With news that the Arizona Cardinals signed Ken Whisenhunt to a four-year contract extension, the question in Pittsburgh is whether or not the Steelers will approach head coach Mike Tomlin with a contract extension this offseason.
Like Whisenhunt, Tomlin has coached his team to two division championships in three years and to a Super Bowl appearance, where Tomlin’s Steelers got the best of Whisenhunt’s Cardinals. Unlike Whisenhunt, Tomlin is without contract extension.
Tomlin officially has two years left on his first contract, which pays him $2.5 million. Traditionally, this is the point of the contract where the Steelers have extended their head coach. They signed Bill Cowher to three-year contract extension after the 2000-01 season following a three year absence from the playoffs.
After winning a Super Bowl in his second season, Tomlin seemed to be a lock for an extension after this season, but now that is not so certain.
Tomlin took over an 8-8 Steelers team that underachieved following a victory in Super Bowl 40 and led them to an AFC North title. However, Tomlin did have a healthy Ben Roethlisberger , something the 2006 Steelers did not have. While the division title looks good on paper, the Steelers may have underachieved. Pittsburgh lost four of their final five games, including a home Wild Card playoff loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars .
The Steelers bounced back the following season, finishing 12-4 while playing one of the toughest schedules in the NFL . The defense also had one of the more dominating regular season performances in recent memory. Pittsburgh proceeded to win their three playoff games and their sixth Super Bowl Championship. In the process, Tomlin became the NFL’s youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl.
With an easy schedule, Pittsburgh looked to be a good bet to make another deep run in the playoffs. Early in the season, Pittsburgh played like a favorite. The Steelers got off to a 6-2 start heading into a big division matchup at Heinz Field against the Cincinnati Bengals . The Steelers did not score a touchdown, and the Bengals gained enough momentum to win the division. Pittsburgh went on a downward spiral, losing five in a row and became one of the biggest underachievers of the 2009 season. To Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers did win three in a row to bring their record to 9-7.
The lowlight of the season came during their five game losing streak. Pittsburgh lost to three of the worst teams in the NFL. First there was the overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs , a game in which Roethlisberger suffered a concussion, forcing him to sit out the following week against the rival Baltimore Ravens . Following the Ravens loss, Mike Tomlin attempted to set a tone for a December.
“We will not go gently. We will unleash hell here in December because we have to. We won’t go in a shell. We’re gonna go in attack mode attack mode because that’s what’s required.”
The Steelers did “unleash hell,” but not to their opponents. Instead, it was to their fans and themselves. Pittsburgh lost the following two games, first at home against Bruce Gradkowski’s Oakland Raiders . Gradkowski threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner with nine seconds left. The following week, the Steelers lost at the Cleveland Browns . Not only did the Steelers lose, but they did not score a touchdown against one of the worst defense in the NFL.
The loss had a particularly extra sting amongst Steelers fans, as Tomlin had talked about making lineup changes during the week.
“Moving forward this week and beyond, we can't continue to do what we've been doing and assume that that pattern of behavior is going to change and those outcomes are going to change. So we're analyzing all aspects of what we're doing here, specifically this week, and are going to be aggressive in terms of looking at potential changes in not only what we do schematically, but who we have do it in all three phases.”
The focus of the changes were to be at defensive back, specifically giving rookies Joe Burnett or Keenan Lewis a chance to play ahead of William Gay or Ike Taylor.
"I think that's appropriate that we look at giving guys some opportunities to see if they can play. What that means or to what extent that means changes will be made I think is a little premature, but I acknowledge that that's taken place…At this time I think appropriate action is looking at doing some things differently and potentially with different combinations of people."
No major changes were made.
This is not the first time that Tomlin did not follow through. Going back to when he was hired, Tomlin believed in the physical brand of football.
“I think football is a tough-man's game, it's an attrition game…You win by stopping the run and being able to run the ball effectively—and doing the things winners do—being a detailed-oriented football team, playing with great passion and executing.”
Pittsburgh has clearly become a passing team during Tomlin’s tenure. You cannot blame Tomlin for moving in this direction. He does have one of the best quarterbacks in the league who can make plays. The problem is that the Steelers lack the ability to run. This contributes to failures in the redzone and an empty backfield on 3rd-and-1.
Facing his first adversity, Tomlin had an opportunity to make a fundamental change on offense, a change that Art Rooney II believes in.
“We have to get back to being able to run the football when we need to run the football, and being able to run more consistently than we have in the past season.”
Offensive line coach Larry Zeirlein was fired, but not offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Arians is a firm believer in throwing the ball. While his offense put up the statistics this season, it was not effective at getting into the endzone or at running the ball.
This was a questionable decision by Tomlin. There have also been many in game decisions that have left viewers puzzled.
In his first season, Tomlin called for two two-point conversions in the Wild Card game against the Jaguars. The following season, Tomlin started a primetime game against the Washington Redskins with an onside kick, which the Redskins recovered. This isn’t the only bewildering onside kick. Against the Green Bay Packers this past season, Tomlin called for an onside kick while leading, citing the defense’s inability to stop the Packers offense.
While no coach is perfect, and some make questionable decisions, Tomlin has repeated some of the same errors throughout the course of the game, whether it is play calling or challenging a play, and makes some interesting decisions regarding his coaching staff.
With that said, Tomlin has coached the Steelers to two division titles and an overall regular season record of 31-17. He also has that one victory in the season’s biggest game over the newly extended Whisenhunt. That alone should be enough for a contract extension this offseason. However, with an extension, the pressure will be that much greater to return the Steelers to the playoffs.