Should the Pittsburgh Steelers Consider Parting Ways With Mike Tomlin After the 2021 Season?

Article Highlights:

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers need to strongly consider parting ways with veteran head coach Mike Tomlin
  • The Steelers are on the verge of missing the postseason for the second time in three years and haven’t won a playoff game since January 2017
  • Tomlin, who signed an extension earlier this year, deserves to be on the hot seat

When Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin celebrated with the Lombardi Trophy in February 2009, Pittsburgh Steelers fans understandably hoped the duo would make Super Bowl appearances a regular occurrence.

Life hasn’t quite worked out that way. The Steelers haven’t reached the Super Bowl since losing to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in February 2011. Over a decade later, Roethlisberger is potentially approaching retirement, and Tomlin, the Steelers’ head coach since 2007, is in danger of recording his first career losing season.

For as successful as the marriage between Tomlin and the Steelers has been over the last 15 years, both sides need to strongly consider a divorce in the coming weeks.

Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers may have finally hit rock bottom

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in 2021.
Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers must seriously consider a divorce after the 2021 season | Dylan Buell/Getty Images

In January 2018, the No. 2 seed Steelers prepared to host Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Divisional Round. Despite entering the game as 7-point favorites at home, the Steelers wasted 545 yards of offense in a crushing 45-42 defeat.

For all intents and purposes, that shocking home loss marked the beginning of the end of the modern Steelers as we’ve known them. As of Dec. 28, 2021, the Steelers are 36-25-2, with only one playoff berth in the last four years.

After cruising to an 11-0 start in 2020, Pittsburgh lost four of its final five games and, once again, lost at home in the postseason; this time, Baker Mayfield and the upstart Cleveland Browns jumped out to a 35-7 lead in the second quarter and hung on for a 48-37 victory over their AFC North rivals.

At 7-7-1, the Steelers are in danger of their first losing season since 2003. Roethlisberger has looked old, second-year receiver Chase Claypool openly clashed with Tomlin over music choices, and Pittsburgh’s tie against the dismal Lions is the only thing keeping them out of last place.

Tomlin is not responsible for all of these problems, and the fact remains that he is among the NFL’s most successful active head coaches. However, the Steelers’ embarrassing 36-10 road loss to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16 only highlighted how far the six-time Super Bowl champions have fallen in recent years — and why a divorce might be necessary.

The Steelers’ reality matters more than Tomlin’s successful resume in Pittsburgh

As of December 2021, Tomlin is 152-85-2 as the Steelers’ head coach. He reached the playoffs nine times in his first 15 seasons and led the Steelers to seven AFC North titles in that span.

Tomlin’s resume isn’t the problem. The issue is instead where the Steelers are now. They’re a franchise in desperate need of a reboot at quarterback — and, given Claypool and injured receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s histories of immaturity and antics, possible widespread offensive personnel changes.

At this point, there is no reason to believe the Steelers will be significantly better in 2021 under Tomlin’s watch. If anything, the franchise must hit the attempt beginning a transitional period in 2022, one where the team can build around All-Pro pass-rusher T.J. Watt and young running back Najee Harris rather than enter a prolonged rebuild.

The Steelers gave Tomlin a three-year extension, one which runs through 2024, earlier this year. However, the franchise did so after a 2020 season which appears to be a significant outlier. Luckily for Tomlin, he at least has job security on his side amid his team’s recent struggles.

For the sake of all parties, a divorce might be the best move. The Steelers officially begin a new era and Tomlin, if he chooses, can try taking a head coaching position with a team with the important pieces in place already. The idea of Tomlin and Kyler Murray teaming up on the Arizona Cardinals certainly sounds tantalizing.

Who should the Steelers pursue if they need to hire a new head coach this cycle?

Historically, the Steelers have preferred having defensive masterminds with positions of prominence in the organization. Tomlin, Bill Cowher, and Chuck Noll, the franchise’s three head coaches since 1969, were all defensive coordinators immediately before taking over the Steelers.

It is also worth noting Dick LeBeau, the legendary defensive mastermind, served as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator from 2004-14. Keith Butler, who replaced LeBeau in 2015, turns 66 next May and has never been a head coach.

If the Steelers would prefer to hire another defensive-minded coach, Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles and Indianapolis’ Matt Eberflus each make sense. Bowles went 26-41 as the New York Jets’ head coach from 2015-18 and has seen his stock skyrocket over the last two years. Eberflus, a former star linebacker at Toledo, interviewed for three head coaching vacancies after the 2020 season.

The Steelers hired Tomlin in January 2007, less than two months shy of his 35th birthday. First-year San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Houston Texans, is 37 and would be an appealing younger option.

Suppose the Steelers prefer an offensive-minded coach. Buccaneers offensive coordinator and former Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich is expected to receive widespread interest this cycle. Although he’s never been a head coach before, the 41-year-old spent four seasons with the Steelers and understands the organization and its expectations.

Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and Dallas Cowboys OC Kellen Moore each also make sense for the Steelers. Interestingly, Hackett’s father, Paul, worked alongside Tomlin on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2005; Hackett was the quarterbacks coach, and Tomlin worked with the defensive backs. Steelers fans will likely forgive any potential awkwardness if it means bringing a Lombardi Trophy back to the Steel City.

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