Pittsburgh Steelers Extend Head Coach Mike Tomlin: Is This NFL Purgatory?

By Scott Kacsmar

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The NFL, especially the AFC, has become a league where beating Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs is the top priority if you want to win a Super Bowl. Yet, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to think keeping head coach Mike Tomlin in town is their best shot of doing this.

Earlier this week, the Steelers announced a 3-year contract extension for Tomlin that will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2027 season. With Bill Belichick out of the league, Tomlin is the longest-tenured coach in the NFL as the 2024 season will be his 18th season as coach of the Steelers.

Tomlin has never had a losing season, and Pittsburgh can tie the NFL record held by the 1965-85 Cowboys with a 21st non-losing season in a row this year.

Extending such a head coach sounds like a no-brainer decision until you remember the Steelers have not won a playoff game since they snuck out of Kansas City in January 2017 with an 18-16 win by kicking six field goals. In fact, that game was the impetus for Kansas City drafting Mahomes in 2017.

The seven seasons without a playoff win is the longest drought in Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl era. Pittsburgh loves to boast the stability of having only three head coaches since 1969, but at what point did this franchise become one that competes to have non-losing seasons instead of one that plays for AFC Championship Games and Super Bowls?

What ever happened to the goal of becoming the first franchise to win seven Super Bowls?

Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll took the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game seven times in his career. Hall of Fame coach Bill Cowher reached it six times in 15 seasons (1992-2005). Tomlin has only been there three times in 17 years, and he lost big the last time in New England in the 2016 season.

The fact we are giving the Steelers this much of a spotlight in the offseason might make some scoff, which just goes to show how the mighty have fallen. But this has been a flagship franchise in the modern NFL ever since Franco Harris pulled off The Immaculate Reception.

Since the 1970 merger, the Steelers lead all NFL franchises in wins (550) and are the only team to win over 60% of their games (60.9%) when you include the postseason. No franchise has won more than six Super Bowls.

But keeping Tomlin as the coach for potentially four more seasons through 2027 feels like a franchise admitting that the new standard is barely finishing with a winning record and crashing in the postseason.

This is what NFL purgatory looks like, and we are going to show why things are unlikely to change in Pittsburgh until the team finds its next head coach.

Myth: Mike Tomlin Is Pittsburgh’s Best Chance to Win Another Super Bowl

If the goal is still winning the Super Bowl or at least getting there, then it is hard to say Tomlin gives Pittsburgh a real edge to achieve that in 2024 and beyond.

The dirty little secret of the NFL is that Super Bowls are won in small windows of time, and Tomlin hasn’t been to one since the 2010 season. He hasn’t won one since 2008, and even that was largely with Cowher’s team.

This is not a college where a great coach like Nick Saban (Alabama football) or Mike Krzyzewski (Duke basketball) can repeatedly get new recruiting classes of top-end talent and go through multiple windows of championship success for decades.

No NFL coach has ever won a Super Bowl with two different franchises.  Since the Super Bowl era started in 1966, no coach has ever won a Super Bowl if he had to wait more than eight seasons to even get to a single Super Bowl with his team. While it took Cowher 14 seasons to win one for Pittsburgh, he did at least get to one in his fourth season in 1995.

There are 26 head coaches who have been to multiple Super Bowls, a list which includes Tomlin. But of the 14 coaches to win multiple Super Bowls, all of their titles except for one came with gaps of 1-to-6 seasons. For instance, Tom Landry won titles with the Cowboys in 1971 and 1977, which was a 6-season gap.

The only Super Bowl win with a longer gap than that was when Bill Belichick won after a 10-year drought in 2014 with the Patriots, who had last won it in 2004. But that also includes a perfect season in 2007 that was spoiled in the Super Bowl and another Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 2011. After that long gap, Belichick won every other title in 2014, 2016, and 2018.

Tomlin was fortunate to win a Super Bowl in his second season. He joins Mike Holmgren and Pete Carroll as the only coaches to win their first Super Bowl, get to another, and never win a second title.

In Holmgren’s case, he went back-to-back with a great Green Bay team in 1996-97, losing the second trip to Denver. Then he went to coach the Seahawks in 1999 before he led that team to a Super Bowl loss to Cowher’s Steelers in 2005. But keep that in mind, the Packers let go of a coach who reached back-to-back Super Bowls just two years earlier.

As for Carroll, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013, got right back there in 2014, then had one of the worst goal-line sequences ever to lose to the Patriots and get Belichick off his drought and back to another dynasty run. Instead of becoming the next dynasty, the Seahawks didn’t even get back to the NFC Championship Game since 2015.

Tomlin hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since his fourth season in 2010. There is no real precedent to think he’ll make it to a third Super Bowl in Year 18 or later if he’s already burned through the prime and careers of players like Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Antonio Brown, etc.

If Tomlin does it, it will probably be with a different franchise, because there is actually precedent for that.

When Andy Reid went 15 years between Super Bowl appearances (2004 to 2019), which included a change of teams from Philadelphia to Kansas City (since 2013), making him the poster child for a coach who needed a change of scenery to get better. It also helped dramatically that he ended up with Mahomes in 2017.

Dan Reeves went 0-3 in the Super Bowl with John Elway and the Broncos in 1986-89. Then he had jobs with the Giants (1993-96) and Falcons before returning to the Super Bowl in the 1998 season where he lost to Elway in the quarterback’s final game. But that was a 9-year gap between Super Bowl appearances.

John Fox had 10 years between his Super Bowl appearances with the 2003 Panthers and 2013 Broncos. He lost both games. But it also helped to have vintage Peyton Manning as your quarterback in 2013.

The longest gap between Super Bowl appearances for a coach in NFL history is 19 years for Dick Vermeil with the 1980 Eagles and 1999 Rams. However, that one is totally misleading as he was retired and not coaching in 1982-96. He only returned to coaching at 61 years old in the 1997 season with the Rams before winning it all. So, that was technically only a 5-year gap between Super Bowl appearances in seasons he actually coached, which is a normal gap.

This means of the 26 coaches with multiple Super Bowl appearances, only Cowher had a gap of 10 years between appearances without changing teams. The Steelers are hoping to extend that record with Tomlin, but it’s not like a young Ben Roethlisberger is walking through the door.

Myth: Steelers Won’t Find a Better Coach Than Mike Tomlin

Another myth is the idea that the Steelers should keep Tomlin as their coach because they won’t find a better coach than him.

There are two big problems with this line of thinking. First, who were Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin before the Steelers hired them as rookie coaches in 1969, 1992, and 2007 respectively?

None were proven head coaches. Their resumes as assistant coaches weren’t even that deep or impressive to that point. But they were young, hungry, talented, and the Steelers gave them each a chance. They could do the same thing for another coach down the road.

The fact is we still don’t exactly know what makes a head coach great. You can pick someone who has shown multiple years of success in a coordinator job, and they may still flop as a head coach. There’s a bit of randomness to it, or maybe it’s just a matter of timing, joining the right team with the right players at the right time.

But you can’t just use the excuse that you won’t find someone better. Noll was a legend in Pittsburgh after he took over what was arguably the worst franchise in the NFL since the 1930s. But his dynasty and great team aged out into retirement, things weren’t as good in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it was time for a change. Cowher came in 1992 and immediately led the team to the playoffs. The rest is history.

The more troubling part of this is what evidence we have that Tomlin is getting better at his job as he gets older.

There are valid reasons for the decline in performance by the team, including some disappointing drafts, Antonio Brown losing his mind, and the decline, retirement, and difficulty of replacing Roethlisberger at the most important position.

But the numbers should concern even the most trustworthy of fans:

  • The Steelers had a negative scoring differential in 4-of-5 seasons since 2019.
  • The Steelers have won the division once since 2018, and that was during the 2020 pandemic year when they started 11-0 before collapsing and losing to the Browns at home in the playoffs.
  • Since 2018, Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) is 3-0 against the Steelers with 14 touchdown passes and Josh Allen (Bills) is 4-1 with 8 total touchdowns in his last two meetings with Tomlin’s defense.
  • Last season, Tomlin lost three games by 14-plus points to rookie coaches in the Texans (DeMeco Ryans), Cardinals (Jonathan Gannon), and Colts (Shane Steichen).
  • Meanwhile, the Steelers are tied with Washington for a league-low two wins by at least 14 points since 2021 as they have relied heavily on pulling out close games in the fourth quarter the last three years.

Those are primarily regular-season numbers. When it comes to the playoffs, Tomlin has a very underwhelming resume, to say the least. Forget the lack of a playoff win in the last seven seasons. When the Steelers make the tournament, they are getting blown apart in historic fashion:

  • The Steelers have allowed at least 31 points in five straight playoff games, an NFL record. No other team has more than a 3-game streak.
  • The 2016 Steelers allowed a season-high 36 points to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
  • The 2017 Steelers allowed a season-high 45 points to the Jaguars in the AFC divisional round at home.
  • The 2020 Steelers allowed a season-high 48 points to the Browns in the AFC wild card at home.
  • The 2021 Steelers allowed a season-high 42 points to the Chiefs in the AFC wild card.
  • The 2023 Steelers allowed a season-high 31 points to the Bills in the AFC wild card in the snow.
  • Tomlin is the only coach in NFL history to see his team allow a season-high in points in five straight postseason appearances. No one else has a streak longer than three years.

Staggering, historic stuff, and exactly what you don’t want to see on your coach’s resume. It would be one thing if all these games were against Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen on the road. But this is the same Tomlin-coached defense that let Baker Mayfield and Blake Bortles have the highlight wins of their careers in Pittsburgh in the playoffs. It’s also the same coach who watched Tim Tebow (Broncos) complete 10 passes for 316 yards in the 2011 AFC wild card.

This is what the standard has become, and it shouldn’t be acceptable.

With so many great quarterbacks in the AFC, how do the Steelers ever expect to get back to winning playoff games and competing for Super Bowls if the defense is always getting destroyed in these games? That’s to say nothing of the quarterback disparity as well.

If the Steelers still had spirited playoff runs, you can overlook Tomlin’s randomly aggressive play calls, his bad challenges, his stubbornness towards analytics, his misplaced trust in coordinators like Matt Canada, and his annual no-show performances against lousy opponents like Bailey Zappe (Patriots) and the Cardinals at home last year.

But even when the Steelers are in the playoffs, they have done nothing but embarrass themselves since the 2016 AFC Championship Game.  

Can You Still Trust a Defensive Coach in the NFL?

We mentioned a few times how important it was for Cowher to get Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback in 2004, or how Tomlin is experiencing a rough transition to find the next Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.

Quarterback is extremely important to a head coach’s success, and even the greatest to ever do it, Bill Belichick, is a testament to that. But as we said in December it was time for the Patriots and Steelers to move on from their coaches, only the Patriots did this offseason. Tomlin just got extended through 2027.

But if you need a coach to develop the next franchise quarterback, is a defensive coach like Tomlin really the person you want running things in today’s NFL?

We don’t even know if Tomlin will be able to resurrect the career of Russell Wilson this year. Sean Payton couldn’t do it in Denver last year, and he is better at the position than Tomlin is. Belichick just lost his job because he couldn’t replace Tom Brady in four seasons with the likes of Cam Newton and Mac Jones. Pete Carroll is also unemployed and likely headed for retirement as another defensive coach who couldn’t field a top-10 defense anymore after 2015. He too had some struggles with Wilson down the stretch in Seattle.

We know the league is trending towards offense and an offensive coordinator is the best job to have to become a rookie head coach in the NFL these days. But if you look at the quarterbacks who have come into the league since 2016 and excelled, their coaches were largely offensive-minded coaches:

  • Jared Goff (Rams) had Sean McVay when he turned things around in 2017.
  • Dak Prescott (Cowboys) won Offensive Rookie of the Year for Jason Garrett in 2016.
  • Carson Wentz (Eagles) almost won an MVP in 2017 under Doug Pederson, who later won a playoff game with Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville.
  • Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) landed with the brilliant mind of Andy Reid in Kansas City in 2017.
  • Deshaun Watson (Texans) used to be very good in Houston when Bill O’Brien was his coach.
  • Baker Mayfield had his best season in Cleveland in 2020 when Kevin Stefanski was his head coach.
  • The jury may still be out on Kyler Murray’s franchise quarterback status, but he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year under Kliff Kingsbury in 2019.
  • The 2020 draft class may have five franchise quarterbacks, and they all found their path to success under an offensive-minded coach: Joe Burrow and Zac Taylor (Bengals), Justin Herbert and Anthony Lynn (Chargers), Tua Tagovailoa and Mike McDaniel (Dolphins), Jalen Hurts and Nick Sirianni (Eagles), and Jordan Love and Matt LaFleur (Packers).
  • Brock Purdy (49ers) would be an irrelevant Mr. Irrelevant if he didn’t have Kyle Shanahan and all that talent in San Francisco.

That’s 14 quarterbacks. The only notable players missing are Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson from the 2018 class. Both went to defensive-minded coaches in Sean McDermott (Bills) and John Harbaugh (Ravens). Both like to use their legs and take things into their own hands as well. Allen broke out in 2020 when the team acquired Stefon Diggs and he was able to keep working with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who took the Giants’ job in 2022. Jackson had a good support system in Baltimore with Greg Roman as his offensive coordinator when he won his first MVP in 2019, but he and Allen look like outliers in this era.

Then there is the case of C.J. Stroud in Houston, which could be a title contender this year and Stroud could be the MVP. His rookie coach was a defensive-minded one in DeMeco Ryans, but the Texans did something very smart in bringing Bobby Slowik from the 49ers with Ryans to be the offensive coordinator. That means the Shanahan system and principles, and we saw it work with great success last year on such a young team. Slowik is staying put too as he was actually the coach we suggested the Steelers should have replaced Tomlin with for 2024 as the new head coach.

This might be the new way of doing things if you are going to hire a defensive-minded coach. Make sure you get a good offensive coordinator who has experience working under the likes of Andy Reid, Shanahan, or Sean McVay. We saw the Falcons do this too this year with the hiring of Raheem Morris as head coach and Zac Robinson as the offensive coordinator.

For Tomlin, he is going with Arthur Smith as his new OC after a failed coaching stint in Atlanta where he couldn’t get anything to work with Marcus Mariota (again) or Desmond Ridder. That may not be the best mix with Wilson and Justin Fields as well. Then the prospects of Smith coming back to possibly coach up a rookie in 2025?

Well, it can’t be any worse than Matt Canada helping Kenny Pickett record the lowest career touchdown pass rate in NFL history, right? Right?

Extending a defensive coach who can’t keep any opponent under 31 points in the playoffs and who might have to develop another rookie quarterback soon does not sound like the best situation for prosperity.

This is NFL purgatory.

Misconception: Enjoy Losing Seasons Without Tomlin

It may not be a myth that the Steelers would likely see their non-losing season streak end if they got rid of Tomlin. But it is a misconception of how bad that would be.

Would you not gladly endure a terrible season (or two) if it meant higher draft picks and a chance to acquire some significant talent that can get the team back in serious contention?

The last time the Steelers had a losing season was 2003 when they finished 6-10. That led to the No. 11 pick, which they used on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Think that worked out okay.

The Steelers did not draft another player that high until they took linebacker Devin Bush with the No. 10 pick in 2019, and he just so happened to be a bust. But new general manager Omar Khan has had a promising start to his career, so maybe a draft or two with higher picks would be extremely beneficial to this team.

Right now, Pittsburgh is in NFL purgatory. This is when you win enough games to have a non-losing record, and maybe make the playoffs, but you aren’t winning any playoff games, you’re embarrassing yourself in January, and you’re not even getting a high draft pick out of it to get better.

With Russell Wilson at quarterback, the 2024 Steelers could finish 9-8, win a lot of close games, maybe make the playoffs, and undoubtedly get smoked on wild card weekend again. Then they can draft in the high teens, and we’ll be right back here next offseason saying the exact same things going into 2015.

It is the definition of insanity, and if the Steelers ever want to break out of this complacency, they won’t see this Tomlin contract extension through to the end.

Related Articles: