The Pittsburgh Steelers at a Crossroads – Is Firing Tomlin the Answer?

Six games in, it’s already been a trying season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who sit at 2-4 in an AFC North that’s hardly the league’s most competitive division. Losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 was a crushing blow for the team, and backup Mason Rudolph’s injury three games later only compounded Pittsburgh’s issues. 

Impressively, despite having a combination of Rudolph and third-stringer Devlin Hodges at quarterback, the Steelers have only been held below twenty points once, and that was in Week 1 against the Patriots when Roethlisberger was healthy. That Pittsburgh has been scoring enough to win must make the team’s recent struggles even more frustrating for fans, as three of the Steelers’ four losses have come by four points or less, with head coach Mike Tomlin’s team proving unable to pull out tight contests thus far.

The Steelers have had their bright spots, including rookie linebacker Devin Bush, who has racked up a team-high 52 tackles, two interceptions, and one fumble recovery for a touchdown. Additionally, third-round rookie wideout Diontae Johnson has two touchdowns while playing second fiddle to Juju Smith-Schuster after it seemed James Washington or Donte Moncrief might be poised to take that role in the offseason. Still, the onus is on the Steelers coaching staff to find creative ways to get the ball to their stars, namely James Conner (3.2 yards per carry) and Smith-Schuster (340 receiving yards). That hasn’t happened to this point, and now Pittsburgh, close games or not, is potentially giving a top-ten pick to the Dolphins after striking a deal to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick for their first-rounder.

After this season, it’s likely many Terrible Towel-waving fans will be calling for the job of Tomlin and perhaps general manager Kevin Colbert if the Steelers miss the playoffs or, worse yet, give a high pick to the Dolphins after they knew they’d be without Big Ben when they made the Fitzpatrick trade. 

Now is that fair? Sure, on some levels. Tomlin hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016-17, is 3-5 in his last eight postseason matchups, and is very likely going to miss the playoffs with a talented roster this year to mark the second straight season the Steelers have been out of the mix in a ho-hum division. Perhaps most embarrassing was the Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown saga that was a colossal distraction for the team as they were trying to mount a playoff charge, culminating in the Steelers trading Brown to the Raiders for peanuts after suspending him. Of course, we can’t forget, running back Le’Veon Bell chose not to play for Tomlin all of last season, forfeiting a large salary on the franchise tag to get to free agency and out of Pittsburgh.

Then, on Colbert’s side, the Fitzpatrick trade is very likely going to go down as a head-scratcher. It’s one thing to know what you’re giving up in acquiring a player (though Fitzpatrick is a recent first-rounder himself) – it’s another entirely to bet on your 0-2 team that just lost their star quarterback to not surrender a high pick. Additionally, the Steelers have the second-least cap space in the league this season despite their best players – including Conner, Smith-Schuster, Bush, Fitzpatrick, and defensive end TJ Watt – all on rookie contracts. When it comes time to pay these players the money they’ve earned, who will get the Le’Veon treatment?

But the Steelers can’t fire Tomline, and they can’t fire Colbert. In the NFL, track record is everything, and when you get a good GM or (especially) a good coach, you shouldn’t let them go. Incredibly, the Steelers have had just three head coaches in the last 50 years, and they’ve rode that formula to six Super Bowls. Tomlin is a good coach – forget the”too many penalties” argument and the “clock mismanagement” argument and look at the win-loss record. Tomlin’s been in Pittsburgh for twelve full seasons, is 1-1 in Super Bowls and has never had a losing year. That doesn’t happen in the modern NFL with a hard salary cap, not unless you’re the Patriots.

Tomlin’s has squeezed solid play out of Mason Rudolph, a third-rounder just a year ago who probably shouldn’t be ready yet, while overcoming the Roethlisberger injury to field a team that has had a shot in every game they’ve played this season. Heck, the Steelers’ losses are to the Pats, Seahawks, 49ers, and Ravens. It seems like every player that suits up in the black and yellow elevates their play under Tomlin past what every draft evaluator or former team thought was capable of them. This guy is a damn good coach, and the Steelers would be foolish to let him go.

Finally, Colbert needs to stay as well. The salary cap concern is legitimate. Additionally, the Steelers have rarely been able to get great defensive back play recently, though clearly Colbert is very confident Fitzpatrick can be a franchise-altering player. And there’s reason to believe he’s right – this is the guy who has kept the Steelers’ roster near the top of the league ever since he started making the personnel decisions in 2000, picking up three Super Bowl rings in the process. One of the great marks of a GM is one who always hits on their first round picks, and Colbert does with incredible consistency despite almost always picking late in the first. A whopping ten of Colbert’s twenty first rounders have been to the Pro Bowl, and 2018 and 2019 selections Terrell Edmunds and Bush look on their way. This guy found Antonio Brown in the sixth round, just went Watt-Juju-Conner in the first three rounds of the ‘17 Draft, and might have found his quarterback of the future in the third round in 2018 while every other team is spending high first-rounders on the spot. If track record is everything, there’s probably not an evaluator in the NFL outside of Bill Belichick that has a better one than Colbert.

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