As the Pittsburgh Steelers left the field on Sept. 22, they did so as a winless football team.
The team’s 24-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers marked its third consecutive loss to open the 2019 season. Pittsburgh was 0-3 for the first time since 2013, and just the second time since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.
After strangely formed whispers of the Steelers moving on from their Super Bowl coach, many wondered if this dreaded start — albeit without their franchise quarterback — was the beginning of what might be the end for one of the most successful head coaching tenures in NFL history.
Before losing Ben Roethlisberger to an elbow injury during Week 2, the Steelers were already dealing with some major absences. After multiple years of contract disputes between running back Le'Veon Bell and Pittsburgh's front office, the franchise back — who had been one of the best offensive players in all of football for the past five years — left in free agency. The offense now needed a new star in the backfield, and soon after in its receiving corps following the trade of Antonio Brown, who is one of only two players in NFL history to eclipse 10,000 receiving yards in less than 117 games.
No Roethlisberger. No Bell. No Brown.
The once star-studded offense was spiraling until finally catching its stride. The logical reaction to the Steelers' 0-3 starting record should have been expected more than shocking. Pittsburgh has since turned it around (for the most part) and is now sitting in at 7-5 with a playoff spot currently in hand.
This past week the Steelers beat their division rival, the Cleveland Browns, 20-13 after losing two weeks prior when the infamous Myles Garrett-Mason Rudolph incident overshadowed the defeat. In the second meeting between the two teams, the star power continued to dwindle. The Steelers were without JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Maurkice Pouncey, Stephon Tuitt and were starting third-string, training camp quarterback Devlin Hodges.
But they won.
It went against everything most of us believe in as football fans. Coaches, scheme and set-up are important. There is a chess match that goes on between the staff before and during games. But it is the players… the talent that captures wins. No scheme in the world could have made up for the lack of talent the Steelers had.
But their coach did.
Since 2007, Tomlin has never posted a losing record. Never. N-e-v-e-r. Since taking over, his .654 win percentage is second-best behind Bill Belichick. Tomlin has cemented himself as one of best coaches of our time, if not for his Super Bowl and multiple playoff runs, then for years like this; years where he has seemingly nothing to work with and yet here he is, two games above .500 with a chance at the postseason yet again.
But Tomlin would not win Coach of the Year for what he has done in the past, even if the context matters here. It would be for what he’s doing right now.
The trade for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick in exchange for a first-round pick was considered ludicrous by many, especially at 0-2 with the starting QB already out for the year. Tomlin has since turned Fitzpatrick into a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate. It’s not just Fitzpatrick, either. Even before Hodges, Tomlin was able to make Rudolph serviceable. He's found production in young players across the offense, ad he's pieced together a defense without Tuitt and others. Tomlin is turning backups into starters, starers into winners and non-believers into believers.
Tomlin, like any coach, has his blunders when it comes to certain in-game management. But what he does outside the lines to motivate and prepare his guys to play inside the lines has been masterful this season, and honestly throughout this entire tenure as head coach.
In 2018, with Roethlisberger, Brown, Smith-Schuster, Conner and a relatively healthy defense, the Steelers had seven wins through 13 games.
In 2019, without Roethlisberger and Brown, an injured Smith-Schuster and Conner and a beat-up defense, the Steelers have seven wins through 13 games.
No coach in the NFL has done more with less than Tomlin has this year, and it is time we recognize that.