Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is in no danger of being fired. But he’s feeling plenty of heat.
Thousands of Steelers fans, including several of the team’s limited stockholders, are urging owner Art Rooney to dismiss the Super Bowl-winning coach whose average record over the past four years is 11-5.
But in an increasingly impatient world, Tomlin hasn’t done a lot lately. Since their 2010 Super Bowl appearance, the Steelers are 3-5 in the playoffs. The protest boomed in volume when they were upset 45-42 by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional playoff round.
Actually the undercurrent against Tomlin began a year earlier, when Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw said he’s “a great cheerleader but not a great coach.”
The outcry against Tomlin reached a crescendo during the past four weeks, with late-game meltdowns against the New England Patriots and Jaguars.
Tomlin violated the No. 1 commandment of coaching: Thou shalt not look ahead.
He publicly spoke of the importance of the New England game two weeks ahead of it. And prior to the divisional playoff with the Jaguars, the coach again was talking about facing the Patriots in the championship game.
Inadvertently prodded by their coach, Steelers players – notably Le’Veon Bell and Mike Mitchell – talked and tweeted about the Patriots when they should have been focusing on the Jags, who had routed them, 30-9, in the regular season.
Bell was looking even farther ahead, discussing his contract negotiations for next season.
Steelers All-Pro guard David DeCastro saw the effect of letting an opponent think it’s overlooked. “It was stupid,” he said. “They were ready to go, they were mad,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Yeah, it’s embarrassing. We played like crap and we want to talk about New England?”
The connection to New England was especially unfortunate for Tomlin, because it contrasted his looseness with the strict discipline of Bill Belichick.
Patriots safety Duron Harmon commented on Boston’s WBZ radio that “I don’t think anybody in their right mind would do that on our team . . . We talk about how important each game is, not looking ahead.” Harmon and DeCastro both said the Patriot-gazing was interpreted by Jacksonville as disrespect.
Sunday’s game brought more criticism of Tomlin and his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley.
On a 4th-and-1 from the Jaguars 21, the Steelers ran a toss to the outside instead of banging up the middle, where they are rarely stuffed for no gain. Naturally, the riskier play failed.
Then there was poor clock management in the final 47 seconds of the first half, and worse in the fourth quarter. Down by 7 with 2:18 and two timeouts remaining, Tomlin went to panic mode, called for an on-side kick instead of trusting a defense that had not been very trustworthy that day.
The squib was horribly executed by Chris Boswell, and the Steelers’ chance at victory expired.
Because of his distinguished record and his congenial personality, Tomlin will get another chance. But he will make changes in his staff and will promise to toughen up.
Haley seems sure to go. He’s never gotten along well with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They are rarely seen conversing on the sidelines. Their lack of communication may have cost them a last-second victory against the Patriots in December.
There is also the matter of a continuing pattern of Haley involvement in alcohol-related incidents. Two weeks ago he was shoved outside a bar in Pittsburgh. There was a 2012 squabble at a Pittsburgh bar, and also a disturbing scene at a Kansas City bar in 2011.
Haley’s contract has expired. If the message to the players is about self-discipline, an example or two must be made with the coaching staff. Tomlin would do well to ask, What would Bill do? Tomlin is not likely to last much longer in Pittsburgh if the perception persists that he’s vastly inferior to Belichick.