Steelers Played It Safe With Coaching Staff, But They Can't Play It Safe With Roster
They need a big move at the most important position if they are going to be more than what they have been.
There came a point in the middle of the 2023 NFL season where I finally said it.
Maybe it’s time for a new head coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Those back-to-back home losses within four days to a pair of two-win teams was a pretty demoralizing gut-punch on the season, especially when they had a real opportunity to really position themselves for a top seed in the AFC. Given that they missed the playoffs the year before, hadn’t won a playoff game since 2016 and seemed destined to blow a 6-3 record in an AFC that didn’t have a dominant team, it just seemed … bad.
At the time, it was.
But when you step back and look at the season as a whole, it’s also easy to understand why the Steelers are in no rush to make that change. When all was said and done the Steelers played one of the NFL’s toughest schedules (fourth toughest by opponents winning percentage), in the NFL’s toughest division (only division to ever have all four teams finish with a winning record), had one of the least productive quarterback situations in the NFL …. and they still won 10 games and made the playoffs.
I get the frustrations with Tomlin. Seven years without a playoff win is a long time. He needs to do a better job hiring assistants. And I know people get tired of the non-losing season thing, but there is something to be said for consistently being “in it” every season. Teams value that. And it’s a big reason why teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore hold on to Tomlin and John Harbaugh for so long. The “I’d take a two-win season if it meant getting a quarterback” group of Steelers fans have an easy time saying that because they haven’t had to actually sit through a two-win season (and even then it’s far from a guarantee to find the player you want).
Everybody gets enamored with finding the next great young genius coach, but more often than that those coaches fall flat on their face without finding any sort of success.
Between 2019 and 2023 there were 35 coaches hired in the NFL (not counting interim). Out of that group we have already seen 17 get fired and one (Bruce Arians) retire. There are at least six more (Brian Daboll, Nick Sirianni, Doug Pederson, Mike McCarthy, Robert Saleh and Matt Eberflus) probably entering next season on an extreme hot seat. At least two of those guys are getting fired by the end of next season.
Those 35 coaches combined for just 26 playoff appearances in 77 chances (only 34 percent of the time), and EIGHT of those playoff appearances belonged to just two coaches — McCarthy in Dallas and Matt LaFleur in Green Bay.
What’s the point of this? Finding successful head coaches is HARD and almost every single coach hired in that four-year stretch was seen as a potential upgrade.
It’s far more likely your next head coach is doing to be a dud or, at best, a lateral move.
And I still can’t get past the fact the Steelers have been as competitive as they have been the past three seasons (I am going back to Ben Roethlisberger’s last season) with the level of quarterback play they have received. Teams that get this level of quarterback play not only don’t win championships, they generally do not win games.
Let’s look at it from a numbers and performance perspective.
Over the past three seasons these are the 15 teams with the lowest cumulative passer rating in the NFL over that time. I know this isn’t the perfect way to measure things, and I know passer rating has its flaws, but I think it’s at least a decent big picture look at general quarterback play and team success.
Only two teams on this list managed a winning record over these three seasons — Cleveland (.510) and Pittsburgh (.559). That .559 winning percentage for Pittsburgh is 11th best in the entire NFL over that stretch, despite having quarterback play that ranked.
Look at the records of the teams in their immediate area. They are among the worst teams in football. The Steelers received that level of quarterback play and still managed to win 28 games and make the playoffs in two of those three years. It’s actually kind of crazy.
Let’s look at it from another angle and an ability to make big plays in the passing game.
In terms of yards per attempt the Steelers fell even lower over that stretch, averaging just 5.9 yards per attempt — 29th in the NFL and ahead of only the New York Giants, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers.
Same idea as the table above — the bottom-15 teams and their records.
No coach is going to win the Super Bowl without a great quarterback.
But not many coaches can drag this level of quarterback play to the playoffs. Tomlin can. And for the most part has. He is a very safe bet in that regard.
New offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is also a safe bet. I know he failed as a head coach — and generally gave loser vibes in that role — but he knows how to build a quality running game (which should be the Steelers’ strength) and he had an outstanding two-year run as an offensive coordinator in Tennessee where he turned an offense led by Ryan Tannehill into a top-10 offense and actually had people debating if Tannehill was a top-10 quarterback in the NFL. That’s not easy. Yeah, he had Derrick Henry, but so did the OC’s before and after him in Tennessee and they all sucked.
And don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t win in the NFL today with that sort of offense. You can. The NFL is not as high-scoring and fast-paced as some people want you to believe, and scoring has steadily dropped for multiple seasons. The league hasn’t changed THAT much.
This is all the long-winded way of saying — Keeping Tomlin is fine. Arthur Smith is probably fine. Teryl Austin’s defense was very effective and keeping him is fine.
What’s not fine is certain aspects of the roster where they need to take some risks.
And nowhere is that more obvious than at quarterback.
Let’s talk about that….