The Cleveland Browns have had the same number of coaches in little more than a year.
Now, as the only coach to win four Super Bowls, Noll is universally considered one of the best—if not the best—football coaches ever. But both Cowher and Tomlin should be commended for ensuring the Steelers remained regular contenders in the wake of Noll’s 1991 retirement.
So, the question becomes, where does Tomlin, the current Steelers coach, rank amongst the trio?
In the interest of fairness, only the first seven seasons of each coach’s tenure has been considered in answering this question.
Obviously, the best barometer of success is winning—Cowher and Tomlin are tied for tops in that regard. Each coach posted a record of 71-41 through seven regular seasons.
Noll ranks well behind the duo through the same span at 55-42-1. Of course, those numbers are severely skewed by a talent-depleted team and, in return, a slow start to his career.
Andy Russell and Roy Jefferson (for a season) were the only holdovers from the Steelers' pre-Noll teams to earn Pro Bowl accolades.
This differs from Cowher and Tomlin, both of whom inherited teams with plenty of talent in place.
That’s right, for all those who argue that Tomlin won with Cowher’s players. You could easily make the same argument about Cowher with Noll’s players.
Cowher came into a Steelers team stocked with defensive talent. Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake had all been with the Steelers for several seasons upon his arrival and were instrumental to the success of the great “Blitzburgh” defenses.
That doesn’t change the fact that Tomlin inherited a squad just a season removed from a Super Bowl win. Without the aid of Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, Tomlin would likely still be without a win on the game’s biggest stage.
Tomlin and Cowher’s early successes can also be attributed to solid drafting. Before the onset of his inaugural season, Cowher drafted Joel Steed and Levon Kirkland, both of whom helped to anchor those aforementioned “Blitzburgh” defenses.
Similarly, Tomlin brought in Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley to strengthen an already-solid defense. The result: a historically great defense and a victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
Tomlin and Cowher have a few sub-par draft classes to their credit as well, but the same can be said of virtually any tenured head coach.
Of course, neither coach’s drafting prowess is on par with Noll’s. From his very first draft class in which he brought in Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Jon Kolb, Noll was interested in building a juggernaut.
Noll also engineered what is widely considered the greatest draft in NFL history. In 1974 he drafted four future Hall of Famers and ensured that his Steelers would be the team of the decade.
What takes precedence over any other factors, though, is playoff success. After all, that’s why they play the game, right?
In that regard, Noll unsurprisingly jumps the field. After a 1-2 start to his postseason career, Noll won his next six such games en route to two consecutive Super Bowl wins.
Next is Tomlin.
He does have two one-and-dones on his playoff resume, but his other two appearances ended in the Super Bowl. If his team were able to win Super Bowl XLV, he’d be right there with Noll through seven years.
Last is Cowher.
“The chin” had no problem getting to the tournament, leading the way with six appearances in his first seven years. But each of those six ended in disappointment. If not for his team’s miraculous run to Super Bowl XL, Cowher might be seen in an entirely different light today.
Where Tomlin will finish his career in the Steelers coaching hierarchy remains to be seen. But fans should be able to form at least preliminary answers over the next few seasons.
The Steelers have seen a number of key cogs to their latest Super Bowl teams call it a career in recent seasons, and in a few more, most will be just a memory. Thus, the chance to put his stamp on this team and return it to a championship-caliber one is Tomlin’s for the taking.
What Tomlin does with that opportunity is up for debate. What isn’t, though, is that through seven seasons, he’s very much on par with his predecessors.