Anti-Tomlin, 2016 Version: Part 1
by Ivan Cole
It would be foolish to assume that the haters all died or are converted.
I pointed that out in Part One of ‘The Case for the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016’, and unfortunately I was right. Obviously, there are creative challenges involved in Tomlin hating these days, but there are those who are up to the task. I focus on Colin Cowherd, who reiterated on his vehicle, The Herd, what has become the standard anti-Tomlin narrative—he is a mediocrity who has been given inappropriate credit for having the good fortune to find himself in circumstances where he can’t possibly fail.
A version of this particular storyline has been used to trivialize and minimize the efforts of various persons in the Steelers organization for literally decades. But there are also aspects of this narrative which are peculiar to Mike Tomlin. I will deal with both.
The basic idea, communicated with some upgrades by Cowherd but consistent in its essence, is that individual success is largely a function of being part of system where failure is difficult, if not impossible. According to Cowherd, Tomlin has been the beneficiary of the support of a first class organization, a championship caliber roster highlighted by a ‘Hall of Fame’ quarterback and “momentum.”
Clearly the thought is, with those factors in his favor, the situation is idiot proof, and Tomlin is, in fact, actually underachieving. A really good coach would have accomplished more, raising the question in Cowherd’s mind whether Tomlin is nothing more than Barry Switzer 2.0.
There has also been one clever upgrade in the argument specific to Tomlin—a switch in emphasis from Bill Cowher to Ben Roethlisberger being the principle catalyst of the success of Tomlin’s tenure. I’ll get to that soon.
It was said at the time that Chuck Noll’s teams were so incredibly talented that coaching acumen had little or nothing to do with the team’s success. There is a fallacy here that one would assume to be obvious, but for many clearly is not.
The assertion suggests that the head coach, and his duties, has nothing to do with the evaluation, procurement and development of all this fine talent. Presumably Noll, Cowher, and now Tomlin sit in the corner sucking their thumbs while the general manager, owners and other grown-ups select the groceries. The coach then sics this talent on opponents and collects all the credit.
This idea was amended a little in the case of Tomlin. Cowher was promoted to being the architect of the roster, and Tomlin was building his reputation drafting off of his predecessor’s success and the system’s efforts. There is a problem now, and this is where the clever upgrade comes in.
The “he’s done it with Cowher’s players” argument has worb thin because there aren’t any Cowher players left. Well, actually there are three—long snapper Greg Warren, 150-year-old outside linebacker James Harrison, and Ben. So, according to Cowherd, and sure to be repeated by other Tomlin haters, is that Ben has replaced Cowher for being both the reason for Coach T’s success as well as the marker for his alleged incompetence.
This line of thought is simultaneously misleading and clever, but ultimately is insulting to all involved. The misleading part is, it directs attention away from what is the central issue, that Tomlin has now assembled his own team (following the logic of his critics), full of All Pro and Pro Bowl caliber players that has the as yet unrealized potential to accomplish all that the so-called Cowher roster achieved.
However, no one can deny that Ben is the most important and impactful piece on the board. He also happens to be one of the remaining Cowher guys, meaning he has been a constant factor in the Tomlin tenure. Additionally, Ben is now experiencing an upgrade in his own status.
Once the kid that everyone shunned or ignored, Ben is now being resurrected as the new popular kid. Before he was overlooked in favor of established veterans such as Tom Brady, both of the Manning brothers, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo. A slew of newcomers cut in front of him in line; Andrew Luck, RGIII, Russell Wilson, you name them. Today the marketing line is that Ben is a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback whom everybody has always known to be one of the all-time greats. That statement is half right.
The insulting part is that Ben, Cowher and Tomlin have all been labeled with the slur of being underachievers or incompetents of one kind or another. It should be also noted that this level of disrespect as it relates to Ben is not unique to Steelers quarterbacks. Furthermore, the universal recognition of Terry Bradshaw’s greatness also came relatively late. That any one of these three men is being used as a club to discredit one of the others, especially in those instances when members of Steelers Nation, who should know better, fall for this BS, well, it’s sad.
But let’s also get specific about the allegation that Ben has been carrying Tomlin. In 2010 Ben was sentenced to serve a six game suspension at the beginning of that season based upon his off field behavior. That suspension was reduced to four games. You will recall that the team’s record during that span was 3-1, with the one loss being due to a defensive breakdown with less than a minute to play.
They won with second string backup Dennis Dixon (one full game) and fourth string quarterback Charlie Batch (three games) leading the team. The Steelers went to the Super Bowl that season. Coaching may have been involved.
And let’s talk ‘momentum’ for a bit. When Tomlin came to the Steelers, they had just finished 8-8 and had missed the playoffs. The prior season they won the Super Bowl. However, they did not win their division, a point of emphasis for Cowherd, and were a sixth seed going into the playoffs. This is in spite of Cowher having a relatively healthy team that started Ben, Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley at running back, Hines Ward and Heath Miller among the receivers, and Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Marvel Smith, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks on the offensive line. Players like James Harrison and Brett Keisel were backups on defense.
In 2008 Pittsburgh also won the Super Bowl. Their schedule was the toughest seen in the league since the Seventies. Faneca, Joey Porter and Hartings were gone. Parker missed five games and Rashard Mendenhall twelve due to injury, with third stringer Mewelde Moore starting several games. Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons missed eleven and twelve games respectively. Darnell Stapleton, a free agent rookie center from Rutgers, was the starting right guard next to center Justin Hartwig for most of the season. That team won the AFC North and was second seed in the conference. This was obviously about Cowher, his players, and momentum. [Sarcasm font please]
Cowherd mentioned that the Steelers and their HOF quarterback are not regularly winning the AFC North, while Brady in the AFC East and Peyton Manning in the AFC South and West respectively were pretty much automatic titles. According to Cowherd, this is a telltale sign of there being issues with Pittsburgh’s coaching.
Or perhaps it is a case of comparing apples to oranges. In Tomlin’s first nine seasons, there were only two in which the AFC North sent only one team to the playoffs. Pittsburgh was the single team in one of the two years. In two of the other seven seasons, three teams qualified. During the same nine-year period the other three AFC divisions managed multiple playoff representatives only two times each.
What this means is that for the AFC North teams the divisional schedule often involve home and home series with one and often two playoff teams, plus a possible third meeting in the playoffs. In 2014 and 2015 Pittsburgh opened the playoffs against a divisional opponent. They met the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round in 2010, and in the AFCCG in 2008.
The AFC North is the only division in the conference to have multiple representatives in the Super Bowl and league champions in that time frame as well. On the relatively rare occasions when there was quality competition within their divisions, Manning and Brady struggled, as they each did when they had to face each other twice a year in earlier days.
Cowherd also suggests a comparison between Tomlin and former Dallas head coach Barry Switzer. Let’s examine that angle for a moment:
*Currently active coaches, meaning their tenth season stats are to date, but incomplete.
So who are these guys?
- A – John Madden
- B – Vince Lombardi
- C – Mike Tomlin
- D – Bill Walsh
- E – Sean Payton
- F – Gary Kubiak
- G – Barry Switzer
The differences in total games played reflects the fact that in Lombardi’s time, the regular season was 12 games, 14 in Madden’s era. If the Steelers win 11 games this season and he then retires from coaching, Tomlin leap frogs over Madden in games won over a ten-year career. Payton would have to run the table in regular season plus add two playoff wins to match. Kubiak has no shot.
It is now time to call BS on the passive aggressive argument that the jury is still out as to whether Tomlin is a good coach. That train has left the station some time ago. He likely makes the cut based upon longevity alone. If he were to lead the Steelers to double digit wins this season, something that at this precise moment appears to be quite doable, and then abruptly leaves coaching, he will have matched or exceeded John Madden in games, championship game participation and championships won. And Madden is in the Hall of Fame.
His weakness relative to Lombardi and Walsh is championships, but that is not necessarily a permanent condition. The argument presented so far is based on the assumption of Tomlin’s story ending now. But Tomlin’s biggest advantage is that he is still very young. Lombardi’s career was capped at ten years because he started late, due in part to prejudicial attitudes that existed concerning Italians, and failing health later on.
It’s not inconceivable to believe that Tomlin’s career is still just in the first quarter. Bill Belichick, who is considered the state of the art in coaching at this time, is a hell of a lot better now than he was twenty years ago when he was coaching the Browns. So there is the possibility that Tomlin’s best years are still in front of him, and he probably only needs one more championship to make it into the HOF on a first ballot. I suspect that Barry Switzer will never get a whiff of Canton.
To be continued…