5 Key Decisions that Fueled Mike Tomlin’s 100 Wins as Steelers Head Coach

Ask Mike Tomlin about his 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and he’ll tersely explain “It means I’ve been here for a while.” Fair enough, but Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins didn’t come overnight, and certainly didn’t occur because he was in the right place at the right time.

  • No, Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins come because he’s one of the best head coaches in the NFL.

Any head coach’s record is a byproduct of a lot of hours of film study, staffing and personnel choices, strategy adoption and game-day decision making. It is hard for an outsider to pinpoint key moments that directly resulted in a coach’s success.

But we’re going to try. Here are 5 key decisions that fueled Mike Tomiln’s 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach.

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Quality coaching decisions fueled Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach. (Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post Gazette)

1. Adopting while reshaping Bill Cowher’s legacy

Can we please dispense with the “Mike Tomlin has only won with Bill Cowher’s players” nonsense?

Yes, Tomlin did inherit Ben Roethlisberger and a host of Super Bowl XL veterans, but if you think that getting handed the keys to a team that is a year or two removed from a Lombardi Trophy is an automatic key to success, please consult the coaching records of Richie Petitbon, Ray Handley or Phil Bengtson.

  • Mike Tomlin had a real challenge facing him when he took over in 2007.

Most if not all of his locker room expected and wanted either Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt to get the job. Alan Faneca wasn’t happy with his contract. Neither was Joey Porter.

Tomlin was not only smart enough to retain Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, but wise enough to sit back and learn from Coach Dad. He also retained several members of Bill Cowher’s staff, while integrating it with new faces he’d brought in with him.

  • Mike Tomlin didn’t shy away from tough choices. With his approval, the Steelers parted ways with Joey Porter.

Part of his motivation no doubt lay in the conclusion that James Harrison needed to start, a move The Chin never made. Tomlin also smoothed over the Alan Faneca situation. Faneca wasn’t happy, but he never caused a disruption because of his contract.

It’s true that Dick LeBeau came “highly recommended” by the Rooneys, but Tomlin could have just as easily kept him and made wholesale changes with the rest of his for the sake of making a statement. Instead, Tomlin pulled off the delicate balance of embracing the legacy that Bill Cowher left him while making the team his own.

2. Going hard on defense in the 2007 NFL Draft

While Mike Tomlin shares drafting authority with Kevin Colbert, the duo didn’t hesitate to break rules by drafting two outside linebackers with their first two picks in the 2007 NFL Draft.

  • No, that’s not a misprint.

The Steelers drafted Lawrence Timmons to play outside linebacker, and he was listed behind James Harrison in the Steelers 2007 Media Guide’s training camp depth chart. After that they picked LaMarr Woodley. They of course moved Lawrence Timmons to the inside. He took a while to develop, but since 2010, he’s been the mainstay of the Steelers defense.

But as Tony Defeo pointed out on Behind the Steel Curtain, LaMarr Woodley registered 44 sacks in 55 games, a pace that not even Hall of Famers like Joe Greene and Kevin Greene or legends such as L.C. Greenwood and Greg Lloyd could match. And of course, LaMarr Woodley’s strip sack of Kurt Warner sealed victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Tomlin and Colbert also picked William Gay during the 2007 NFL Draft.

The Steelers 2007 draft class was was far from perfect. Matt Spaeth was hardly a bust but never lived up to his 3rd round status. Neither did Daniel Sepulveda. And who can remember the other players the Steelers drafted then?

But 100 wins later, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s first draft picks are still paying dividends on the field.

3. Standing Up for Bruce Arians in 2009

Mike Tomlin’s first real adversity came during the Steelers 2009 five-game losing streak in a year where the franchise clearly seemed to suffer from a Super Bowl hangover. Fans, bloggers and the professional press were all calling for Bruce Arians’ head.

  • So were some people on the South Side whose opinion actually counts.

As Ed Bouchette reported at the time, “Tomlin is under pressure from the ‘front office’” over Arians. While Arians did do some boneheaded things in 2009 (see the pass happy, empty sets on third and short on a freezing night in Cleveland), the truth is he got unfairly scapegoated a lot too.

  • But Mike Tomlin believed in his offensive coordinator, and he fought for him.

Don’t think for a moment that players, coaches and other members of the Steelers organization weren’t watching Tomlin closely to see whether he would fold.

4. Hiring Todd Haley as his offensive coordinator

Wait a minute! How’s this? How can you pat Mike Tomlin on the back for sticking up for Arians, then in the next breath praise him for a hire that he had to make because Art Rooney II pulled rank on him by forcing Bruce Arians out?

  • Yes, I admit, it does seem like a bit of a contradiction. But it is not.

We know that Mike Tomlin wanted Bruce Arians back and that he was unable (or perhaps less than 100% willing) to convince Art Rooney II to agree. So be it. The ultimate success or failure of the move would lie in how the Steelers offense performed post-Arians.

  • That meant Mike Tomlin had to hire the right replacement.

Mike Tomlin hired Todd Haley, a move that generated its share of controversy. Steelers author Tim Gleason praised the move, while Steelers writer Neal Coolong spoke out harshly against it as soon as Haley’s name surfaced. Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley didn’t exactly hit it off either.

But before working with Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger was seen as a fine physical talent who excelled at school-yard football. Ben Roethlisberger has grown under Todd Haley. It’s true that Ben Roethlisberger’s road record under Haley remains a concern, but under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger is both playing better football and taking far fewer sacks.

Todd Haley was able to accomplish what Bruce Arians was unwilling even to attempt: find a way to get Ben to release the ball sooner, without taking away what makes Ben, Ben.

5. Pulling out of 2013’s 2-6 Spiral

OK, number 5 doesn’t exactly count as a “decision.” But the turn around of the 2013 Steelers turn around certainly could not have happened without a lot of good decision making.

A lot of NFL teams that start 0-4 probably continue on to 2-6. Your “average 2-6 team” will finish 4-12 with your “above average 2-6 teams” ending somewhere in realm of 5-11 or 6-10. But it is fairly safe to say that a 2-5 team that finds its way to a 2-6 record thanks to a 55-33 loss generally projects to a 2-14 or 3-14 finish.

  • Yet, that is exactly how the first 8 games of the Steelers 2013 season unfolded.

Things looked bleak after the Steelers London loss dropped them to 0-4. Mike Tomlin made changes, and suddenly 0-4 turned to 2-4. Then came disastrous trips to Oakland’s Black Hole and a trip to Gillette Stadium. But the 2013 Steelers fought on, and not only returned to respectability with an 8-8 finish, but they came one blown call away from a trip to the playoffs.

  • Only well-coached teams execute turn arounds like that.

Quitting on a coach is somewhat of an art form in the NFL. The 2013 Steelers always gave Mike Tomlin their best all season long. By the end of the season, their best delivered results.

  • Out of Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins, those 8 from 2013 might have been the hardest fought.

Mike Tomlin coaxed everything he could out of the talent on the 2013 Steelers who lacked depth at several key positions.

Mike Tomlin’s 100 wins are undoubtedly build on dozens of other decisions that the public doesn’t know about, but until those come to light, these are our 5 top choices.

 

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4 thoughts on “5 Key Decisions that Fueled Mike Tomlin’s 100 Wins as Steelers Head Coach

    • Thanks for contributing Ted.

      The honest answer to your question is “I don’t know.”

      Let’s keep in mind that the two most popular refrains of any football fan base are “Fire the coach” and “Bench the quarterback.” Steelers Nation is smart enough to realize what they’ve got with Ben (the steady diet of Malone, Woodley, Brister, O’Donnell and Stewart will do that), so you don’t here the second refrain much.

      Second, if you think of an NFL season as an evolving organism that, in hindsight, can be viewed as a single entity. But each game is part of a 16 game season. It is kind of like a snap shot, and every loss comes out ugly.

      Third, coaches tend to look better in the rear view mirror.

      The Steelers early exit from the playoffs in 1977 prompted some fans to say that it was proof that Noll had to go (this is per observations that Ivan Cole made on Going Deep with the Steelers). The day after Noll retired, I remember one writer who’d been calling for his head for years, publishing a column saying, “The game of football will never be the same.”

      A lot of fans who love to insist that “Tomlin only won with Cowher’s players” are some of the same ones who thought that Dan Rooney should have fired him in January 2005 because he lost another AFC Championship (never mind that he got to an AFC Championship with a rookie quarterback….)

      Thanks for contributing.

  1. I believe Mark Madden said it best about Pittsburgh sports fans: They’re enthusiastic, but as for knowledgeable…they tend to blame the quarterback, coach or goalie in most situations, so………

    • Reminds me of how most people (including Bill Cowher) went after Mark Royals for the blocked punt in the 1993 playoffs when it wasn’t his fault.

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