Tim Benz: Steelers under Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher deserve criticism without condemnation
Over the last few weeks a lot of praise has been hurled at the Steelers. The NFL Network's Top 100 players list featured five Steelers in the top 50. Two — Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell — were in the top five.
With all that praise, it got me thinking. Should the Steelers have gone to more Super Bowls in the Bill Cowher-Mike Tomlin era? And if so, is coaching to blame?
Before we really dive into this, let's state clearly we are talking about getting to the Super Bowl, i.e., at least winning the AFC Championship. The ultimate winners over the last 20 years have been the Patriots, and they have proven the fickle nature of that game more than anyone. As good as the Patriots have been, it's a one-game crapshoot and a favored team can lose, as they have proven three times.
So let's talk about just getting there as opposed to winning the game itself since both Cowher and Tomlin have illustrated they can do both anyway.
The short answer to the question is, “yes.” Given the wealth of talent the Steelers have had since 1992 (Cowher's first year replacing Chuck Noll), they “should have” gone to at least one more Super Bowl.
But that little phrase — “should have” — is pretty important to define here. In my view “should have” connotes that the Steelers have underachieved versus the appropriate level of expectation.
Since Noll left, the Steelers have been to four Super Bowls. Again, based strictly on roster composition, I'd argue that their consistent level of high-end players season-to-season has been well above average.
A total of 10 times under Cowher and Tomlin, the Steelers have had at least six players named to the Pro Bowl. At least five players were named on 14 occasions.
So suggesting that one or two more teams in this post-Noll era “should have” made the Super Bowl isn't asking too much.
Two arguments can be made against that stance, saying that I'm being too greedy.
1. Since Cowher's first Super Bowl — Super Bowl XXX — only two other teams in that time have made the Super Bowl on four occasions.
2. One of them is New England.
Denver is the other, also with four. But let's go to the Patriots-factor first.
New England plays in the Steelers' conference. They are a behemoth. A historic, statistical anomaly. Eight Super Bowls since 2001 with one coach and one quarterback.
They are Jordan's Bulls. They are the Celtics of the 1960s. They are the Yankees of the '50s.
So when we say the Steelers “should have” gone to the Super Bowl more often over the last 17 years, when “should” they have? When have they been better than the best team of this generation?
The answer is 2008. When Tom Brady was hurt. Uncoincidentally, that was one of the years they went to the Super Bowl, and won it.
It's like Brooklyn fans saying their Dodgers “should have” won more World Series titles. Sure. If the Yankees didn't exist, maybe they would have. It's like NBA fans in Phoenix, Utah, Seattle, Portland and New York all saying their teams “should have” won a championship sometime in the '90s.
OK, when exactly? How many of your teams were all going to “definitely” win the trophy during those two years when Jordan retired?
And if Denver is the only other club besides the Pats that can boast four conference titles since 1995, is inferring the Steelers should've done more asking too much?
From a less provincial view, do many of us sit around and say: “Boy, Pete Carroll sure underachieved with the Seahawks. And Tom Coughlin could've done more with those Giants clubs. And, man, did Mike Ditka come up short with those Bears teams.”
Yet that's said of Tomlin and Cowher all the time here.
Those are all legitimate points. However, where the criticism of Cowher's stewardship is valid is that on three occasions before Brady and Bill Belichick (1992, '94, '97), he failed to get out of the conference as either the No. 1 seed, or with home-field advantage during a championship game.
Where the criticism of Tomlin is valid is that in seven of his 11 seasons, his teams have failed to either make the playoffs or win a playoff game before even getting to New England, thus failing to give his own team a chance to catch the Patriots on a bad day and upset them as the Ravens and Jets managed to do during New England's current run.
There can be criticism without condemnation. This is a classic case of when it should be applied.
Yes, under Tomlin and Cowher it's fair to say the Steelers should've done more. But the numbers show it'd be unfair to label either coach an underachiever.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.