After leading the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff berth since 2002, head coach Kevin Stefanski won’t be available Sunday night. He along with several other coaches and players tested positive for COVID, meaning they won’t get cleared in time for Wild Card weekend.
What if the same happened to Mike Tomlin?
Asked about that during his Tuesday press conference, Tomlin said the team’s come up with a plan. But he declined to offer any details.
“I’ll keep that in-house business, in-house,” Tomlin told reporters. “We do have a plan, but there’s no need to talk about it until we come to that bridge.”
Hopefully the Steelers never have to face such a situation. But the possibility is always there. So who would replace Tomlin? A couple candidates.
The most likely option is Teryl Austin. Austin was originally hired as Tomlin’s gameday assistant. The man in the booth telling Tomlin whether or not to challenge plays, perhaps help with clock management (though that didn’t go well two weeks ago) and any other in-game logistical issues that arise.
“He brings that know-how and that preparation, anticipating using him in terms of some situational things,” Tomlin said in March of 2019, shortly after making the hire. “Be it replay and judgement in games to help us in a lot of ways, because that’s something that he’s been preparing for in his aspirations to be a head coach. So he has a lot of additional talents that could be beneficial to us beyond his secondary expertise, and I think that’s reflected in his title”.
It’s felt like Austin’s taken on a greater role with the DBs, becoming the de facto DBs coach even though he’s still labeled as just a “senior assistant.” Austin’s had several interviews to become a head coach, though no team ultimately hired him, so he has the “big picture” mindset a head coach needs. Promoting Austin also wouldn’t cause a trickle down effect the way another coach might, someone having to cover for the new head coach. Tom Bradley would continue to work with the DBs if Austin was elevated to that lead role.
John Mitchell is still listed as the team’s assistant head coach. He’s the longest tenured Steeler on the coaching staff and basically the longest tenured Steeler of anyone who doesn’t have the last name “Rooney” in that building. He served as the team’s defensive line coach for decades before stepping aside in 2018. His current, day-to-day role is a bit unclear but it appears he’s been an important piece in helping players prepare for and transition to their post-football career.
Mike Tomlin explained his role shortly after Karl Dunbar has hired to be the new defensive line coach.
“This position allows him to utilize some of that experience and some of that passion in terms of being able to touch a broader scope of our current players and be a good liaison for some of our former players.”
While Mitchell isn’t involved quite as much in the day-to-day coaching operations, he could be an option for the team in a pinch. It would also keep the rest of the coaching staff in their current role, adding stability to what could be a chaotic situation.
Austin and Mitchell are really the only two likely options. There’s a chance someone like Danny Smith could be in play given the nature of special teams coordinators. They interact with a wider net of players than any other coach, working with guys on offense and defense. But Austin and Mitchell are more logical than putting Smith into that role. There might not be enough bubble gum in the world to sustain Smith, either.