Mike Tomlin seemed bulletproof for much of the season. With a few exceptions, very few people were willing to criticize him openly, even as nearly everyone was machine gunning Bruce Arians with a mix of fair and well-earned criticism and toxic venom not fit for print.
Once it became clear that the season was lost following an inexplicable and humiliating humbling at the hands of the Browns, the floor fell out on Tomlin’s once-golden reputation.
Now, one of the loudest questions being asked is “What do we do about Tomlin?” The criticism directed his way is deserved, if a little late.
He did nothing to address the deficiencies in the play calling and appeared lost in the face of adversity. While the Steelers certainly need to replace their offensive coordinator and special teams coach, Tomlin should not be made to feel overly secure.
Every coach is going to have some rough seasons. But, this team was too talented to collapse the way it did down the stretch, losing to three teams at the bottom of nearly every power ranking while looking lost.
The Steelers still have the pieces in place to compete for another title. While championship windows can be notoriously hard to predict, the Steelers' window should not close for three to five more years if they can adequately replace a few of their aging players, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Tomlin has one year left on his contract and he should be given a chance to show that this year was an anomaly. The Steelers top brass should offer him a one-year extension to provide a small show of confidence that they think he will turn things around.
But, if the team significantly underperforms next year, the organization should thank him for his service and replace him.
These next three games, all against good but not great opponents, bear close watching. Will the team come out firing, intent on proving that they are better than their last five games?
Will they fight for their coach, recognizing that their play will have a significant impact on his potential future?
Or will they fold their tent and call it a season?
They now have the chance to play the spoiler in all three games, which should be a role they relish. It returns them to the "us against the world" role that they have relished in the past.
Heck, they even have an outside shot of sneaking into the playoffs, especially since they can deal defeats to two of the primary AFC competitors for the final playoff spot, although they would still need plenty of help, especially at derailing Jacksonville.
If they seize that opportunity and play hard for their embattled coach, even if they drop a couple more games, I will have more confidence that Tomlin can turn it around next season.
If we see more of the same listless play by a team that seems confused and without direction, it will further erode confidence in Tomlin.
Some Steelers’ fans are pining for a return of Bill Cowher, which is somewhat understandable. But the real comparison that deserves watching is Ken Whisenhunt.
The fates of the two coaches, who faced off in last year’s Super Bowl, will forever be intertwined just as Ben Roethlisberger is frequently compared against the two quarterbacks who were drafted before him, Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers.
Whisenhunt looked like a near-lock for the Steelers head coaching position in 2007. His passion reflected that of his predecessor and his innovative play-calling made the Steelers’ offense something to be feared.
At one point, it seemed a near certainty that he would be the next Steelers’ coach. But, the Steelers opted to go with Tomlin who wowed the Rooneys during his interview.
The knee-jerk reaction after the Super Bowl was to believe that the Steelers made the right call.
Actually, I think they made the wrong call and managed to win a Super Bowl in spite of it with a very talented football team, not unlike the Dallas Cowboys with Barry Switzer calling the shots.
That is not to say that Tomlin is not a good coach. It is more a belief that Whisenhunt is a superb coach, even a special coach. And the Steelers’ owners should have recognized what they had in Whisenhunt, a guy that made average players look great.
Too often now, their offense makes great players look average. Whisenhunt was a huge part of leading the Steelers to a first Super Bowl win after a long drought. And he was rewarded by being passed over.
He has shown the gumption to make the tough calls. He fired his defensive coordinator after coming within inches of winning a Super Bowl because he felt the defense underperformed.
He also brought in a veteran off the NFL scrap pile in Kurt Warner when he was unhappy with the golden boy young quarterback’s performance, a move that was not altogether popular at the time. He was rewarded for both calls.
Do you doubt for a second that Whisenhunt wouldn’t step in and take over play calling if the offensive coordinator was coming up short? That might not be an altogether fair comparison since Tomlin is more of a defensive guy.
Perhaps a better question would be, can you imagine the fiery Whisenhunt clapping and nodding as his impotent offense trotted off the field following its fourth consecutive three and out?
I don’t have the same level of confidence in Tomlin at this point in his career, although I think he may develop into a very good football coach in time. If the Steelers play uninspired football next year on the way to a losing record, it will be time to move on.
One of my primary concerns with Tomlin goes well beyond what I saw this year.
I’ve been very concerned with the way the Steelers have drafted during the Tomlin tenure.
I realize that Kevin Colbert is the top guy when it comes to personnel decisions, but the direction of the draft sure looked different under Cowher, where you could usually predict which players the Steelers would target in the early rounds.
Cowher's drafts were usually centered around fixing needs, occasionally to the point of fault as when the Steelers reached badly on Troy Edwards because they needed a wide receiver.
The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, with the team ignoring some of its biggest need areas, although this year's draft was more obviously targeted at need areas than the last two drafts.
I suspect the head coach has plenty of input into the process. It only takes a few years of bad drafting to turn a championship roster into the bad news Browns.
One of the primary objections I’ve seen posted here over and over is that this isn’t the Steelers' way. They hang on to their coaches for the long-term.
As with much conventional wisdom, this is dead wrong. It is akin to saying that the Browns would lose to the Steelers since they hadn't beaten the Steelers since around the time that Jim Brown was toting the football for them.
We all saw how that worked out.
Or, that the Steelers would stick with Sean Mahan for the long-term because they like to maintain stability at the center position.
Each coaching career follows a unique arc. Both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher provided plenty of reasons to allow them ample opportunity to coach for an extended time in Pittsburgh.
Early success was followed by sustained success which was ultimately followed by a long period of dominance.
They had some down years along the way, but quickly rebounded. Noll was kept around longer than perhaps he should have been, but turning a loser into a four-time Super Bowl champion will have that effect.
Cowher turned a team that struggled through a forgettable decade into a sustained NFL power. While it is easy to forget Cowher's early years, the turnaround was dramatic and easily exceeded expectations.
If Tomlin returns the team to the top of the NFL heap next year, he will be on his way to earning similar consideration.
But, hitting big on a couple coaches back to back doesn’t mean a team will hit the jackpot the third time around. In fact, it seems statistically unlikely.
If Tomlin’s squad falls flat next year, it would be foolish to stick with him out of some belief that this is somehow a Steelers’ coaching tradition.
If he shows certain qualities that makes the owners believe he deserves another chance even if the team falters for another season, that is understandable.
But, to stick with a coach for no other reason than to show that you stick with your coaches would be foolish. And I don't think the Steelers' owners are foolish.
The Steelers do not need to rush to replace Tomlin because there are some good potential head coaches on the market this year, as I've seen argued by some.
While this is true, there will also be good head coaching candidates on the market next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.
The pool of candidates will feature some big name retreads and some innovative coordinators who have attracted notice, as it has in every other year since the beginning of time.
And the Steelers’ top job will remain an attractive one for the better candidates.
Tomlin deserves a year to see how successful he can be in righting the ship. And a one-year contract extension that presents the appearance that the organization is confident he can do it is the right answer.