The Pittsburgh Steelers have long been the pinnacle of stability in the NFL. With six Super Bowl victories and just three head coaches since Chuck Noll took over in 1969, the Steelers are one of the most recognizable brands in NFL history. Their reputation has always revolved around their physical defense and gritty identity.
The Mike Tomlin era has been filled with impressive peaks but also missed opportunities. Tomlin is an undeniably good coach, racking up 228 wins to 146 losses in 15 years with the franchise. He's won 10 or more games in nine seasons and has never finished below .500.
Almost every franchise in the NFL would trade their recent history for Tomlin's run with the Steelers. However, it's fair to point out the missed opportunities suffered throughout Tomlin's tenure as their rigidity, especially on defense, led to premature playoff losses against several clearly inferior teams. It's justified to be frustrated with only one Super Bowl win and another Super Bowl appearance despite boasting the mixture of All-Pro talents and future Hall of Famers Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, and many more.
Last year's unlikely 11-0 start quickly ended as the Steelers' offense was exposed and the defense slipped. Pittsburgh outperformed their talent to finish 12-4, but their 1-4 finish, along with a devastating Wild Card loss to the Cleveland Browns, left a sour taste in everyone's mouth.
Entering 2021 with Roethlisberger back and supposedly rededicated was supposed to lead to improvement. But it's been a nightmare that could impact the future of the franchise.
An Awful Start
Four games into 2021, and the Steelers look ready for a teardown. Roethlisberger is almost unplayable at quarterback after the team failed to revamp his offensive line this offseason. His lack of mobility, overall arm strength, and horrid decision-making has squandered a handful of opportunities to score each week.
The 39-year-old passer is clearly on his way out of the league. He's completing 64% of his passes but has only four touchdowns this season and has the same amount of interceptions. His yards per average dipped from 7.6 in 2018 to 5.7 in 2019, 6.3 in 2020, to 6.1 this year. He's Alex Smith without the good decisions and mobility.
There's not much room for improvement barring a wild trade for another quarterback this season. The line is horrible, and the young playmakers are unable to produce without a stable and creative passer. Pittsburgh is merely biding their time until Big Ben is gone and the team has some cap space to find a replacement.
Tomlin's presence may complicate the team's ability to land a top quarterback. The allure of replacing Roethlisberger with a rookie may not be strong in what's considered a weak class, but Malik Willis or Sam Howell are more promising than Dwayne Haskins or Mason Rudolph.
The veteran QB route may only feature Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jared Goff, and Teddy Bridgewater. Outside of an uncharacteristic swing on Watson, none of those passers is good enough to elevate Pittsburgh.
What's Going Wrong?
The issues are most glaring on offense but the defense has aged as well. Ranked 13th through the first month of play, the pass defense has been especially poor. They've allowed eight touchdowns to just one interception, and over 10 yards per completion. Personnel decisions have cost them dearly as this unit has degraded.
Pittsburgh is good enough to screw up their 2022 draft pick by competing in close games and gutting out a handful of wins. But they'll end the season sorely disappointed and short of the playoffs. There's no pathway to overcoming their limitations in 2021.
This leads to the bigger picture for Pittsburgh. With about $60 million likely available in free agency next year after Roethlisberger retires and Joe Schobert is released, the Steelers can use this opportunity to completely change their identity. Tomlin shouldn't be fired, but a split could be beneficial as the franchise could clearly use a fresh voice and direction into the next era.
A New Era In Pittsburgh
In many ways, Tomlin's career with Pittsburgh has mirrored what Mike McCarthy accomplished with Green Bay. There was always a feeling of wanting more. While it's risky to take a potential step back by losing the sure-thing, a good front office should eventually swing for a higher ceiling.
I can't blame Pittsburgh for keeping Tomlin, but a separation now is timely and appropriate if it were to happen. Moving on from Roethlisberger is inevitable, whether it be mid-season to give Haskins a decent chance at proving himself, or in a more dignified way after 2021 concludes.
Long-term decisions on Minkah Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds are coming. The offensive line needs to be addressed. There are few currently affordable long-term prospects worth investing into on the roster, and almost all play receiver or running back.
The secondary should be rebuilt around Fitzpatrick. The defensive front seven needs athleticism but also football instinct injected into it. The offense has to figure out a quarterback and several starters along the line.
Is Tomlin interested in such a project? Or would he rather step away for a year and see if New England, Seattle, or Tampa Bay has an opening in 2023? At only 49 years old, Tomlin may decide the second-phase of his career should be a healthier situation than what Pittsburgh has to offer.
And maybe that would be a good thing for Pittsburgh as well.
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