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The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL throughout head coach Mike Tomlin‘s 12-year tenure. They’ve won a Super Bowl, two AFC Championship Games, eight playoff games and six AFC North titles under Tomlin, who has a higher career winning percentage than both Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.
But the 46-year-old hasn’t gotten enough out of his talented team of late, indicating it’s time for the Steelers to move on and find a fresh face to run a roster that may be on the verge of a major transition anyway.
Sunday’s 31-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints confirmed it. Tomlin’s Steelers deserve credit for hanging with the NFC’s top seed in a tough road environment, but he was again out-coached in a winnable game, and he again made multiple head-scratching decisions along the way.
It’s true that many who lambasted Tomlin for his decision to run a fake punt on a 4th-and-5 from his own 42-yard line with a four-point lead in the final five minutes of regulation would have praised him had the gamble paid off. But the fact is it did not, and it gave the Saints offense—which hadn’t scored on its last three possessions—a short field, leading to Michael Thomas’ game-winning touchdown.
If that controversial decision was borne of a lack of trust in his defense, it’s important to keep in mind that it is indeed his defense. He’s a defensive-minded coach with a defensive background, and his defensive unit has given up 24 or more points four times in Pittsburgh’s last five games.
Regardless, Tomlin deserves to be lambasted for his decision to roll the dice with an unconventional fake that tasked a 248-pound fullback who ran a 4.79 40 at this pro day with having to rush for five yards up the middle, rather than giving the ball to his future Hall of Fame quarterback and allowing said quarterback to target one of his two star wide receivers.
Your fourth-rated offense has scored 28 points on the road against the league’s hottest defense, and you decide to pin your playoff hopes on Roosevelt Nix on a fake punt?
It’s entirely possible that decision was the difference in a game that cost Pittsburgh its minuscule division lead over the Baltimore Ravens.
Sure, the Saints still had to score and then make a defensive stop. But Tomlin made it easier on his opponent.
He also decided against challenging a potential Thomas fumble on a second-quarter New Orleans scoring drive—a decision that could be related to the that fact he hasn’t won a challenge in over two years. And on a critical fourth-quarter third-down play in field-goal range, he allowed the fumble-prone Stevan Ridley to run the ball instead of interim top back Jaylen Samuels.
You can probably guess what happened.
Tomlin isn’t just the NFL’s worst challenger. He routinely mismanages the clock and wastes valuable timeouts, he struggles with situational coaching, and his justification for baffling decisions is often lacking. All of this was on full display when the Steelers blew a game in Oakland earlier this month, and it was even an issue when the team impressively defeated the New England Patriots last week.
Maybe more importantly, it’s fair to question what kind of hold Tomlin has on the Steelers locker room. Former Tomlin pupil James Harrison said in July that he believes Tomlin lacks disciplinary skills, while in September legendary former Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw essentially called Tomlin soft. Roethlisberger and other key players have been publicly critical of their teammates; star receiver Antonio Brown, who has had a particularly rocky relationship with the media, sent out a cryptic tweet earlier this season that alluded to a potential trade; and last month, Steelers players were panned for raiding Le’Veon Bell’s locker once it was confirmed the disgruntled running back wouldn’t return to the team.
It just doesn’t look like a united front, and with so many loud veteran voices, that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
On the field, a rebuild might not be as far off as Steelers fans would like to believe. Bell is almost certainly gone, Roethlisberger often appears to be running on fumes, and even Brown is likely beginning to decline. Tomlin’s oft-toothless, middle-of-the-pack defense lacks playmaking ability, and the Steelers are not projected to have a lot of salary-cap space in the offseason.
And it’s not as though it’s working as is. This team has failed to win a playoff game in five of its last seven seasons and has reached the conference championship just once (and was defeated by three scores) since losing Super Bowl XLV to the Green Bay Packers.
That Packers team just fired its championship-winning, long-tenured head coach because it hadn’t been able to make a Super Bowl run since then despite the presence of an elite quarterback. It needed a major shake-up, which is why Mike McCarthy is now unemployed and there’s an uptick in optimism surrounding Green Bay.
Rob Rossi @Real_RobRossi
Mike Tomlin is a good NFL coach. Two-thirds of clubs would fire a coach to hire him. But 8 playoff wins with Ben Roethlisberger isn’t good enough for #steelers. That’s wasting 2nd greatest player in storied franchise history. @TheAthleticPGH
Considering Roethlisberger’s age and career trajectory, Pittsburgh’s situation might be more dire than Green Bay’s. And just like in Green Bay, the quarterback isn’t replaceable.
The general manager isn’t the problem either, because the Steelers clearly have the talent.
That leaves Tomlin, who now needs a Week 17 win and help from the Cleveland Browns against the Ravens—or a tie in the Titans-Colts game—to merely to sneak into the playoffs.
Even if that happens, barring a sudden Super Bowl run, the Steelers should cut bait and embark on a fresh coaching search in the new year. But if it doesn’t happen, they’d be smart to start that process on or before Black Monday.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.