Tim Benz: Breaking down the Mike Tomlin paradox
I've been in Los Angeles the last few days visiting with some friends and family.
At lunch Tuesday, the waitress asked where we live.
“Pittsburgh,” we said.
“Oh! Big day Sunday, huh?”
“What do you mean,” one of my friends replied.
“Super Bowl! Oh, are the Eagles not popular in Pittsburgh? Just Philadelphia?”
One of my friends had to explain, as a Steelers fan, that's not exactly how it works.
“So did the Steelers not have a very good year, then?” she continued.
Man, this girl's chances of good tip were going up in smoke.
But then it struck me. For someone who was obviously a novice football fan at best, that was a poignant question.
What kind of year did the Steelers really have? And why aren't they playing Sunday?
And how much of that is on the head coach?
The simple answer to that question is, as Tomlin himself put it during his season-ending news conference: “A disappointing end to an outstanding season.”
But as the weeks have trudged along since that playoff loss to Jacksonville, it's felt more “disappointing” and less “outstanding.”
Good regular seasons from star-studded teams that fall short in the playoffs have become too routine.
Does that make us spoiled as a fan base? Sure. But who was it that coined the phrase: “The standard is the standard”?
Well, the “standard” Tomlin season of late has been just that: Really good. But not good enough when it matters.
The topic of talking about Tomlin becomes more of a tinderbox every offseason. The longer he stays head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the more evidence mounts on both sides of the fence for those who want to make a case for him ... or against him.
Discussing Tomlin has become the ultimate Pittsburgh paradox.
On one hand, you can't argue to fire him. What are you going to do? Ditch a guy coming off a 13-3 season with two Super Bowl trips, a title, and six division championships on his resume after 11 years?
Plus, he has 116 wins, second to only Don Shula over their first 11 years. Similarly, only Curly Lambeau can boast to being .500 or better with the same club over their first 11 seasons.
You can't pink slip a guy with a resume like that. Especially this organization. It's a team whose chief pillar of operation is consistency.
Then again, it's becoming increasingly difficult to defend Tomlin on specific fronts. Such as, how has he failed to win a playoff game in seven of his 11 seasons despite having immense talent and a Hall of Fame quarterback over the years?
Like frequent losses to inferior teams. Like overseeing and drafting a wildly immature, undisciplined and suspension-prone locker room. Like having specific coaching gaffs against the Jaguars twice in the playoffs during his tenure. Like almost never being able to come up with a game plan capable of challenging Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Bill Belichick.
I was completely off the Tomlin bandwagon in December of 2015. After losing that awful game to the Ryan Mallett-led Ravens, I said Tomlin should be fired if Pittsburgh ended up missing the playoffs.
However, they ended up making the playoffs. Since then, I'd argue Tomlin has done some of his best coaching between the start of the 2015 postseason and the end of this regular season, given the glut of injuries and off-the-field issues he's piloted through.
Even in those times, though, while Tomlin was at his best, the biggest blights against him were on display:
• A locker room that creates unnecessary chaos.
• An inability to beat New England three times in that span.
• Suffering illogical defeats that adversely affected their playoff seeding.
• Beating just about everyone except the best when they needed to — as in Denver, New England and Jacksonville in the playoffs.
So is Tomlin somehow both — A) good enough to be a major reason for so much Steelers success and B) still somehow a major reason for why they haven't enjoyed more?
I say, yes.
Another coach could perhaps have gotten these talented Steelers deeper over the years. Another coach also could've mucked things up pretty badly. And show me who those other good coaches are that are consistently doing a better job than Tomlin.
Yeah, the ones who don't have the last name “Belichick,” I mean.
Simply put, Tomlin is too good to let go. But it's fair to start wondering if he is good enough as a head coach to ever get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.