Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

Lawrence Timmons, Thad Lewis, Lawrence Timmons sack Thad Lewis, Steelers vs Browns,

Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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