What does the Tomlin extension mean for Pittsburgh?
By: Dave Stewart
To say the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 NFL season was tumultuous would be an understatement. Their undefeated streak of 11 games was the best start to a season in franchise history. They concluded the season by losing five of their final six matchups, including an embarrassing playoff ouster at the hands of their rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It was not exactly a rollercoaster season because it was not full of ups and downs, only up until they fell off a cliff.
With the season-ending so abruptly, many speculated that head coach, Mike Tomlin, may be on the block or, at the very least, on thin ice heading into the final year of his contract. The Steelers quieted those murmurings by signing Tomlin to a multi-year extension on Tuesday.
Tomlin began his career in Pittsburgh with a bang in 2007, hired as the 16th coach in Steeler history after serving only a single year as defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. In his second year as Pittsburgh’s top man, he coached his team to a Super Bowl victory, and at age 36, became the youngest coach to do so. He was awarded Coach of the Year honors for the 2008 campaign.
Two years later, he was back in the Super Bowl suffering a narrow defeat at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. In total, Tomlin has led his team to seven AFC North division titles and three AFC Championship appearances, winning twice. He has not had a losing season in his 14 years as a head coach, a feat equaled by only the late Marty Schottenheimer.
In 2019, with the pairing of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback, Tomlin navigated the squad to an 8-8 record, prompting calls for his consideration for Coach of the Year. Those calls were renewed during his 11-0 start to the 2020 season, prior to collapsing down the stretch.
With an extension in place, Tomlin has at least four years remaining at the helm. So, what does this extension mean? Well, most significantly, it means Tomlin is going to get a chance with the next quarterback following Ben Roethlisberger. While in place to start the 2021 season, anything beyond remains up in the air for the 39-year-old signal-caller. Even by generous estimations, playing beyond 2022 seems improbable. Extended through 2024, Tomlin’s fortune will not be tied to that of Roethlisberger.
Separating the coach from the future Hall of Fame quarterback will give Tomlin the opportunity to sink or swim with the successor to Roethlisberger. The moves the Steelers have made in free agency indicate that the team is expecting some minor roster retooling to allow them to remain a Super Bowl contender in 2021. Re-signing players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vince Williams, who were expected to leave, show the desire to retain as much roster consistency as possible. Doing so, coupled with filling holes in the upcoming draft, are clear indicators that the team brass expect to see no drop-off in competition.
The pressure is on Tomlin to deliver another Super Bowl or, at least come close, in order to reach a further extension with the club. Basically, the additional three years put Tomlin on a “prove it” deal. While he has never had a losing season, he has gone 8-8 on three separate occasions. The Steelers have lost their last three playoff games and have only appeared in the playoffs twice in the last four years, results that fall well short of the expectations in Pittsburgh.
Assuming that the Steelers are successful in identifying an adequate replacement for Roethlisberger when the time comes, which is quite an assumption in itself, Tomlin must deliver a perennial championship contender. Doing so with allow him to write his own legacy as one the game’s great coaches. Failing that, he may find himself in a different locale by the time the 2025 season kicks off.