The Pittsburgh Steelers won their game on Sunday. But, as they say, they won the battle but not the war. With the Miami Dolphins winning, they claimed the seventh and final Wildcard spot, and with it, ended Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes.
That ensures that for the sixth consecutive season, head coach Mike Tomlin’s Steelers will go without a postseason victory, last claiming a playoff win in the 2016 Divisional Round. They went on to lose to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, and have lost their next three postseason games since then, failing to make it altogether in 2018, 2019, and now 2022.
That six-year duration is tied for the franchise’s longest playoff drought without a single win in the Super Bowl era—since the very beginning of the Super Bowl era. The first Super Bowl took place in the 1966 season, and the Steelers did not win a playoff game—or even participate in one—until 1972, 50 years ago, with the Immaculate Reception game.
Since then, they had never gone more than four seasons without winning at least one postseason game until this current run under Tomlin’s watch, which now spans over 37.5% of his career here. In fact, he’s only won at least one postseason game in four of his 16 seasons, or just 25%, even if he’s qualified 10 times (62.5%), going one-and-done six times in total, including his last three appearances (2017, 2020, and 2021).
Tomlin is well-known for saying that the standard is the standard. He knows as well as anybody that the standard in Pittsburgh is championship trophies. He knows that he’s failed to deliver up to the standard 15 out of his 16 seasons. It would be nice if he’s gotten closer more frequently than he has, however, which is just three conference championship appearances and two Super Bowl appearances, with one win.
The question that now dominates, even if it’s a hypothetical one, is this: is Tomlin the man to author the Steelers’ next chapter? One can reason that the close of the Ben Roethlisberger chapter would be messy, and it was, but can Tomlin build a championship roster with Kenny Pickett?
It doesn’t matter how fans answer, because the ownership, chiefly Art Rooney II, believes in Tomlin, and we generally assume that he has the job for as long as he wants it. But at some point, you have to look at the results and ask if they’re good enough and if they can reasonably predict future outcomes.
We don’t know where the Steelers will go from here in terms of their achievement capability. Can they be like the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals and make a Super Bowl run with a second-year quarterback? One can argue that they are similarly talented, at least in most aspects.
We can safely assume either way that Tomlin is going to get the opportunity to steer the ship through 2023 and beyond, so one way or another we’re going to get an answer to the question of whether or not he can turn it around. But as of now, it’s sitting on the precipice of a failure the organization has not seen in the modern era if he fails next season to record a postseason victory yet again. It’s been a long time since this city has had something to celebrate in mid-January and beyond.