A deep look at Mike Tomlin's first 5 years

by Mechem on Jan 9, 2012

Losing makes people angry and causes them to start claiming ridiculous things. Things like we should fire Ike Taylor. He had an awful game to be sure, but he isn't the reason we lost. Anyway, this isn't about Taylor. I personally feel it's a good time to examine Mike Tomlin. I always feel that the head coach has to come under scrutiny for a major loss, especially one that in all honesty should not have happened. But this isn't about any one game in particular. Rather, after 5 seasons, I feel it's a good opportunity to look at Tomlin's body of work.

Tomlin took over after the roughshod 2006 season, which was marred by Ben's motorcycle/appendix problems to start the year. Ben never seemed right that year after all that, and we ended up a rather uninspired 8-8. Cowher retired, and Tomlin took over.

We're going to look at this a líttle bit season by season, followed by some overall analysis.


Draft Picks: Lawrence Timmons, Lamarr Woodley, Matt Spaeth, Daniel Sepulveda, Ryan McBean, Cameron Stephenson, William Gay, Dallas Baker

Record: 10-6

Key Wins: Swept Cincinnati, Swept Browns (who were also 10-6, giving us the AFC North), Monday Night beating of Baltimore 38-7.

Losses: Lost to the Pats, Jags, Ravens, Cardinals, Broncos, Jets.

Playoffs: Won the AFC North. Qualified as the 4th seed. Lost to Jacksonville in the opening round.

Tomlin's first year could be considered a success, as most first year coaches rarely do anything great. Coming off the 8-8 year, it was certainly an improvement. The draft gave us two stud linebackers who have developed into Pro Bowl caliber players, but the rest of the draft has been ok at best. Spaeth and Sepulveda were strange positions to draft so high, and only William Gay remains on the team. I feel he was a good pick given his position in the draft (6th round).

In the division the Steelers played very well, which is crucial. Tomlin clearly had his team ready to play against the important opponents. Sweeping the upstart Browns was very important, had we not done so we wouldn't have even made the playoffs. It's important to note that this year the Jags traveled to our stadium despite having a better record, much as we just had to against Denver.

But losses to very good teams cast a shadow of doubt over this season. To top it all off, Tomlin's insistence on 'using FWP until the wheels come off' proved to be a poor decision. Parker blew his leg out in week 16 and was never the same again. Left with a shaky O-line, and Najeh Davenport at RB, we were in no shape to win in the playoffs.

Despite having played the Jags at home once in the season, which was a loss, we couldn't beat them in the postseason.

The Playoff game was marred by questionable 2 point conversion calls. In both cases, per the point differential, it made sense to do so. But the typical rule of thumb is that you shouldnt do it until you absolutely have to. it seemed Tomlin didn't bank on us getting TWO TDs in the 4th quarter of the Wild Card game to win. 14 points would have given us a 3 point advantage. Instead, 12 points with two failed 2 point conversions gave us only a one point edge. The second 2 point conversion attempt was needed due to failing the first one.

A game winning FG by Scobee would put us down in a way that was tough to swallow.

Still, for a first year coach the season was admirable, but it certainly felt that we lost to lesser competition. The Jags were knocked out the very next week, yet at the same time I think we would have been too without a running game.


Draft Picks: Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, Tony Hills, Dennis Dixon, Mike Humpal, Ryan Mundy, Thomas McAllister

Record: 12-4

Key Wins: Swept the entire division. Beat the Patriots (albeit without Brady), Cowboys, Jags, Chargers,

Losses: Eagles, Giants, Colts, Titans

Playoffs: Won the AFC North. Got the 2 seed as a result of losing to the Titans. Beat the Chargers, Ravens, and finally Cardinals in the Super Bowl. Our 6th title was claimed in this season.

Year two of Tomlin's tenure will probably be seen as one of the best seasons in Steelers History. The defense was one of the best ever seen, as 2007 draft picks emerged in their second year. The Steelers dominated their division and beat the Ravens 3 times, which is always nice. Losses to the Colts and Titans are excusable, and the other two losses were out of conference causing minimal damage to our playoff seeding. Considering we had the hardest schedule in the NFL in about 30 years, playing almost all the playoff teams from the year before, we did quite well.

Rashard Mendenhall made little to no impact on this season, as he was knocked out early by Ray Lewis. Parker carried the load but big performances by Mewelde Moore in the middle of the year really bailed us out. The team looked unsettled early in the season. The loss to the Eagles had many people up in arms. It was clear our O-line was going to be a mess all year. Ben adapted, and the offense hit a great stride and our D gave us plenty of room for error.

This was an absolutely excellent season, but it's worth pointing out that most of the key players on the roster had been on the 2005 championship team as well. Our pass defense improved with Willie Gay in the nickel slot, but our O-line suffered as players from the 2005 squad disappeared one by one. And they were never properly replaced. Only Starks remained, and he was playing on the opposite side.

This O-line problem is just finally being given some attention, as the 2010/2011 drafts addressed it. But you can't help but feel it should have been addressed earlier. Still, when you're winning you can overlook some of your flaws.

A good year by Tomlin with really no disappointments, and a championship.


Draft Picks: Ziggy Hood, Kraig Urbik, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett, Frank Summers, Rashon Harris, A.Q. Shipley, David Johnson

Record: 9-7

Key Wins: Titans in the opener, Chargers (we own them), Packers and Ravens late in the season

Losses: Bears and Bengals back to back in the first 3 weeks, followed by an ugly 5 game losing streak in the middle of the year to the Bengals, Chiefs (OT), Ravens (OT), Raiders, Browns

Playoffs: Did not qualify, needed a miracle on the last day of the season, and we didn't get in.

This was a frustrating year for most of us. A year where we returned almost everybody from the championship team. The hardest part to swallow in this season was the seemingly inferior play with inferior opponents. Our schedule was markedly easier this year compared to 2008. But the biggest difference in this year was the poor quality of division play. Losing twice to the Bengals, once to the Ravens and the Browns gave us a 2-4 division record, one year after sweeping them all. Both the Bengals and Ravens made the playoffs, but the Ravens got in with the same record as us only because they had one more division win.

An area that seemed to be a focal point in Tomlin's first two years faltered badly in 2009. Another problem was losing back to back games on several occasions. Looking at 2008 we never lost back to back games, and in 2009 all of our losses had another one next to it. A pair in weeks 2-3, followed by the 5 game losing streak from weeks 10-14.

The team was fundamentally the same, yet the focus was not there. Perhaps complacency was a problem, or something wrong with the motivation. To me, Tomlin seemed to be a good motivator and this season was bizarre.

I can say though that Tomlin seems to have learned from this season: We have not lost to a team with a losing record since our last loss of this 2009 season. The Super Bowl Hangover remains a mystery that can't be fully explained. It hit us again and we had no answer for it.

I viewed this season as a real challenge for Tomlin prior to its start. Could he keep the team focused on repeating? Could he reduce distractions and deal with the fact that every team would be out to get them? Apparently not in this year. Losing to horrible teams in the middle of the year was disgraceful and it seemed that each loss got worse than the last. All were winnable and the team just melted down further and further.

To their credit, they won the last three games against high level competition and were still in contention for the 6th seed. But we couldn't get there.


Draft Picks: Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds, Emmanuel Sanders, Thaddeus Gibson, Chris Scott, Crezdon Butler, Stevenson Sylvester, Jonathan Dwyer, Antonio Brown, Doug Worthington. (Mcfadden and Leftwich were re-acquired via draft trades)

Record: 12-4

Key Wins: Falcons and Titans early in the season, @Ravens to win the division later.

Losses: Baltimore, New Orleans, New England, Jets

Playoffs: Made it as the #2 seed, beat the Ravens and Jets at Heinz field and lost to the Packers in the Super Bowl.

2010 was another good season. We all remember how tough it started out with Ben receiving a ridiculous 4 game suspension. Tomlin got the boys together and using Dixon and Batch, got us to 3-1 to start the year. That was crucial. Ben came back, and basically kept that .750 percentage alive. Ben had a very solid year despite only playing 3/4 of it. Ball security improved greatly, and we won all our games against weaker teams.

Several of our draft picks made an immediate impact and are clearly going to be major players in the future. Pouncey and Brown are already pro-bowl selections and the LBs drafted look to be future starters. We lost Gibson due to simply having too many awesome LBs, which was a shame. But this was an excellent draft class by far.

This season was remarkably like 2008 in terms of record, and the style of wins. Several come from behind wins, complimented by a defense that suffocated nearly as much as it did in 2008. However, Polamalu was injured a lot and the pass defense suffered against upper echelon teams. What looked like random breakdowns in coverage became much more common against QBs that knew how to exploit our aggressive scheme. The Pats and Ravens beat us by throwing. The Jets and Saints games were more of our offense stumbling and looking inept.

The O-line hurt us in both the Super Bowl and Jets games, leading to safeties and turnovers by not being able to protect The Ben. Ben also added to his long injury list with hand and foot problems all year.

In the end, the Steelers fell short against a superior opponent in the Super Bowl, but played damn hard to get there. Unfortunately mistakes plagued the team on offense and defense, and they could never overcome them.

Tomlin made up for the 2009 fiasco by handling all the weak teams we played. Our losses were only to playoff bound teams, which is admirable. However this year Tomlin didn't have a weak team like the Cardinals to feast on in the Super Bowl and got outplayed. The team didn't look strong going into the Super Bowl, playing just one complete half in each AFC playoff game. Injuries mounted on this team, but of course that's no excuse as the Packers suffered the same thing and won.

A successful season, but one where a championship felt within reach. We couldn't get our hands on it and seize the moment in the game when we could have won.


Draft Picks: Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen, Chris Carter, Keith Williams, Baron Batch.

Record: 12-4

Key Wins: Patriots, swept Bengals and Browns

Losses: Ravens twice, Texans, 49ers

Playoffs: Qualified as the 5th seed, Baltimore won the division with their sweep. Knocked out in the Wild Card round by Tim Tebow's Broncos.

2011 was another frustrating year that felt like it could have been so much better. Injury ravaged this team from day one, and it certainly was apparent in the latter half of the season. The draft picks were forced into action early, but this might be good for our future. Gilbert played well enough for a rookie at RT. Heyward showed a motor and was able to play nearly 75% of the Broncos game without stopping, which at high altitude is insane. The CBs drafted look solid and both played a lot of ST and Allen made some plays on D. Of course it's too early to call the draft a success or bust, but it looks good so far.

This season was very similar to 2010, except this year we were hurt even more than last year. The defense improved greatly, but the Offense didn't take the steps forward that it was expected to. Again, the O-line was in a constant shuffle. When we brought Starks back it got better, but Pouncey went out late in the year and that cost us dearly.

I look back at this year, and I feel only slightly satisfied. After losing the SB last year I was really proud of the team for making it that far. But I felt this year we'd get back there. We just couldn't do it.

Tomlin, again, didn't allow 2009 to repeat itself. We didn't lose to any lesser opponents yet again. Problem is, we couldn't beat anybody that was very good either. Aside from the Pats game, which was a flawless performance, we lost twice to the Ravens, and on opening day in Heinz field at that. Our first opener loss there. Losing to the Texans and 49ers isn't something to be ashamed of, but you'd like to be thought of as a team that can topple the higher level competition.

The way the end of the season was managed was in my opinion a disaster. Ben gets injured against the Browns, and is forced into action against the 49ers. While you can argue he was needed for this game, he clearly wasn't himself. And Tomlin left him in the game despite being down 3 scores. Tomlin HAS to start pulling his key players from games that cannot be won. After that, we had a short week and Ben didn't play. We dominated anyway. The season finale had us praying for a 2nd seed, but it was not very likely. Tomlin decided to throw all his best players back in there anyway, and got Mendenhall's ACL blown out, and possibly aggravated Ben's ankle. Not to mention Pouncey was hurt.

To me this is bad management. You have two choices: Take the 'bye' now against Cleveland and hope you win. Or fight for a 'maybe bye' (which never came). Why not just give your players the guaranteed rest right then and there? I suppose Tomlin was afraid to be anything less than a 2 seed, where he has had success.

It cost us dearly, we were gravely injured going into the Broncos game. Ben played ok, but missed several throws he'd normally make. No Pouncey led to a crucial high snap fumble that took a probable 3 points off the board. 3 points would have won the game in regulation. Otherwise I think the team played a good game against Denver, but just was too weakened by injury to win it.

Summary of Tomlin's 5 year career as Head Coach.

Regular Season Record: 55-25. 68.8%

Playoff Record: 5-3

AFC North Titles: 3

AFC Championships: 2

NFL Championships: 1

I had a hard time making up my mind on what I feel when I look at Tomlin's record of success. On one hand, you have a championship, and 5 winning seasons. On the other, you look at shortcomings in the playoffs and mid-season problems. Clearly Tomlin is learning from his mistakes, just like a rookie player has to learn how to play at the Pro level.

I feel like 2008 was a championship that should have gone to Bill Cowher because a lot of those players were from his era, and Tomlin only added a couple pieces to that puzzle. Don't forget that Holmes was drafted by Cowher and made the game winning catch there.Tomlin's true team was the 2010 version, and they didn't win it all. Came awful close though.

To me Tomlin is good (now) at making sure we win against weak teams. We haven't lost to one since 2009 and that's excellent. However, look a little bit at our losses. They're all playoff teams. This concerns me greatly. Here's a quick breakdown of our record against playoff teams. Playoff teams in this case are defined as teams that made the playoffs that year. I included division opponents.

2007: 1-2 (beat Seahawks, lost to Pats/Jags)

2008: 3-4 (Beat Chargers and ravens twice)

2009: 4-3

2010: 2-4 (wins over Atlanta/Baltimore)

2011: 3-4 (wins over NE and Cincy 2x)

Total: 13-17. This is a bad number to me. You have to be able to beat playoff teams with regularity over .500. More troubling is that a lot of those wins are against NFC fodder where anybody can be a playoff team, and division wins. Outside of our division we are almost never winning against AFC playoff teams now. That has to be addressed, but how? Most of us feel we have the talent needed to win, but we just havent

Looking at those numbers, its rather interesting that we had a +500 record in 2009 but missed the playoffs. That probably explains why I felt we could have dominated had we have made it in as the 6th seed.

Basically, if we continue down this road, we're only going to be a middle of the road team. If you can beat all the bottom feeders, great, you'll probably make the playoffs. But if you can't beat a playoff team in the regular season, you can't magically expect to in the post-season. 2010 is the exception not the rule.

To put it another way, if we're going to have 4 losses, I'd much rather lose two to mid-low level contenders and lose the other two to playoff teams, than lose all 4 to playoff teams. It's good for your confidence to beat good teams, it helps your playoff seeding in tiebreaker scenarios and secures byes and home field advantage. The #1 seed was available to us 3 weeks ago because we had beaten the Pats. That's how big an impact a single playoff team win makes.

I decided to narrow it down a bit. I took out our record against NFC playoff teams, and division opponents. Just only looking at the AFC playoff teams of each year.

2007: 0-2 (Lost to Jags and Pats)

2008: 1-2 (chargers win, losses to Colts and Titans)

2009: 1-0 (only the chargers)

2010: 0-2 (lost to the Jets and Pats)

2011: 1-1 (Beat the Pats)

Total of 3-7.

To me, to be winning just 30% of your games against AFC playoff opponents outside of your division is troublesome. We certainly have the talent because some of the wins are there and many of the games are close. But this number says to me a lot is wrong with our strategies and gameplanning.

Of further concern to me is Tomlin's game management. While BA and Lebeau are the coordinators, Tomlin has to step in sometimes I feel. There are moments you need to veto what you coaches call, and moments where you have to take the reins. I dont feel that Tomlin asserts his will very much with his coaching staff. He lets BA continue to call horrific plays like WR screens behind the LOS on 3rd and 7. He continues to let Lebeau make poor coverage calls in critical moments. Tomlin is supposed to be a DB coach specialist, so he should recognize when those bad coverage calls are wrong. He doesn't do anything and we saw what happened last night.

Furthermore, he seems to have a poor concept of clock management at the end of the half. Our team wastes a ton of time getting to the line and doesn't seem to know what to do in a 2 minute drill with few timeouts. Compound that with frequently wasted challenges (I felt the one in the Broncos game was a waste even if it was correct), and you put yourself in tougher situations. How many times have we seen the offense drive at the end of the half, close to making a play for some points, only to be squashed by either running out of timeouts, or time, or waiting way too long to call the TO? Ben takes some blame for holding the ball, but then the playcalling needs to give him better options and quicker passes too.

I had thought that Tomlin was an excellent motivator, but there are doubts creeping into my mind. Look at Taylor yesterday. A good coach settles his guy down, tells him to relax, go out and play. He gives him some help to restore confidence. Instead Taylor was left alone all day and just suffered a mental breakdown at the worst possible time. The lack of enthusiasm in the Ravens and 49ers games this year was embarrassing.

I have not lost all hope in Tomlin. He has shown that he's capable of learning from his mistakes and he's gotten better. But he needs to improve more, and soon. Tomlin has a window of opportunity NOW. In a few more years Ben won't be the same player as he ages, or is simply broken. The defense isn't getting any younger, and NOW is the time to be winning post-season games. This is just an unacceptable ending to our season.

Tomlin's draft strategy concerned me in 2008, but it seems to have been restored to order. But we HAVE to quit wasting those middle round picks.

Drafting RB/WR in 2008 was retarded. Those players can be found at so many levels. Redman and FWP were undrafted, Brown was a 6th rounder, Ward and Wallace were 3rd rounders. Has Tomlin learned from this mistake too?

I'd like to see Tomlin make some aggressive trades this year to go for a guy we really need if possible. We know Colbert and Cowher did it for Polamalu and Holmes, and both of those picks helped us immensely.

In conclusion, I'm not sold on Tomlin. I feel he inherited a team with a great core, and they got to a championship. Since then Tomlin has struggled against good teams, bad teams, playoff teams, and has been relatively lost in the playoffs. I feel that for a team this good to be going out in the first round, it's just not right.

I'm in no way asking for him to be fired or released. I think he is still very young, and as I've commented in this article he has shown the ability to learn from his mistakes. A lot of this aims to figure out how long that learning process will take. There are some areas of concern, and they have not necessarily improved over the last 5 years. Some things have worsened and others have improved. To me this marks a major page-turn for Tomlin and it's time he stand up and really lead this team down the path of glory. He has to be able to make up for those times when the team can't win it for him. He has to be their rock. I certainly hope he can do all of that.

While it might sound rash, If Tomlin wants to win me over he can start by asking BA and LeBeau to retire. Neither of them can make adjustments on the fly and BA is the worst offender. LeBeau watched the game with rose colored glasses during the 2nd quarter and didn't adjust until halftime. Maybe he's just getting old. Tomlin is the head, and the head has to have control.. No amount of fancy metaphors and catch-phrases win games, it's planning and management that do. Tomlin has a lot of work to do in those departments. He may be a fun coach to play for, and he may be creative and motivating, but until he learns how to create a gameplan that dominates his opponent, and learns to manage his players and coaches, he won't win another championship.

There's the numbers, there's my thoughts, what do you have to say? Thanks to anybody who made it through this long post, I'd love to hear what you have to think about it.

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