There is currently only one head coach in the National Football League with 15 or more years head coaching experience that has never been fired nor had a losing season, and only two of his current peers have been to and won more Super Bowls. Any knowledgeable pro football fan would be able to tell you that is Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and yet for some Pittsburgh Steelers fans, it seems that no matter what Tomlin accomplishes it is not quite good enough.
Perhaps Steeler fans are more critical and have greater expectations than other football fans as they feel that it’s their birthright to be in the playoffs and contend for a Super Bowl every year. Winning four Super Bowls in six years can become habit forming even if it did happen more than four decades ago.
So how has Tomlin managed to avoid having a losing season unlike all his experienced contemporaries? Perhaps Tomlin’s greatest coaching strength is getting his back-up players to buy into “the next man up philosophy.” Steeler fans have heard Tomlin say that and “the standard is the standard,” repeatedly throughout his coaching career but with the Steelers failing to make the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons and having just three wins and seven losses in the post-season since 2011, has the standard under Tomlin evolved to become just one win above mediocrity?
Tomlin’s coaching record is something of an enigma. Through the years, his clock management has left a lot to be desired as well as his propensity to lose to truly inferior teams. Some of the more memorable upset losses were to a 1-8 New York Jets team in 2007, a 1-11 Cleveland team in 2009, to the Browns in 2012 when they were 2-8, and losing to Oakland in 2012 and 2013 when the Raiders finished both seasons with a 4-12 record. In 2014, the Steelers lost a 1-8 New York Jets team and to a Tampa Bay squad that would only win two games that year. In 2021, the Steelers could only manage a tie at home against an 0-8 Detroit Lions team.
In the past, the Steelers under Tomlin have been able to withstand injuries to past stars such as Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, and LeVeon Bell and still play well enough to win games and make the playoffs. A great deal of credit for that must go to Tomlin.
In 2022, after a 2-6 start, the Steelers won seven of their final nine games to finish with a 9-8 record as first-year quarterback Kenny Pickett showed flashes of playmaking promise in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s risk-adverse conservative offense. Or was it also a byproduct of playing six teams in their final nine games that ended up having losing records?
Steeler fans may complain about Tomlin’s coaching, but in looking around the NFL based on his coaching record, there aren’t many head coaches that have produced better results than Tomlin.
There are 31 other teams in the NFL. We can eliminate all those head coaches recently hired or have less than three years NFL head coaching experience and have not made it to the Super Bowl. That would be: Jonathan Gannon (Arizona), Arthur Smith (Atlanta), Matt Eberflus (Chicago), Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland), Dan Campbell (Detroit), DeMeco Ryans (Houston), Shane Steichen (Indianapolis), Josh McDaniels (Las Vegas), Brandon Staley (Los Angeles Chargers), Mike McDaniel (Miami), Kevin O’Connell (Minnesota), Brian Daboll (NY Giants), and Robert Saleh (NY Jets).
So now we’re down to 18 other teams and coaches. In looking at the coaches with more than four years head coaching experience that haven’t reached a Super Bowl: Buffalo’s Sean McDermott has a winning percentage of .639 (62-35) in his six seasons as a head coach and had only one losing season while making the playoffs five times. McDermott’s playoff record is 4-5 but he hasn’t been able to get Buffalo past the AFC Championship Game.
Carolina’s Frank Reich has coached for five years with two losing seasons making the playoffs twice. New Orleans’s Dennis Allen has yet to have a winning season or make the post-season in his three plus seasons as an NFL head coach. Allen is 15-38 lifetime with zero winning seasons. Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles has a 34-50 record in six seasons with only one winning season and one post-season appearance.
Matt LaFleur has an impressive 47-19 record in four seasons with the Green Bay Packers with winning seasons in three of them and his team has made the post-season three times with a 2-3 post-season record. 2022 was the first year that LaFleur had a losing record and his Packers did not make the post-season.
Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel had a winning season in four of his five seasons as Titans head coach (48-34) and made the post-season three times. He has not been able to get the Titans past the AFC Championship Game and has a 2-3 post-season record.
That leaves us with 12 coaches to consider. Looking at the coaches that have coached in a Super Bowl but haven’t won the Lombardi Trophy, Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor is a bright and upcoming coach that had two losing seasons initially out of his four in Cincinnati. He’s led the Bengals to the playoffs the past two seasons with a loss in Super Bowl LVI. His coaching record is 28-36-1 but a very good 5-2 in the post-season.
In the past two seasons, Philadelphia’s Nick Sirianni has led the Eagles to the post-season each year with a Super Bowl loss to the Kansas City Chiefs this past season. Sirianni has an impressive 23-11 record with a 2-2 post-season record.
San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan has a 52-46 record in his six seasons as an NFL head coach having three winning seasons out of six and making the post-season in three of the last four seasons. His post-season record of 6-3 is a very good one. Shanahan led the 49ers to the Super Bowl four seasons ago losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Both Sirianni and Shanahan are young head coaches with seemingly bright futures ahead of them.
Washington’s Ron Rivera has a coaching record of 98-90-2 in his 12 seasons as a head coach, but in eight of those 12 seasons Rivera’s team had a losing record and in only five of those 12 seasons did Rivera’s team make the post-season where he has a 3-5 post-season record with one Super Bowl defeat.
In six seasons as an NFL head coach, Jacksonville’s Doug Pederson has a regular season record of 51-45-1 with four winning seasons and four post-season appearances compiling a 5-3 record with a victory in Super Bowl LII over the New England Patriots.
Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay had his first losing season in 2022 after five consecutive winning ones with one Super Bowl victory in two trips. McVay has a regular season coaching record of 60-38 (.612) and a 7-3 post-season record. Based on those numbers, one could list McVay above Tomlin.
In comparing Tomlin to other NFL head coaches with more than 10 years head coaching experience and that have also won a Super Bowl, one could certainly make a claim that Pete Carroll (Seattle), John Harbaugh (Baltimore), Sean Payton (Denver), and Mike McCarthy (Dallas) are all comparable coaches to Mike Tomlin. Each has won a Super Bowl like Tomlin but only Tomlin and Carroll have taken their team to two Super Bowls. It is easy to forget that Carroll had two previous head coaching stints with the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. In Carroll’s 17 years as an NFL head coach, he’s had four losing seasons and taken his teams to the playoffs 12 times.
Breaking it down further, Payton has had four losing seasons with the Saints in his 15 years there. Harbaugh had two losing seasons in his 15 years with the Ravens.
Tomlin’s winning percentage of .636 for 16 seasons (163-93-2) is better than Denver’s Sean Payton .631 for 15 seasons (152-89), Dallas’ Mike McCarthy .614 for 15 seasons (155-97-2), Baltimore’s John Harbaugh .607 for 15 seasons (147-95) and Seattle’s Pete Carroll’s .589 for 17 seasons (161-112-1).
However, with the Steelers not making the post-season in three of the past five seasons and with five one-and-done post-seasons since 2011, Tomlin’s post-season record has fallen behind his long-time peers.
Comparing their post-season records, Carroll has made the post season 70.6% (12/17) of the time, McCarthy 68.8% (11/16), Harbaugh 66.7% (10/15) , Tomlin 62.5% (10/16) and Payton 60% (9/15) of the time.
Comparing their post-season won-loss records, Harbaugh is 11-9 (.550), Payton 9-8 (.529), McCarthy 11-10 (.524), Carroll 11-11 (.500) and Tomlin 8-9 (.471).
The only coaches that clearly have a superior coaching record with more than 10 years coaching in the NFL to Tomlin is New England’s Bill Belichick and Kansas City’s Andy Reid.
After four losing seasons in five years in Cleveland, Belichick has had three losing seasons in the next 23 with the New England Patriots and has reached the postseason overall 19 times out of 27 seasons with nine Super Bowl trips and six Lombardi trophies. Belichick has a winning percentage of .673 (292-142) with a post-season record of 31-13.
Andy Reid has now won two Super Bowls in four visits, three with Kansas City and one with the Philadelphia Eagles with four consecutive NFC Championship games from 2001-2004 and now five consecutive AFC Championship games with Kansas City from 2018-2022. In Reid’s 24 seasons as an NFL head coach, he has a 247-138-1 record (.641) with only three losing seasons and qualifying for the post-season 18 of those 24 seasons. Reid’s post-season record is 22-16.
The next time Steeler fans are upset over a coaching decision or an upset loss, look around the NFL. Six years ago, a strong case could be made that the only NFL head coach with a better record than Tomlin was Belichick. The Steelers standard then was competing for a Super Bowl. Now, it’s trying to make the playoffs.
As his record would indicate, there aren’t many coaches out there clearly better than Tomlin but there’s no doubt the Steelers standard the last five years has fallen and isn’t what it used to be.
John Baranowski is a Sports Historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites.
Mike Tomlin Photo credit: Brook-Ward on Visualhunt
Bill Belichick Photo credit: Paul-W on Visualhunt