The Steelers’ Coaching Staff Is Looking Awfully Thin

So far, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coaching staff has seen nothing but subtraction. Three losses and zero adds one full month removed from the end of the team’s season.

Their latest loss came Wednesday when longtime coach John Mitchell retired. His on-field role had minimized in recent years, replaced by Karl Dunbar as the team’s official defensive line coach, but you could still see him on the field in training camp, most often running the “get-off” drills for the defensive line.

Brian Flores is the team’s most significant loss of the offseason. Predictable as it might’ve been, he never intended to make Pittsburgh a home, he took the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator position shortly after the Senior Bowl. Then there’s assistant coach Blaine Stewart who left for West Virginia, the second coach in as many years to leave the NFL for the NCAA (former o-line coach Adrian Klemm is the other, leaving for Oregon before 2021 even ended). Stewart wore lots of hats but worked closest with WRs Coach Frisman Jackson and Special Teams Coordinator Danny Smith, helping to run each practice.

Last year, we examined all 32 NFL coaching staffs and concluded Pittsburgh had among the smallest in the league. At the time, they had 18 and weeks later added a 19th. They were one of just three teams to have fewer than 20 coaches on their staff, joining the Las Vegas Raiders and New England Patriots. For what it’s worth, none of those three teams made the playoffs. The Patriots’ staff was an awkward-fitting mess while if it wasn’t for the Raiders’ paying presumably good money to Jon Gruden and Josh McDaniels, he may have already been fired.

As of now, the Steelers have just 16 coaches on staff. Nine on offense, five on defense, one for special teams, and of course, head coach Mike Tomlin. The five on defense, the sparest group, include: DC Teryl Austin, DL Coach Karl Dunbar, assistant DL Coach Denzel Martin, LBs Coach Jerry Olsvasky, and DBs Coach Grady Brown.

Technically, they’re not “short” any position. They have at least one coach for each unit. Dunbar and Martin work with the DL and EDGE rushers, Olsavksy for the off-ball linebackers, and Brown for the secondary. Austin, with a defensive back background, overseeing it all and Tomlin running the show, the primary playcaller on gameday.

But no team entered 2022 with fewer than seven defensively-titled coaches. Things are in flux this year but presumably, if Pittsburgh didn’t add anyone, they’d likely easily have the fewest in the league.

To give them some grace and credit, it’s mid-February. The Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts just hired their head coaches. Teams can and will make changes to their staff and the Steelers are likely to do the same. At minimum, Blaine Stewart’s job will almost certainly be replaced by someone. Who, I have no idea. More likely than not, some younger face trying to break into the league like Stewart. And the Steelers could fill out the rest of their staff. Though circumstances were unusual, the Flores hire didn’t occur until February 19th and the team made two more hires in March (Assistant O-Line coach Isaac Williams) and April (Assistant QBs Coach David Corley). Nothing assures the Steelers are done and I very much doubt they are.

But it will be interesting to see what positions they fill. There’s no obligation to fill Flores’ and Mitchell’s roles. Tomlin never intended to hire Flores until realizing Pittsburgh was the only NFL gig willing to give him a job following his lawsuit against the league. Mitchell’s assistant head coach role primarily had an off-field function, his media bio detailing his work with current and former players as they transition to their post-football life along with helping Tomlin in community events. Undoubtedly, that role had value, especially from someone with as storied a life as Mitchell’s but it’s not a position the team needs moving forward. A current member of the staff could get promoted with the “assistant head coach” title, someone like Dunbar or Austin or TEs Coach Alfredo Roberts.

Adding more names to the coaching staff might come down to adding the right names. Not just checking boxes to fill out the numbers. There’s value in adding another set of eyes to replace Flores but it has to be a good fit. Some will say the Steelers’ small numbers are a product of cheap ownership. There’s no hard basis to that claim, just idle speculation considering coaching salaries aren’t public information and aside from head coaches, generally aren’t known. For what it’s worth, Dan Rooney once said the team doesn’t pay the most, doesn’t pay the least, but pays on the “high side of fair.” Whether or not that remains true in 2023 is anyone’s guess. By all reports, Tomlin at least seems to be well-compensated.

Like everything else, there are pros and cons to the size of a coaching staff. The more people you add, the more individualized help you can give players and the more ideas that can be brought to the table. But the more coaches, the more the message could get lost. One coach saying one thing, another saying something else, and it could create a disconnect. Too many cooks in the kitchen, too many hands in the cookie jar.

Among the largest coaching staffs last year were the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, and Tennessee Titans. Three of those five teams didn’t make the playoffs while the Dolphins and Buccaneers were one-and-done. The Cincinnati Bengals had one of the smallest coaching staffs in football and just missed out on the Super Bowl. And the two teams who made it to the final game, Kansas City and Philadelphia, had just about the league-wide average number of coaches. All of that is to say that data doesn’t suggest a strong correlation between number of coaches and team success.

But empirically, the Steelers could again have one of the smallest staffs in 2022. There’s a chance they could enter with only 17 coaches, assuming at least one gets added to replace Stewart. I’ll venture a guess and assume a defensive-minded coach gets added sometime over the next month, putting them at an 18-man staff for 2023.

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