Jason Mackey: With Mike Tomlin's situation clear, the focus now shifts to Steelers' players

Jason Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers' unusually busy offseason has made for great radio fodder and newspaper copy.

Overhauling the quarterbacks room by adding Russell Wilson and Justin Fields and sending a cantankerous Kenny Pickett across the state. Fixing a known shortcoming in the middle of the defense by signing ex-Raven Patrick Queen, reworking the secondary, plenty of cuts and a much-ballyhooed draft.

We learned the importance of those things Tuesday when the Steelers announced a three-year contract extension for coach Mike Tomlin, a deal that — while expected — formally shifts the idea of winning games back to the players as opposed to some fairytale where the 52-year-old and the organization magically parted ways.

If you're still upset about Tomlin — thinking the longest-tenured coach in the NFL is the Steelers' biggest problem — at this point you're spitting in the wind. We know how the Rooney family feels and can see their interest level (zero) in making a change after consecutive three-year extensions. Probably best to adjust expectations accordingly.

What this says to me, again, is that it's on the players — and to a degree, Omar Khan and Andy Weidl — to get this right.

The contract extension certainly doesn't absolve Tomlin of blame. Tomlin wouldn't absolve Tomlin of blame. But re-upping the soon-to-be-18th-year-coach through 2027 sends a pretty obvious message that Wilson or Fields must work out, that a young offensive line will have to meet some lofty expectations, it's imperative for someone to take attention away from George Pickens, the secondary pieces must click into place around Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joey Porter Jr., on and on.

"Everything he represents, it just shows you the Hall of Fame coaches we've had and the tradition the Rooneys have established," Wilson told me last week.

What Tomlin and what he is not has also been well-known.

He is, as made abundantly clear in my Sunday column on him, still very much beloved by his players. What Tomlin has done to create a culture is impressive. It's certainly not a fluke.

At the same time, you need more than culture to win postseason games, and Tomlin hasn't done that since 2016, a gap that remains far too long for the Steelers.

Tomlin has also been loyal, perhaps to a fault, boss while simultaneously making some questionable hires, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. Did he get it right this time with Arthur Smith? Hard to tell. But I like it so far.

Given the Steelers' available personnel and how they've worked over the past two drafts to rebuild things up front, it's a more cohesive plan than anyone ever saw under Matt Canada.

Tomlin is also a scouting and football development junkie. He can't get enough. If you put Tomlin into a baseball translator, he's probably a director of pro scouting or development rather than an in-game tactician, which is where I think the philosophical line in the sand exists with Tomlin defenders and detractors.

He can't manage the clock!

The classic game where the Steelers played down to their competition.


Wait a second, he did what, why?

Tomlin certainly hasn't been perfect, but the views on him create a fascinating dichotomy.

Outside of Pittsburgh, it's easy to see his 173-100-2 regular in the regular season, the .633 winning percentage (best start to a tenure in team history) and 173 regular-season wins (second-most among active NFL coaches).

Stop me if you've heard this before, but he's never had a losing season.

At the same time, locally, it's not like this news will be met with universal bliss. Plenty will point out Tomlin's recent track record: the lack of playoff victories, the embarrassing failures in the postseason and the misfires on assistant coaches and coordinators.

It's fair to get mad, but I just don't think it matters what anybody else thinks.

The Rooneys don't fire coaches. They do, however, change some things around them, which I believe they've done a decent job of this offseason.

They also, in the case of a wide receiver to play opposite of Pickens, should not be finished.

But the Steelers have more than enough talent to find success. They've changed a rather important piece in terms of the offensive coordinator. Some health should help as well.

It's why I'm OK focusing on what Tomlin does well — uniting players, always giving his team a chance — instead of thinking that the grass is greener somewhere else.

The only way for the Steelers to truly get to where they want to go, back to winning the AFC North and also playoff games, is for the changes they already made this offseason to take root.

In other words, for the players to jell and perform to their capabilities and for Tomlin to create a culture where optimal performance drives success.

Isn't that what he has done well?

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