In Defense of “The Steelers Way”

The Steelers Way” is under attack, and it is time to defend it. No defense should be necessary. But if social media offers any guide, it is. Site scribe Tony Defeo has already offered a vigorous defense of Mike Tomlin, but the implicit criticism the Steelers are weathering from a good portion of their fan base goes beyond Tomlin.

Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlights the issue perfectly. In responding to a fan asking about why some regard Mike Tomlin as irreplaceable, Zeise remarks:

Tomlin supporters demand to know who the Steelers could get that is better, and I always say, “How about the next Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher?” In other words, when those two coaches were hired, nobody really knew who they were. And both won a Super Bowl. The Rams hired an excellent young coach who was an unknown. There are a lot of great coaches out there. You could end up worse off, but you could also be Tampa, Baltimore or Denver who all replaced highly successful coaches with coaches who took the team to Super Bowl titles. There is no law that reads “The next coach will be worse” than the successful coach you fire.

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Denver and Tampa were on the precipice of a Super Bowl and coaching changes yielded instant Lombardi Trophies. To listen to Zeise , its almost as easy as snapping your fingers, isn’t it?

Except it’s not.

And rather than bemoan Art Rooney II’s steady hand, Steelers fans should give thanks for the fact that Art Rooney II, like his father before him, is guided by the Rooney rule. No, we’re not talking about the NFL’s Rooney Rule, but rather the one that has guided the franchise since 1969 and his best enunciated by Mike Silverstein, aka “Homer J” from Going Deep with the Steelers:

  • You find the best guy you can to coach the team, and you stick with him as long as you can.

Since the wanning days of the Lyndon Johnson administration, just 3 men, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have carried the title of “Head Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers.” That’s a record of not even remotely matched not only in the NFL, but in all of North American major league sports.

  • It’s also not a coincidence that the Pittsburgh Steelers are also the only team to own 6 Lombardi Trophies.
Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Coaching a team to a Super Bowl victory is not easy. Doug Peterson deserves every bit of credit heaped upon him for leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl win over the Patriots, but no one should be fooled into thinking that finding the next Doug Peterson should be easy.

Consider this, from Chuck Noll’s first post-Super Bowl era losing season in 1985 to his retirement, precisely one Super Bowl was one by a coach who was hired during that time span. And that was George Siefert, who inherited a Super Bowl champion (to be fair, Jimmy Johnson got hired in 1989 and won a Super Bowl in 1992, a year after Noll’s retirement.) There wasn’t as much coaching turnover in the 80’s as there was today, but the number of new coaches hired during that 7 year period could easily approach 2 dozen.

From Bill Cowher’s first losing season in 1998 until his victory in Super Bowl XL only two NFL head coaches were hired who won Super Bowls during that time span, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden.

  • Is there an up and coming coach out there who could come into Pittsburgh and do a better job than Mike Tomlin?

Yes, possibly there is, just as it’s possible that Bill Cowher could have been replaced by someone better after the dark days of the ’98 and ’99 seasons. But the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t operate that way. They don’t abandon a coach who is a proven winner in favor of a quest for perfect coach.

The Steelers worst finish since 1970 came in 1988 when the team went 5-11; no other NFL franchise has avoided dipping below 5 wins during that time span.

  • That fallout from 1988 campaign illustrates how the Steelers Way works.

Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t the only legendary franchise to suffer hard times in 1988. Tom Landry and the Cowboys finished 3-13 (in fact, one of Noll’s wins came and Landry’s expense). Bum Bright responded by selling the team to Jerry Jones, who hired Jimmy Johnson as coach even before he had the decency to fire Tom Landry.

Dan Rooney responded differently. He pressured Noll to make changes, Noll resisted and almost resigned. But Noll returned, had another blaze of glory with the 1989 Steelers and retired two years later.

  • That gives you a good contrast between “The Steelers Way” and the rest of the NFL’s way.

And let’s be clear about something: since that fateful juncture, the Dallas Cowboys actually have won 3 Super Bowls to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2, including a win over Bill Cowher in Super Bowl XXX.

But the Steelers have also made it to the Big Dance 4 times, have been to more conference championships, had more playoff wins, have only suffered 4 losing seasons, and have overall been a more consistent winner.

That’s “Steelers Way,” in action and I’ll take that over any other NFL team’s operating philosophies.

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of “The Steelers Way”

  1. This article is very good. The Steeler way has been successful,But those 6 Super Bowls 4 of them were won by one coach in the 70s Chuck Noll,that was the greatest team of alltime in the last 38 years,the Steelers have won 2 Super Bowls been to 4 that is no great shakes ,Tomlin 3-5 last 8 playoff games 1-1in SuperBowls 2009-2010Cowhers players ,Tomlin has not been terrible he did keep a team competitive thats defense had to be rebuilt completely after 2011 ,thats the problem that is taking to long to rebuild this defense.

    • Ronald,

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, you’re right, six of the four Super Bowls were won by Chuck Noll. And he did it in a six year span. It took Bill Cowher 15 years to get his big one. Tomlin’s been here 10 years an only has 1.

      But let’s flip that around. Chuck Noll was .500 during the 80’s (and 90’s for that matter.) Whereas all of Cowher’s teams, save for ’98 and ’99 teams were contenders. And Mike Tomlin has only taken a team to the field on game 16 where the playoffs haven’t been a possibility.

      Noll didn’t have the talent in the 80’s that he had in the 70’s which is double edged sword. On the one hand, the .500 record and playoff appearances in ’83, ’84 and ’89 speak extremely well of his pure coaching ability. Yet the fact that he didn’t have the talent, because he couldn’t get along with the scouting department, speaks to other flaws in his management style.

      Cowher had good teams in the ’90’s and 00’s, but didn’t have a franchise quarterback until ’04. Tomlin has had a franchise quarterback, but has had to rebuild the rest of the team — while drafting late.

      I don’t buy the “Tomlin only won a Super Bowl with Cowher’s players?”

      If you’re going to say that, then you also need to apply the same standard to Kevin Colbert, who has only won Super Bowls with Tom Donahoe’s players. (Think that’s a joke? Take Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Deshea Townsend and Aaron Smith away from the super Bowl XL team and take away Ward, Townsend and Smith from the Super Bowl XLIII team.)

      And besides that, while getting the keys to a Super Bowl team handed to you is a blessing (just ask Barry Switzer) coaches still do manage to screw things up (see Ray Handley in NYG, Richie Pettiebone in Washington or even Mike Martz in St. Louis.)

      Truthfully, I think the Steelers were “There” in terms of the defensive rebuild with the addition of Joe Haden. The loss of Shazier is a huge setback.

      Thanks again for contributing.

        • Bill,

          Yep. I don’t like to make that argument, but one could. Look no further than James Harrison. Cowher didn’t like Harrison, and kept him on the bench behind Clark Haggans. One of Tomlin’s first moves was to start Harrison.

          Thanks for contributing.

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