Mike Tomlin: Hero or Zero?

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My last post covered the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

One thing I discussed was their long-standing policy of not negotiating new contracts during the season.   Another of their policies is to always give their head coach a new deal when he’s down to two years remaining on the current one.  If nothing else, this prevents any messy “lame duck” situations from occurring.  Well, guess what?

Mike Tomlin has two years remaining on his contract.

As of this writing, I have heard exactly zero rumblings about a contract extension.  Of course, there are still over three months until the start of the season.  And the Steelers could always use the fact that a coach is not a player as a loophole if they want to negotiate during the season.  Still, it’s an interesting situation with big repercussions for the future of this franchise.

Personally, I’m not sold on Tomlin.  “But he won a Super Bowl in only his second year!” is pretty much the sole argument for why he’s a great head coach.  That’s idiotic.   Know who else won a Super Bowl?

George Seifert and Barry Switzer.

Are either of them “brilliant” head coaches?   Switzer won a Super Bowl in his second season as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.  Seifert did both men one better by bringing home the Lombardi Trophy in his first season.   Switzer resigned only two years later and hasn’t been back in the NFL.   Seifert won a second Super Bowl a few years later before taking some time off.  He resurfaced to coach the Panthers in 1999.  He put up a 16-32 record, going 1-15 in his final year, with a team that would go on to make an appearance in the Super Bowl just two seasons later.

Were they great coaches?  Certainly not.  They were successful because they inherited a great team from a much more talented coach.  Switzer won with Jimmy Johnson‘s Cowboys.  Seifert won with Bill Walsh‘s 49ers.  They were handed the keys to a Ferrari and simply told not to crash it.   That’s a lot easier than building the Ferrari yourself.

Is Tomlin a Switzer?  At this point, I have to think the jury is still out.  The team he won Super Bowl XLIII with was undoubtedly Bill Cowher‘s team.  The nucleus of Hines, Ben, and Troy are all Cowher’s guys.   Defensive stalwarts like Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton are Cowher’s guys.  Key offensive players such as Max Starks and Heath Miller are Cowher’s guys.  Tomlin built nothing, he just basically rode the same team that won it all in 2005 to another title in 2008.

I think there are still some questions as to how good a coach he truly is.   His first season was an improvement over Cowher’s last but only by two games which is almost a given considering he didn’t have a brain damaged Roethlisberger behind center.  The Steelers were one-and-done in the playoffs that year which can partly be blamed on season ending injuries to Willie Parker and Aaron Smith.  But the game was badly coached by Tomlin, who kept going for idiotic 2 point conversions when had he kicked XPs they likely would’ve won.  He won the Super Bowl in his second year behind an incredible defense and incredibly good luck when it came to injuries.  Last year was an absolute embarrassment as the team showed little passion, heart, or character.  What’s worse, when the team went into a mid-season tailspin, Tomlin seemingly had no clue how to pull them out.  He’d issue weekly threats and proclamations which would inevitably fail to be backed up on Sunday.

The Steelers are known for patience with their head coaches.  I am by no means suggesting they start making plans for Tomlin’s replacement.   But I think in this case, they should excercise some patience of their own.  Because the story of the 2010 season will tell us a lot about what kind of coach Tomlin is when he has to win with his own guys.  And that story will tell us a lot about what needs to be done in 2011 and beyond.

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