to the Devin Bush trade-up as well as the Artie Burns and Najee Harris selections. The team had glaring needs, so they had to set the rest of the draft prospects aside to take a certain position.

There has also been a focus on skill position over trenches which has hurt the team. The last time a defensive or offensive lineman was taken with a top-two pick was Stephon Tuitt in 2014, and the last first-round pick in the trenches was David DeCastro in 2012. No, you aren’t going to draft in the trenches early every season, but the focus on secondary players and a running back has hampered this team overall.

The Steelers won’t fire Tomlin this season

While I believe Tomlin should be on the hot seat for the Steelers, the team almost certainly won’t fire him. I think that is the right decision at this point, but 2023 needs to be the pivotal year then. That doesn’t mean another non-losing season. It doesn’t mean inching into the playoffs. It means some sort of sustainable playoff success or Tomlin should be let go.

I will relate this back to what happened after the Patriots lost Tom Brady. Belichick took the next season to rebuild as the team was mediocre before aggressively filling needs and returning that team to the playoffs and looking like a sleeper contender. That is the path the Steelers need to take for me to believe that Tomlin deserves to stay.

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Tomlin isn’t a bad coach, and anyone who says he is are overreacting. That said, he has become a consistently average coach in a competitive AFC. The team needs a spark, and Tomlin has to show that he can build a roster and make them a competitor. The Bengals were in a similar spot a few years back with Marvin Lewis. They cut ties with a successful coach who just wasn’t giving them enough anymore, and it worked out for the best.