Tim Benz: Patriots dominance isn’t part of Mike Tomlin’s shortcomings
It’s been 11 days since Mike Tomlin signed a contract extension to coach the Steelers through at least the 2021 season.
Both sides make a strong case.
However, there is one defense of Tomlin’s extension that I have heard advanced a few times recently that I can’t accept.
Some have said that Tomlin’s postseason shortcomings should come with an asterisk because he has endured the bad luck of coaching in the AFC against the Patriots at the height of their dynasty.
In other words, there’s an assumption that the Steelers’ past eight seasons would have ended later in the playoffs, perhaps with another Super Bowl win or at least another appearance or two, if the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick reign had never occurred.
Maybe. But that’s quite an assumption. There is very little history to suggest that would be the case, aside from the 2016 season that ended in an AFC Championship Game loss at Gillette Stadium.
To be clear, yes, the Patriots are a 200-pound gorilla. Unfortunately, you can’t discuss the past 19 years of AFC football in any historical context without all roads leading to Foxborough, Mass.
The thesis that Tomlin’s teams would’ve been more accomplished without the Patriots in the mix is augmented by the fact that his 2008 and 2010 editions got to the Super Bowl without needing to play New England in the postseason.
Those who believe that theory also have advanced to me that the Steelers — and the rest of the AFC — aren’t merely impacted by directly facing the Patriots in the playoffs or even the regular season. It’s that New England so frequently wins the AFC East and claims a bye that the entire rest of the conference is battling for the other bye.
But when it comes to Tomlin’s Steelers, failing to secure a bye and failing to avoid the Pats in the playoffs was a non-factor at least four times (2009, 2012, 2013, 2018) because they didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. Among those years, only 2013 featured a regular-season defeat at the hands of Belichick’s crew. But it also featured six losses to non-playoff teams.
In Tomlin’s first year on the sideline (2007), yes, his group lost to New England in the regular season. Yet that didn’t impact a bye or a playoff result as the 10-6 Steelers were upset at home by Jacksonville as the No. 4 seed. And the third-seeded Chargers also absorbed a loss to New England that season, too, but finished 11-5.
As for the 2011 campaign, the Steelers actually beat New England in the regular season, but they lost to Baltimore twice and only earned a wild-card spot, before getting upset by the 8-8 Broncos.
In 2014, the third-seeded Steelers (11-5), indeed, would’ve gotten a bye if it wasn’t for the 12-4 Patriots. But none of the Steelers’ five losses was to Tom Brady and company that year, and sixth-seeded Baltimore won at Heinz Field in the first round of the playoffs anyway.
If the Brady-Belichick Pats didn’t exist, the 2014 Steelers still would’ve had to go through Denver where postseason dreams died in 2011 and 2015.
By the way, even if the Steelers hadn’t lost in New England to open the 2015 season, they wouldn’t have won the division anyway since the Bengals won the AFC North by two games.
Lastly, the Steelers of 2017 did get a bye but lost at home to Jacksonville (again) before getting a chance to face the Patriots in the playoffs.
If we are to examine the teams that have negatively impacted Tomlin’s quest to get back to another Super Bowl, the Patriots are way down the list after the likes of the Jags, Broncos, and Ravens — who eliminated the Steelers once and won the AFC North three of the four years Tomlin teams have missed the postseason.
The excuse of the Tomlin-era Steelers being a victim of being good at the wrong time because of the presence of the Patriots is way too easy.
These Steelers are not the Lakers of the 1960s trying fruitlessly to knock off the Celtics in the finals. They aren’t the Michael Jordan-era Cavaliers who could never wiggle past the Bulls.
Or the Brooklyn Dodgers who grasped at straws to beat the Yankees five times before finally winning in 1955.
They’ve had a lot more go wrong than just the historical misfortune being in the same conference as Brady and Belichick.
Let’s not give them that parachute.