For years, there's been a battle between local and national media regarding Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. National media tend to praise Tomlin while using his ongoing run of non-losing seasons as evidence of his greatness. Local media usually to point to Tomlin's lack of postseason success (among other things) in their argument that Tomlin isn't as good as the rest of the country thinks.
What's the truth? It probably lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, Tomlin deserves enormous credit for his consistency (which is truly peerless) and ability to churn out competitive teams. He also has a Super Bowl win and another appearance in the big game, in case you forgot.
It's also fair to criticize him for not having more postseason success since Pittsburgh's loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV. Pittsburgh hasn't won a playoff game since 2016, which is the longest current drought of any AFC North team.
It's fair to say that Tomlin has done better with "underdog" teams and not as well with teams with higher expectations. Look no further than last year, when the Steelers managed to get to nine wins after a 2-6 start and with a rookie quarterback under center.
Which brings us to this season. This was a season were expectations were higher than in recent years. A big reason for that optimism was the expected rise in play from Kenny Pickett in his first full year as QB1. The Steelers didn't hide from the expectations; GM Omar Khan openly talked about the excitement he had about this team during the first day of training camp.
Things probably haven't turned out the way Khan, Tomlin and president Art Rooney II had hoped. Instead of taking the leap into the AFC's upper echelon, the Steelers are in familiar territory, at 7-5 and fighting tooth and nail for a (likely wild card) playoff spot. Even if they are able to qualify, many expect the Steelers to be a quick out while extending their streak of seasons without a playoff win.
Unlike recent years, there are no real excuses for the Steelers being in their current predicament. Sure, they've had some damming injuries, but find me an NFL team that hasn't. In fact, depth -- which could help overcome those injuries -- was one of the things Khan prided the roster on during that first day of camp.
Yes, the Steelers have received quality play from reserves. But not enough to help them defeat a previously two-win Cardinals team last Sunday in what was one of Tomlin's worst home losses as Pittsburgh's coach. Making the loss even worse was several players openly admitting after the game that they probably took the Cardinals lightly.
The area where this team has fallen woefully short has been on offense. It got to such a bad place where former OC Matt Canada was relieved of his duties after an ugly loss Week 11 in Cleveland. The offense's struggles (to put it very mildly) have hindered Pickett's growth while also calling into question whether or not the team should look for another quarterback this offseason (they shouldn't, but that argument is for another day). The offense's struggles have reinforced Tomlin's need to hire a proven OC to run the show moving forward.
The loss to Arizona and those subsequent comments from players has led to an outrage from Steelers fans who want better. In recent years, it seems that Steelers fans have largely been content and resigned to the fact that Tomlin will be their team's coach, for better or worse. This loss, however, has created a feeling that would suggest that the fan base is running out of patience.
If you think that doesn't matter, think again. Rooney will never fire Tomlin (nor should he), but he doesn't have to extend his contract. Tomlin's contract (which wasn't extended this past summer) expires at the end of the 2024 season. If Pittsburgh finishes this season on a down note (i.e. not making the playoffs), It's feasible to think that Rooney won't extend Tomlin's contract again this offseason, thus making him a lame duck coach in 2024.
Tomlin may not want to coach beyond his current contract, which would the above paragraph a moot point. He's been a head coach longer than anyone currently in the game sans Andy Reid and Bill Belichick, and only Belichick has been at his current post longer. Tomlin, still just 51, may decide to take a dive into another field (TV studio analyst?) that is very lucrative but way less stressful.
Regardless, the next one-plus years are critical from a legacy standpoint. Can Tomlin get more from these teams than he has recent ones, or will the next two seasons follow the same path? While 2024 is a mystery, what happens against New England on Thursday night will have a big say in how the rest of 2023 plays out. It's a must-win for the Steelers if they want to keep their playoff aspirations alive.
My two cents? I think Tomlin is an exceptional coach whose legacy goes beyond football. He's a true leader of men whose ability to reach his players has been instrumental in his consistency throughout his 17 years in Pittsburgh.
At the same time, I think it's fair to criticize Tomlin for some of the Steelers' shortcomings under his watch, especially during the "Killer B" era.
A popular take among some fans and local media has been for the Steelers to allow themselves to have a down year so that they can actually have a rebuild for the first time in decades. But Tomlin knows that the same people clamoring for a losing season now would be the same ones screaming for a coaching change if Pittsburgh ever does have a losing season.
Sans winning another Super Bowl, Tomlin will likely continue to have doubters when his coaching career is over. That's the nature of the business, especially when you're the coach of one of the winningest franchises in American professional sports over the past half-century. As far at this season is concerned, the Steelers need to make the playoffs for this season to be considered a success. It probably won't be enough for most of the local media, but it'll probably be good enough to satisfy the masses (and surely enough to keep the national singing Tomlin's praise) while offering the hope of better days in 2024.
Tomlin likes to say that he runs towards these types of challenges. He might, but does his team? That may be what ultimately decides to the fate of the Steelers and their coach for the remainder of this season.