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Unraveling the Mike Tomlin Conundrum

Tomlin’s Steelers never underperform, and they never even finish under .500. So why has it been so long since Pittsburgh won a playoff game?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In a critical Week 15 game against the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers second-year wide receiver George Pickens was caught failing to throw a crucial block near the goal line. Actually, not even failing to throw the block—he just didn’t try.

This is unacceptable. It’s the first quarter of a gotta-win game in the AFC wild-card race, and the team’s starting receiver—the rare receiver capable of making highlight-reel blocks—is mentally disengaged in the low red zone.

So Steelers reporters spoke to Pickens about the play. Pickens claimed he didn’t want to risk injury; he also accused the media of not really knowing how football works and not understanding how rightfully frustrated he was. It wasn’t just a bad response; it kept the story alive. Jaylen Warren, the ballcarrier on that play, was asked about Pickens’s comments. Would he have blocked for George, were the roles reversed? (He said he would.)

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin called an irregular Wednesday press conference to address Pickens’s behavior and subsequent comments. He’d already spoken about Pickens before this season, following other visible outbursts and frustrations—but this was a moment to lay the drama to rest.

Tomlin was frank in both his evaluation of and his message to Pickens. On Pickens’s blocking, he said: “When you’re not doing your job and losing, you better keep your damn mouth shut and understand that that attracts a certain type of attention.” On that attention Pickens attracted from the media, Tomlin said Pickens needed “to be more professional in terms of addressing his shortcomings with you guys. … He’s not helping himself, he’s not helping the process in the manner in which he’s dealt with you guys.”

But Tomlin was also clear that he, and the entire Steelers organization, was committed to Pickens as a player and a person. “He’s got talents. We want to utilize them,” he said. “He’s very much in growth and development, but it would be the same if we were winning games or if he said appropriate things to you guys yesterday. You guys might have gone away, but that wouldn’t have made me any more comfortable about this process that he’s going through. It is ongoing and continual and it will continue to require our attention.”

The next game the Steelers played after all of this was against the Bengals this past Saturday. Pickens caught the first pass of the game. Slant, catch in stride, beat the safety, house call. One catch, 86 yards, touchdown.

Pickens would end the day with two scores on four catches for a whopping 195 yards. He was given exactly what you would expect a young talent to get if he had been marching on orders all season: opportunity and trust. Tomlin treated him exactly as he said he would—as a talented player they wanted to utilize—despite the drama of the past week.

This isn’t really a resolution to Pickens’s drama—but as Tomlin said, this is a maturation process that Pickens is going through, independent of any spotlights that might be on him. Pickens might loaf on a block or throw a helmet on the sideline next week; he might not do it for another season. But even if it isn’t resolved, a young player who looked to be veering off course was quickly and deftly righted by Tomlin.

And this isn’t the first time: Tomlin managed Antonio Brown for almost a decade, getting historic protection out of another mercurial personality at wide receiver. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had thinly-veiled problems with many of his coaches; Tomlin kept an unstable peace there, as well.

I’m not sure many coaches in the league could survive the storms and steer their ships through them as Tomlin does. Managing star talent, especially frustrated star talent, is extremely difficult. Few coaches do it well. Perhaps no coach does it better than Tomlin.

That’s the “what’ve you done for me lately” on Tomlin—the most recent example of what has made Tomlin the head coach of the Steelers for 17 seasons. The real-time handling of some gnarly team drama serves as a visceral reminder that Tomlin is a good coach. The evidence is right there, and not just with Pickens. Earlier this season, the Steelers were 5-3 while getting outgained by every single opponent they faced. Tomlin is an incredible 98-61-2 in one-score games. We’re watching a good coach do good coach things, live and in living color.

The problem: In the past six seasons, the Steelers haven’t won a playoff game. You know that thing that good coaches are supposed to do? Yeah. None of that.

There’s a lot of evidence that Tomlin is a great head coach—but if you want to build the case that he isn’t, you can do that, too. And as the Steelers look likely to add a seventh season to that unfortunate streak, more and more people are starting to wonder whether Tomlin is as good of a coach as he has long seemed.

A six-year drought is a substantial drought. Each of the nine NFL teams that have gone just as long without a playoff victory has hired a new coach sometime since 2020. In fact, every team without a playoff victory in the past four seasons has hired a new coach save for the Steelers and the Patriots—and Bill Belichick’s time might be up any day now.

There are two frameworks for Tomlin’s postseason struggles. The first sees his recent postseason struggles as underperforming. A good coach should be able to win postseason games, not lose them—especially not to Blake Bortles and Baker Mayfield, as two of his four recent losses have been. The Steelers have won three playoff games since 2010, and they were against Alex Smith, AJ McCarron, and Matt Moore. Good coaches win big games in January, and Tomlin hasn’t done that in more than a decade.

The second framework sees it as overperforming. The only way to lose in the postseason is to make the postseason, and those Steelers teams that lost had no real business being there in the first place. Do you remember the twilight of Roethlisberger’s career? He had no arm strength, had no pocket mobility, and refused to play under center. In 2021, the final year of Ben’s career, the Steelers started 1-3 and looked unsalvageable before ending the season 9-7-1, yet with a Week 18 win and two independent losses from other bubble teams, the Steelers limped into the postseason as a 7-seed. In the COVID-riddled 2020 season, the Steelers started 11-0 and lost in the wild-card round, and became the first team to ever do both things.

Those Roethlisberger offenses had no business getting anywhere near the postseason. I’m not sure even Kyle Shanahan himself could have conjured a crutch big enough to get the 2021 version of Big Ben to the postseason. But there the Steelers were, with Tomlin at the helm of the ship, totally unsurprised that he navigated that team to a postseason berth. (And then they got deleted by Patrick Mahomes, and the postseason streak extended.)

When you zoom in on any one season, it’s hard to feel like any Tomlin team has ever dramatically underperformed. The man has never had a losing season in his 17 years on the job, which includes an 8-8 year with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at the helm. Tomlin’s teams are very clearly good at winning games, and especially good at winning close games.

But these season-wide retrospectives present a new issue. When your record is better than your team is, and your record is right around .500, that means you have a below-average team. If that’s been the case for a while, then you’ve had a below-average team for a while. Just as he gets credit for coaching up a shaky team to surprisingly solid records, Tomlin is also responsible for the rosters and coaching staffs that made those bad teams bad in the first place. The buck stops with him—or, as Tomlin might say, the standard is the standard.

So why have those teams been below average, despite their inflated records? Well, Tomlin also hasn’t hired a good offensive coordinator in a long time. In 2007, when Tomlin was hired as the new head coach in Pittsburgh, he promoted wide receivers coach Bruce Arians to the offensive coordinator job (Ken Whisenhunt, the previous OC, had been hired away as the Cardinals head coach). That was a good move, though it’s not like Tomlin went out and found the guy.

Tomlin fired Arians after the 2011 season and hired Todd Haley, the then-recently fired head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. He was never fired; his contract was allowed to expire in 2018. QB coach Randy Fichtner, who was hired by Tomlin back in 2007 and had been on the offensive coaching staff ever since, was promoted to offensive coordinator. He held that role for three years, and when his contract expired in 2020, it was not renewed as well.

To replace Fichtner, Tomlin—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—promoted a positional coach to offensive coordinator: Matt Canada, who had been hired as the QB coach in 2020. Canada, who had a long history of offensive coordinator jobs in the college ranks, was not widely considered a budding NFL mind. But when Tomlin had first hired Fichtner, he’d done a similar thing: grabbed a college coach and yanked him into the NFL.

These college-to-NFL leaps are common on Tomlin’s staff. Interim OC and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner was exclusively a college coach before he got the RB job from Pittsburgh in 2019. Secondary coach Grady Brown’s story is the same: all college jobs before the Steelers hired him in 2020.

In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with hiring from the college ranks. But there is something wrong with Tomlin’s process of building an offense, and it sure feels like it begins with his coach selection. Haley had a stacked offensive cupboard—prime Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster—and delivered fine results, but nobody remembers Haley as a key offensive mind. Fichtner brought nothing new to the table; Canada brought plenty new, but it was mostly bad.

Canada may represent Tomlin’s attempt at stepping into the future of offense—but what a misstep it was. As a known spammer of pre-snap motion just for the sake of motion, Canada’s offense cosplays as a Shanahan offense, which actually uses pre-snap motion intentionally and wisely. Canada wasn’t actually an innovator; he was a charlatan, and that was known far before he was hired by the Steelers. Why not hire someone actually from the Shanahan system?

Tomlin isn’t the only head coach with this offensive coordinator problem. Most of the good offensive coaches have already been hired away as head coaches, so defensive coaches are left picking at scraps for offensive play callers—play callers who are quickly snatched away for head-coaching jobs when they show some promise. Besides Josh McDaniels, Belichick has been so bad at identifying good offensive coaches that he tried to make Matt Patricia into one. John Harbaugh, who has a special teams background, has had seven offensive coordinators in 15 years—largely guys who had done the job before somewhere else.

It’s very hard to win in the NFL if you can’t identify and hire good offensive coaches—and Tomlin has no coaching tree to produce those good, young offensive coaches. His Rolodex of coaching connections has grown stale after 17 years in Pittsburgh—so stale that he’s gambling on long shots like Canada in pursuit of an offensive spark. Offense runs this league. If you can’t get it right, you can’t run a team. That’s another one of those cold, hard realities of the NFL.

But perhaps coaching isn’t the only issue with the Steelers’ recent offensive struggles. It’s also personnel.

Let’s be clear: Drafting isn’t the problem. Almost the entire Steelers offense is homegrown talent, and most of them are hits: Diontae Johnson, Pickens, Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, and Jaylen Warren are all good players; Broderick Jones sure looks like he’s gonna be one, and I’m fascinated to see what they make out of Darnell Washington.

But there is one glaring miss on the Steelers’ recent record: quarterback Kenny Pickett.

It’s true that Tomlin’s Steelers haven’t won a postseason game since 2016, but perhaps Tomlin is the wrong framework through which to view the past few years of Steelers football. Perhaps the framework is the quarterback.

Teams without good quarterbacks don’t often win postseason games, and the Steelers haven’t had a good quarterback in years. The past five seasons of Pittsburgh football have been led by late-career Roethlisberger, Rudolph/Hodges, late-career Roethlisberger again, Mitchell Trubisky into rookie Pickett, and sophomore Pickett. Don’t tell me the coach of that team, and I’d assume they never finish over .500, let alone make the postseason (which the Steelers did twice). Quarterbacks set team destiny in the NFL, and the only coaches who have reliably flouted that truth are Shanahan, the league’s preeminent offensive hacker, and Tomlin, who hasn’t even had a good offensive coach by his side.

Tomlin’s quarterbacks give us a good framework for the Steelers’ success under him. Tomlin inherited the best thing a coach can inherit—a young, franchise quarterback in Roethlisberger—and rode him for more than a decade. The Steelers’ only preparation for the twilight of Roethlisberger’s career was Rudolph, whom they took with a third-round pick in 2018—but historically, those middle-round quarterbacks rarely pan out.

When Roethlisberger was finally done, the Steelers rushed to find their next franchise guy in Pickett. I don’t think they picked him because he played locally or was coached by Mark Whipple, who was Roethlisberger’s QB coach in his early Steelers days. I think they drafted him because they thought he could be a franchise guy for them. I think they were wrong, and I think they’re realizing that, too.

Drafting and developing quarterbacks is very hard. Even if you spend a top-10 pick on a player, the hit rate is pretty low—and the Steelers didn’t even have that luxury. That the Steelers missed on Pickett is a mark against Tomlin, who obviously had a huge hand in the decision alongside departing GM Kevin Colbert—but it can’t be too big of a mark. Most teams who draft a young quarterback miss.

But missing on a quarterback isn’t a black-and-white thing—you don’t roll the dice on the guy, see what number turns up, and that’s that. It isn’t just about drafting; it’s about developing. Tomlin doesn’t have much experience developing young quarterbacks: His coaching background is on the defensive side of the ball, and he inherited an established player in Roethlisberger. Accordingly, more of the onus belongs on the offensive coaching staff to bring that young player along. Maybe Pickett could have been good, were he not being coached by Canada.

So there’s a chicken-and-egg sensation here. Tomlin’s Steelers haven’t won a playoff game in quite some time, but no coach should have been expected to take the Steelers’ recent quarterback rooms through a playoff run. With that said, if a good quarterback is necessary to stack playoff wins, then Tomlin’s ability to develop a young quarterback must be examined—and so far, he’s 0-for-1. Tomlin’s struggles with his offensive coaching staff make quarterbacking harder in Pittsburgh. He is at fault for those bad rooms, just as he deserves credit for finding ways to win when most wouldn’t.

Tomlin is a good coach. I don’t think anyone can successfully argue otherwise: Over an enormous sample of games—a much larger sample than the recent postseason appearances—he has made his teams perform much better than they should. He is an elevator, both in ways that are evident—close games, the Pickens saga—and in many more ways that, I’m sure, we can’t see from the outside.

But it is simultaneously true—cold and hard—that Tomlin has to get the Steelers offense right, and he has to do it fast. A team must be able to get a franchise quarterback in the building. It doesn’t really matter which avenue the team takes—draft and develop a guy, trade for a guy, scheme up a guy. The quarterback is the keystone of the franchise. Without him, everything else that’s good about Tomlin and his franchise will eventually collapse.

Tomlin isn’t in any real jeopardy of being fired—not unless a discontented yinzer somehow assumes hostile control of the Steelers organization, or the Rooney family suddenly casts aside an honored family tradition of never firing anyone, ever. He’ll be given more leeway than most coaches, and he’s earned that. There’s no ignoring the good coaching he’s done to earn it, nor is there any ignoring the fact that he is benefiting from it: being given time to figure out the offensive riddle that has perplexed his teams for the past several years. Time that other coaches under other owners likely wouldn’t receive.

No matter what happens in the final two weeks of the season—even another heroic postseason berth—the Steelers and Tomlin are at a tipping point. The 2024 Steelers offense will be the fulcrum. See you then.