He is the only head coach in the NFL with nine or more years head coaching experience that has never been fired nor had a losing season, and only one of his current peers has been to and won more Super Bowls. Yet for some Pittsburgh Steelers fans, it seems that no matter what Mike Tomlin accomplishes it is not quite good enough.
Perhaps Steeler fans are more critical and have greater expectations than other football fans as they believe that it’s their birthright to be in the playoffs and contend for a Super Bowl every year.
There are times, I grant you, that it appears that Tomlin went to the Les Miles’ school of game clock mis-management. Perhaps of even greater concern with Tomlin’s coaching is the propensity of which the Steelers lose to far inferior teams.
Some of the more memorable upset losses were to a 1-6 New York Jets team in 2007, a 1-11 Cleveland team in 2009, to the Browns in 2012 when they were 2-8, and losing to Oakland in 2012 and 2013 when the Raiders finished both seasons with a 4-12 record. In 2014, the Steelers lost a 1-8 New York Jets team and to a Tampa Bay squad that would only win two games that year. The loss to a 4-10 Baltimore team this year that was without their starting quarterback could have cost the Steelers a postseason berth had it not been for Buffalo upsetting the New York Jets the final week of the season.
So how has Tomlin managed to avoid having a losing season unlike all of his experienced contemporaries?
Perhaps Tomlin’s greatest coaching strength is getting his back-up players to buy into “the next man up philosophy.” Steeler fans have heard Tomlin say that and “the standard is the standard,” repeatedly throughout his coaching career.
The Steelers have been able to withstand injuries the past few seasons to stars such as Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, and LeVeon Bell and still play well enough to win games and make the playoffs. A great deal of credit for that has to go to Tomlin.
Steeler fans may complain Tomlin’s coaching, but in looking around the NFL, there aren’t many head coaches producing better results than Tomlin. If you compare team-by-team and coach-by-coach this is clearly bore out.
There are 31 other teams in the NFL. We can eliminate all those head coaches recently hired or have less than three years NFL head coaching experience. This includes: Todd Bowles (NY Jets), Gus Bradley (Jacksonville), Adam Gase (Miami), Jay Gruden (Washington), Hue Jackson (Cleveland), Dirk Koetter (Tampa Bay), Ben McAdoo (NY Giants), Mike McCoy (San Diego), Bill O’Brien (Houston), Doug Peterson (Philadelphia), Dan Quinn (Atlanta), and Mike Zimmer (Minnesota).
O’Brien, Gruden, and Zimmer have led their teams to the playoffs but none has won a playoff game. So now we’re down to 19 other teams and coaches.
Rex Ryan (Buffalo) had consecutive losing seasons with the NY Jets after making it to the AFC Championship two years in a row. Ryan was let go by the Jets.
Mike Mularkey (Tennessee) has not won anything and has an 18-39 record as head coach. Jason Garrett in Dallas has led the Cowboys only once to the playoffs in his five full seasons and that was the only year the Cowboys under Garrett had a winning record.
Chip Kelly, now with San Francisco, was fired by the Eagles before the season even ended. Jack Del Rio (Oakland) has had only three winning seasons and taken teams to the playoffs only twice in his 10 years as an NFL head coach.
Chuck Pagano of the Indianapolis Colts, who like Tomlin, has never had a losing season. However, Pagano’s head coaching tenure with the Colts has only been for four seasons compared to Tomlin’s nine with the Steelers. Pagano has yet to lead a team to the Super Bowl.
Bruce Arians (Arizona) is highly thought of as a coach and has compiled an impressive 43-17 record in his four seasons as an NFL head coach. Like Pagano, Arians has yet to lead a team to the Super Bowl.
Looking now to those coaches that have coached in a Super Bowl, Jim Caldwell (Detroit) has not had nearly the success that Tomlin has. Caldwell led the Indianapolis Colts to Super Bowl XLIV but lost to New Orleans. Of Caldwell’s five seasons as a head coach, two of them were losing ones.
Jeff Fisher, (St. Louis) is a fine coach with 20 years of head coaching experience, and has taken the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl. However, Fisher also has nine losing seasons as part of his coaching resume. Edge to Tomlin.
Andy Reid (Kansas City), while with the Philadelphia Eagles, led them to four consecutive NFC Championship games. The Eagles won only once and in Super Bowl XXXIX against New England displayed terrible clock management skills late in the game and let much of the clock tick away when it called for a hurry-up offense to try get back in the game. The same clock mismanagement happened again in this year’s playoffs only this time it was Reid’s Chiefs doing the same against the Patriots.
John Fox (Chicago) has reached the Super Bowl twice in his 14-year head-coaching career but lost each time. Of his 14 seasons, Fox has five losing seasons and has made the playoffs seven times. Edge to Tomlin.
Looking at the coaches that led their teams to Super Bowl 50, Gary Kubiak (Denver) is only five games over .500 (73-68) in his nine seasons as an NFL head coach and has had three losing seasons and making the playoffs only three times. Ron Rivera (Carolina) has had two losing seasons in his five years as an NFL head coach and his favored Carolina Panthers team lost to Denver.
One could certainly make a claim that Pete Carroll (Seattle), John Harbaugh (Baltimore), Sean Payton (New Orleans), and Mike McCarthy (Green Bay) are all comparable coaches to Mike Tomlin. Each has won a Super Bowl like Tomlin but only Tomlin and Carroll have taken their team to two Super Bowls. It is easy to forget that Carroll had two previous head coaching stints with the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. In Carroll’s 10 years as a NFL head coach, he’s had two losing seasons and taken his teams to the playoffs seven times.
Breaking it down further, Payton has had three losing seasons with the Saints in his nine years there. Harbaugh suffered his first losing season in his eight years with the Ravens this past year.
Tomlin’s winning percentage of .639 for nine seasons (92-52) is slightly behind that of McCarthy’s .653 for 10 seasons (104-55-1), and McCarthy has the luxury of coaching against the Bears and Lions twice a year unlike Tomlin facing stiffer competition in the Ravens and Bengals.
The only coach that has a superior coaching record to Tomlin is New England’s Bill Belichick, whose coaching record speaks for itself. Belichick has a record of 223-113 as head coach and more impressively, a 23-10 record in the post-season.
After four losing seasons in five years in Cleveland, Belichick has had only one losing season in 16 with New England and reached the postseason 13 times, and getting to the Super Bowl six times and being victorious on four occasions.
As successful as Belichick has been, even he has made some questionable coaching decisions the past few seasons that were subject to a great deal of second-guessing.
The next time Steeler fans are upset over a coaching decision or an upset loss, look around the NFL. As his record would indicate, there aren’t many coaches out there better than Tomlin.
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites.