Mike Tomlin is one of the best coaches in NFL history. But instead of the attention being on him, as usual, people are more concerned with his team.
On Tuesday morning, we found out that Ben Roethlisberger, Jerald Hawkins, Jaylen Samuels, and Vince Williams have been added to the Reserve/COVID-19 list, putting them in jeopardy of missing Sunday’s game against the Bengals, as Pittsburgh tries to maintain its undefeated record.
But even if the 8-0 Steelers are undermanned on Sunday, a win over a Cincinnati team with a 2-5-1 record is doable, given that the man in charge in Pittsburgh is a future Hall of Famer, even if it’s a narrative that’s rarely discussed.
“It’s significant as we sit here today, but once I go to work tomorrow, it will be less significant,” Tomlin said on Sunday after making history. “We will be singularly focused on getting ready for our next AFC North opponent, and that is life. I am appreciative of it, but we are not going to dwell on it. We have big-time business coming up with AFC North ball.”
Under Tomlin, the Steelers are off to the best start in franchise history, as Tomlin is now tied with Marty Schottenheimer as the only two coaches in NFL history to start their careers with 14 consecutive non-losing seasons. For comparison’s sake, Schottenheimer was 143-87-1 in the regular season and playoffs in his first 14 seasons, while Tomlin has a career record of 149-81-1 with two Super Bowl appearances and a win in Super Bowl XLIII, becoming the youngest coach in league history with a ring.
And in a season in which COVID-19 is having its way with every team in the league, and as the Patriots and Bill Belichick are trying to figure things out post-Tom Brady, and Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs are being carried by Patrick Mahomes, Tomlin and the Steelers are the league’s lone undefeated team — with a 38-year-old quarterback.
When you look at the Steelers’ depth chart, you’ll see that they’re far from the sexiest offensive team Pittsburgh’s had during Tomlin’s tenure. For instance, they rank 25th in total offense. However, that’s been combated by being sixth in total defense, third in turnover differential, and at the top of the league when it comes to returning kicks on special teams.
If you stack Tomlin up with the other great coaches in Steeler history, his resume is on par. Chuck Noll was 209-156-1 from 1969-1991 and won 4 Super Bowls. Bill Cowher was 161-99-1 from 1992-2006 and also won a Super Bowl. And right now, Tomlin is 149-81-1 (including playoffs) since he took over in 2007.
Noll and Cowher are already in the Hall of Fame, and Tomlin deserves to be there even if he doesn’t coach another game.
But, unlike the men that came before him, Tomlin is Black. And in a city like Pittsburgh, it means that he has to deal with unjust criticisms. Like always being on the proverbial “hot seat.” Back in 2016, Steeler great Terry Bradshaw said this about Tomlin.
Two years later, Bradshaw said Tomlin “was not his kind of coach.”
This isn’t shocking if you know anything about Pittsburgh. Because when Tomlin retires, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will be the last place I’ll be expecting to support him, given the publication’s racist history.
In 2015, the paper published a column that suggested that most Black Americans “are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.” In 2018, the editorial board defended Trump for the whole “sh*thole countries” thing. And get this, they wrote it on MLK’s birthday. And earlier this year, there were staff revolts after two black journalists were pulled from covering the protest from this past summer.
And then this happened.
Now, do you see why that Hall of Fame narrative around Tomlin isn’t pushed in a place like Pittsburgh?
“I think he’s not just a great Black head coach, he’s a great head coach,” said Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward earlier this season. “It’s one thing to be the all-time winningest Black head coach, but this dude deserves more than enough credit. To never have a losing season, to get the most out of his players. It’s not just first-rounders that wound up playing great here. He’s had fifth [round], sixth, undrafted guys who’ve done well.
“I know a lot of people like to say he inherited a great team, but think about other people who have inherited great teams. Think about the basketball teams that Phil Jackson would take over. That’s not a shot at him, but when you are able to lead a group of men and lead them the right way, that says a lot about the type of coach you are.”
When it’s all said and done, I hope history remembers Tomlin for what he accomplished despite the unnecessary obstacles he had to overcome. And hopefully, Pittsburgh will realize that they needed Mike Tomlin more than he ever needed them.