Yesterday Mike Tomlin shattered franchise precedent by firing Matt Canada in season and in the process he gave Steelers fans what they’ve long wanted. Tomlin’s decision makes sense for a lot of reasons.
Sure, the Steelers are sitting on a 6-4 record, but each of those six wins has been ugly. And the last second loss to the Browns felt like the proverbial other foot had dropped. The Steelers offense has been lackluster for years, but it was poignantly pathetic in Cleveland. And it wasn’t going to get any better with Canada at the helm.
- But with Matt Canada gone the focus now becomes more intense: What happens next?
As I watch Steelers Nation celebrate Canada’s dismissal on social media, I can’t help but think of a similar situation the Steeler found themselves in back in November 22, 1999. Indeed, as this current season has evolved, its resonance with the 1999 Steelers has grown stronger.
That season offers a clear lesson for today: While Matt Canada was part of the problem, there’s no assurance that firing him will work as a solution.
Nightmare Like Its 1999
You can take a deep dive on the 1999 Steelers here. This is the the backstory you need to know now:
Although the Steelers closed 1998 with 5 straight losses to finish 7-9, they began 1999 with hope. Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe confidently boasted to the media something along the lines of, “…No offense. But I like proving you wrong. I don’t think we’re that far off from being a contender again.”
The ’99 Steelers opened with a blowout over the expansion Cleveland Browns and a lack luster win against a weak Bears team. Three butt ugly losses to the Seahawks and Jaguars at home, and Doug Fluite and the Bills on the road followed.
- If you asked any fan what the Steelers needed to do they’d have answered in unison: Bench Kordell!
That brought a home game against the Bengals. The Cincinnati Bengals of that era were the AFC Central’s doormat. Tom Donahoe, in a bit of candor you would never see in 2023, openly proclaimed Pittsburgh as the more talented team.
The Bengals scored a touchdown on their first possession. The Steelers answered with 4 plays followed by an interception. The Bengals responded with a second touchdown. The teams traded a couple of punts, Pittsburgh managed to get a field goal and Carlos Emmons even opened the second quarter with an interception of his own.
Bill Cowher had seen enough.
On the next series Mike Tomczak was under center at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The crowd at Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon cheered. The guy two bar stools down from me who’d spent the previous hour alternating between railing against “Queerdell!” and asking “You guy’s don’t think this makes me a racist, do you?” was elated.
…before fumbling, with Takeo Spikes recovering. Corey Dillon ripped off runs of 20 and 12 yards and 6 plays later the Bengals were scoring again, leaving Pittsburgh down by 24-3 just 20 minutes into the game.
To be fair to Mike Tomczak and everyone else, the Steelers offense perked up, putting 17 points on the board in the next 25 minutes to enter the third quarter only down 24 to 20. But here’s how the 4th quarter unfolded for Pittsburgh:
- Jerome Bettis being stopped for no gain on 3rd and 4th down
- Tomczak tossing incompletes and then giving up 2 sacks
- A Wayne Gandy penalty at Cincinnati’s 21, follow by 3 straight Tomczak incompletes
The Bengals scored another field goal along the way, winning the game 27 to 20.
1999’s Lessons for 2023
That home loss to the Bengals left the 1999 Steelers at 5-6, but Pittsburgh still had a shot at the playoffs if not the AFC Central crown. Bill Cowher stuck with Mike Tomczak as quarterback, but the Steelers only won one of its next 5 games.
Tomzack’s final quarterback rating was 75.8 compared to Stewart’s 64.9, but his completion percentage was 5 percentage points lower. Benching Kordell Stewart did spark the offense a bit, but here’s what it didn’t do:
- Rejuvenate an offensive line struggling rebuild
- Make either Scott Shields or Travis Davis competent NFL safeties
- Speed the development of young players like Aaron Smith, Joey Porter or Deshea Townsend
- Heal Joel Steed’s ailing knees
Indeed, two weeks after Stewart’s benching, the Ravens came to town and earned their first victory in Pittsburgh on the back of a Qadry Ismail 258 yards receiving performance. As Scottie Brown, who was sort of the dean of the Purple Goose quipped after Ismail’s second 50 yard plus touchdown, “Its Kordell’s fault!”
- And that’s something to keep in mind as the Steelers start life without Matt Canada.
As someone who defended the decision to bring Canada back after 2022’s strong finish, I have no problem eat my share of crow this morning. I was wrong. Clearly his offense lacked “coordination” and, well, that was his job.
But it’s also wise to remember isn’t the only thing that ails the 2023 Steelers. Canada’s absence won’t change the fact that the Steelers seem to be losing a safety and/or an inside linebacker to injured reserve per week.
When the calls to “Fire Canada” went viral in September, I’d have warned you that firing Canada wouldn’t have made any of the offensive lineman playing better. Fortunately offensive line play has improved.
- But there’s still the matter of Kenny Pickett’s play.
As recently as two weeks ago following the Titans game, there were still tangible reasons to be optimistic that things might soon “click” for Kenny Pickett. After watching him “get by” against the Packers and then struggle against the Browns, I’m less sure.
It is true that a bad offensive coordinator can stunt the development of a young quarterback (see Joe Walton and Bubby Brister, or Ray Sherman and/or Kevin Gilbride and Kordell Stewart). And when you invest a first round draft pick in a quarterback, you need to do all you can to make it work.
But the fact is that far more quarterbacks drafted in the first round fail than succeed and replacing one franchise quarterback with another is very difficult to do.
And firing Matt Canada isn’t going to change either of those realities.