Assessing Mike Tomlin: The Quest for Objectivity

Some have asked why Steel Curtain Rising’s 2007 season “Tomlin: Glass Half Empty-Glass Half full” post-mortem did not appear until recently. The simple reason is that making an objective assessment of Mike Tomlin is damm difficult for me.

Understanding why requires understanding that I tirelessly defended Bill Cowher through the dark days of 1998-1999, the heart rendering AFC Championship losses, and the gut wrenching 2003 season.

In evaluating Tomlin’s first year, I am torn by this penchant for loyalty, wanting to recognize the positives, and wondering if I am overreacting to some brutally apparent caution flags.

That Cowher’s rookie record was almost identical to Tomlin’s only adds to the irony.

  • Cowher finished 11-5, Tomlin 10-6. Both lost in the fist round of the playoffs.
  • Cowher’s squad was blown out, Tomlin’s lost a heart breaker, but the 1992 Steelers were a 1# seed, and the #4 seed in 2007.
  • Both started out 3-1.

Both suffered also their first losses to inferior opponents (Cowher to the Browns, then led by the then “bumbling” Bill Belichick, Tomlin to a Cardinals team who was rotating its quarterbacks by series.)

Cowher’s team did finish the season at 2-2, and while that’s better than 1-3, on the back half of the 1992 season Cowher’s teams needed some last minute heroics to overcome such 1992 light weights as the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks.

Indeed, both men were embarrassed by weak teams. The memory of the beloved Black and Gold giving away games to the Jets and Broncos in the final two minutes sears. But so does the one of Steelers falling flat on their faces in a week 15 game against a Chicago Bears team that ultimately finished 6-10. (This was a national TV game, and one where the league seemed ready to anoint the Steelers as official “contenders.”)

This dilemma comes down to two things. While Cowher was also following a legend, he returned home 11 years removed from Super Bowl XIV.

Then there’s the difference between the two men. Cowher lets his emotions flow. He acted out what every fan felt. When we pumped our fists, he pumped his. When we wanted to yell at a player, he got in their face.

Tomlin has a different style, one that is more reserved. While it’s important to respect that, it’s hard not to think of it when you’re examining some of the teams obvious faults.

It’s hard not to look at the loss against the Broncos and say “Cowher would have put that one away….” Or to look at the New England debacle “Cowher would have pounded it in so close to the goal line….” Or, there is no way Cowher wouldn’t have fired his special teams coach after the 2007 highlight reel of special teams disasters.

This is natural, but is it fair?

  • Ultimately, its not.

While Cowher was a great closer, he did give up games occasionally, the 1998 away game against the Bengals comes to mind. So do the last minute 2000 losses to the Browns, Titans, and Eagles.

Cowher helped define Smash Mouth Football, but he too resorted to gadget plays when he didn’t have the personnel, just think of the flea flicker late in the game on third and one against the Jaguars in 1999.

Put graciously, Tomlin’s decision to retain Bob Ligashesky is perplexing. In contrast, Cowher had a flair for canning special teams coaches. But Jay Hayes should have been fired after the 2000 season, instead two blocked kicks cost us the AFC Championship game in 2001….

The bottom line is that Tomlin’s first year offered much promise, but it also raised a lot of uncomfortable questions. Regardless, Mike Tomlin deserves to be judged on his own merits.

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