It’s been a long time since the Pittsburgh Steelers were all about Super Bowls. It’s been 2009 since we’ve won one and 2011 since we’ve at least earned a participation trophy.
Which is why folks have been a bit grumpy in and around the Burgh.
After all, it’s been more than a decade since we’ve drank Champagne out of a Lombardi Trophy. Oh yeah, wrong sport. Told you it’s been a long time.
This long time has been under the leadership of Coach Mike Tomlin, for a very long time in normal NFL coaching years.
Is it time to clean house? Hit the reset button? Out with old, in with the new and all of that?
That’s the debate. Should this even be a topic of discussion? Aren’t we referring to a coach who is widely considered to be one of the greatest to ever to toss a red challenge flag in this league?
Well, that probably wasn’t the best choice of allegories.
If you think this future Hall of Fame coach is beyond any and all reproach due to his extraordinary win-loss record, you should know this wasn’t the first time such unconscionable conversations were conducted among the Steelers congregation.
It was in the late eighties when many of the Steelers faithful had lost their faith in Hall of Fame Chuck Noll. The game has passed him by, they said.
Even four Super Bowl victories wasn’t enough to keep the pitchforks from being sharpened and the torches to be lit.
The same was true with another Hall of Famer at the turn of the millennium when Coach Bill Cowher was losing favor with his once frothing at the mouth base of support.
The game has passed him by, they said.
In Tomlin’s case, he isn’t being accused of the game passing him by. It’s that Steelers Nation is tired of being smirked at, belittled and ignored.
“I’ve got this,” Tomlin says as he blows a kiss into the camera.
But, based on the past five years, it’s clear that he does not “got this”.
And, now with his franchise quarterback about to retire without a succession plan in place and with his newly imagined and rebuilt Steelers defense ending up like sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground, it’s being asked whether he ever will.
So whadda we do? Is it time to move on?
Wait. I’m getting a message in my earpiece. “What’s that you say? The Steelers still have a clear path to the playoffs? They aren’t eliminated yet?”
Well, then all of this talk is premature, right?
The strange thing is that it’s not.
Just last year, the Steelers had one of the best defenses in the league. So too was the case a year prior.
After years of subpar defensive play, the proud traditions of the Steel Curtain had finally been revived. No more putting all of hopes of the season on an offensive strategy of Chuck and Duck. Spray and Pray. Hit and Hope.
No. The Steelers defense was back, Baby.
But, that was last year. Now the Steelers defense is arguably one of the worst. Certainly when it comes to holding the line, tackling, covering receivers, keeping opponents from scoring…you know, that sort of thing.
What a difference a year makes.
Even if the Steelers somehow manage to squeeze their way into the playoffs and make a run, should we still blow this thing up? Shake the etch-and-sketch?
For the answer to this question, and for more unfiltered wild speculation, we must blow the dust off the heavy, leather bond tome and talk about the history of Hall of Fame coaches. Let’s give this the first Spin of 2022.
The Noll Era
For those fans who never enjoyed the Chuck Noll era, here’s a simplified description of the man. He was an old school genius. He had a unique eye for talent, was a player developer of the highest caliber and a tactician of extraordinary skill.
He was always the smartest guy on the field. And, this was no easy task when you had guys like Tom Landry and Bud Grant on the opposing sidelines.
If you want a comparison, imagine Bill Belichick, but without the hidden cameras and underinflated balls.
You think the Steelers are bad now. He took over a team which had only played in one post-season game in its previous 36 years and that was a 21-0 loss.
Chuck was an offensive lineman before he was a coach. He was all about building a team from the trenches outwards.
His first draft in 1969 featured one of the greatest defensive lineman in history, Mean Joe Greene. He also picked up legendary offensive tackle Jon Kolb in the third round.
Oh yeah, there was also this guy named L.C. Greenwood that was added in Round 10. Yes, they drafted very deep back then.
Much has been said about Tomlin starting off his head coaching career with the advantages of a Cowher-built team. It’s true. Tomlin’s team was mostly Super Bowl grade when he first started his reign.
But, that doesn’t mean Noll didn’t have an unfair advantage of his own as well. This unfair advantage was named Bill Nunn, a member of the 2021 Hall Of Fame class.
Nunn’s extraordinary skill at scouting players from smaller colleges that none of the other teams discovered allowed Noll to boast the greatest talent ever assembled.
His 1974 Draft class included Lynn Swann (1), Jack Lambert (2), John Stallworth (4) and Mike Webster (5), all eventual Hall Of Famers.
The entire seventies featured the Steelers drubbing their opponents in the playoffs…and on draft day.
After four Super Bowl victories, the last in 1979, Noll seemed to be “The Untouchable”.
Yet, even the great Noll couldn’t fend away detractors when the Steelers hit a rough patch in the 1980’s.
The year 1991 would be his last, but he didn’t leave the cupboard empty. His successor would end up taking over a defensive gold mine that included the likes of Rod Woodson, Hardy Nickerson, David Little, Greg Lloyd, D.J. Johnson and Carnell Lake.
The offense wasn’t exactly lacking of players either with Neil O’Donnell, Barry Foster, Merril Hoge, Jeff Graham, John Jackson, Dermontti Dawson, Carlton Haselrig and Tunch Ilkin drawing team salaries.
Many of us longtime Steelers aficionados weren’t pleased with the forced retirement of Chuck Noll. For most, he was all we had grown up on and we believed there would never be another coach like him. Like…ever.
This ended up being true; however, it didn’t take us long to forgive the Rooney family for bringing in a new leader in the form of Bill Cowher.
In his first draft, Cowher added Leon Searcy and Kendall Gammon to the offensive line and Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed and Darry Perry to the defense, which proved to be the right cherries on top of the hot fudge sundae.
After the last few years of floundering under Noll, Cowher’s unrivaled enthusiasm and sideline energy gave the Steelers a much-needed jolt and they were immediately back to the top of the league’s ranks with a 11-5 record.
In this, Cowher’s first year, the team ended up top of the ACF Central before falling short in the playoffs to the Buffalo Bills, who were a mighty force at that time.
Those of us who hear people say, “How could you ever replace Tomlin?” know that it’s possible and even probable that there is someone, or several out there who could do what Cowher did in the 90’s.
That is, reinvigorate the Steelers brand entirely.
Yet, the beauty about Cowher Power was that it always reinforced what Noll had built. That is, a defense that is the envy of the league, and a blue collar, no nonsense approach to the game of football.
Many point to Cowher’s losing years as proof that he is inferior to Tomlin (who famously has never had a losing season). Yet, much of this wasn’t Cowher’s fault.
Instead, it was the arrogance of the Steelers franchise in believing they didn’t need to participate in the newly hatched free agency in the NFL.
They wouldn’t participate in free agency. Instead, they would build through the draft. Yet, the drafting superiority they had in the 70’s had long faded.
After Cowher built a Super Bowl worthy team in short order, the front office refused to resign its best players. Like none of them.
The great Rod Woodson wasn’t resigned. Nor was Neil O’Donnell, who had they, Cowher would have probably had another Super Bowl appearance in the 90’s. One of the most painful losses was rising star linebacker Chad Brown, but they also lost Eric Green, Willie Williams, Yancy Thigpen, Kevin Green and Charles Johnson to name a few.
In the 2000’s, the Steelers finally realized the wrongs of their ways and reluctantly shifted their strategy to writing checks and keeping their talent. But, if you want to know why it took Cowher so long to get back to the Super Bowl, well now you know.
This talent drain also took its toll on Cowher. What we loved about Coach Bill was that he suffered as much as we did when the Steelers faltered. Too many AFC Championship losses, and a few losing seasons was showing its wear.
By 2003, Cowher Power was starting to sputter and the fans were getting restless. Worse, Cowher was showing signs of being burned out.
If it wasn’t for the drafting of one Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, he probably would have been gone earlier. But, as we know, Big Ben changed Pittsburgh, and one year later Coach Bill finally got his Super Bowl win, which appeared to be his one great coaching goal in life.
After that victory, the spark was fading rapidly in Cowher Power, and though his team was loaded with talent, 2006 was probably his worst coaching year.
It was time for a change.
Which brings us to Coach Mike Tomlin.
There is no question his first five years with the Pittsburgh Steelers were epic. Tomlin was wise behind his years, cool above all coaches and he was producing major results with the talent Cowher had left behind.
He also was the most poetic, fleet of tongue, press conference entertaining coach the team had ever had, and ever will.
No one speaks more eloquently than Tomlin. He’s the Shakespeare of NFL coaches.
These were the modern-day glory years of the Steelers with Big Ben in his young prime, and with a defense of the ages, lead by beloved Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau.
The team was powerful on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and in some ways boasted rosters that rivaled those great teams of the 70’s.
Tomlin rode this talent to a Super Bowl win in 2009 against the Arizona Cardinals and a competitive Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2011.
You wouldn’t be crazy at the time to feel that Tomlin would be the greatest coach the organization would ever have, a belief many still hold.
Not only did his players love playing for him, but the Steelers organization was once again the envy of league, a destination portal for free agents and rookies.
What happened next is hard to describe. Was it the aging of the defense? Or the fact that Tomlin always favored his Tampa Two approach?
LeBeau was sent to pasture and many of Cowher’s now elderly players were dispatched of shortly thereafter.
For the first time, this was truly Mike Tomlin’s team, and it would be centered around the gifted arm of Big Ben.
Run stopping behemoths like Casey Hampton and Levon Kirkland type linebackers were considered passe. Instead, the Steelers defense would be transitioned to fleet footed, interchangeable parts, who could slow down the pass friendly new rules of the NFL.
Or at least that was what the Bard was selling us at the time.
On offense, it was about Showtime. Young Money receivers, wickedly fast running backs and the Cowher tradition of ball possession was scuttled for flash and dash.
This resulted in some of the most exciting offensive play since the late 70’s. Was the Roethlisberger lead offenses better than Terry Bradshaw’s best during his glory days?
With all apologies to Franco Harris and Lynn Swann the answer is…probably. But, the price was a rapid deterioration of the defense, and what was once Pittsburgh’s greatest pride, was a shadow of its former self.
The middle five years of Tomlin’s 15 were also plagued with drama queen players, and extended holdouts. The blue collar mystique of the Pittsburgh Steelers was rusting away.
The last few years, it appeared that old school Steelers football would be back in vogue under Tomlin. Draft picks focused on the rebuilding of the defense, and for a while it seemed like Pittsburgh’s dominance in stopping offenses was back.
Yet, this year has the team floundering in run defense, there is no power in either of its trenches and the offense is as anemic as it’s been in many decades.
Which is why the same question has arrived that came towards the end of both Noll’s and Cowher’s tenure.
Is it time for a change?
What Say You?
It’s entirely possible the Steelers could muster a win against the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football and then somehow defeat the Baltimore Ravens with an improbable end of the season away victory.
A Browns win seems likely. A win against the Ravens? I suppose it’s possible.
It’s also conceivable the team ends up getting a few underdog wins in the playoffs. There doesn’t seem to be too many dominant teams in the AFC.
Then, they could catch the NFC Champion on an off day, and the greatest comeback run in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers would be celebrated with a raising of another Lombardi Trophy.
And, then Coach Tomlin could look into the camera and blow us all a kiss.
Yet, back here on Planet Earth, this isn’t likely, people. The Steelers 10-36 humiliating loss against the Kansas City Chiefs last week is more who they are on Any Given Sunday.
Of course, let’s see how it plays out. Let’s cheer them on.
But, miracles aside, this is an organization in shambles, without an identity and about to say goodbye to one of the two greatest quarterbacks who ever wore its uniform.
Last Home Stand
Which brings us to what Monday night’s game against the Cleveland Browns is all about.
Although the jury is still out on this stage of the Mike Tomlin era, it’s most assuredly the final curtain for Big Ben Roethlisberger.
This has been a dreary year for Steelers Nation, but there has been one continual shining light throughout and that’s been the play of the quarterback.
At age 39, Roethlisberger has been all of the gunslinger the team could have hoped for and he’s been healthy enough to finish out his last year with dignity and excellence.
There is no question he is no longer the player of his youth, a quarterback who could pull rabbits out of the most amazing hats with a shake of his hips and a double pump of his arm.
But, it’s been a strong enough performance this year for him to have good momentum into facing his next great challenge, that is to earn himself a place in the NFL Hall of Fame.
At 7-7-1, do the Steelers still have a chance to turn everything around?
I think we all know the answer to that question.
But, what we know for sure, is that Big Ben is deserving of the last two games of the year to be all about him.
Following these two games (or perhaps magically a few more), the Steelers will be a totally different organization, perhaps transforming itself more than it has in decades.
What a difference a year will make.
Yet, until then, we have a singular focus as Steelers Nation. It’s to keep our eyes on the ball of saying goodbye to a player who has provided us so many thrills, so much cause for celebration.
A bright sun, during some of those gray sky days of our lives. So, let’s do this. Let’s do this right.
Go Steelers. Go Big Ben.