Mike Tomlin’s job security has become a topic of conjecture in media circles these days, at least among the ranks of those paid to opine and yammer on television and the internet.
Despite a résumé that has him on a path to Canton and a record that puts him among Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher in the pantheon of great Pittsburgh Steelers coaches, last week’s results have apparently prompted a bit of a national referendum on the merits of Tomlin’s stewardship. Make no mistake: Losses to the hapless Arizona Cardinals and hopeless New England Patriots, at home, in the span of five days, were unsightly blemishes that cast serious doubt on Pittsburgh’s playoff chances. They certainly constituted a low point in Tomlin’s long and distinguished regime.
But anyone who would suggest that these setbacks, while the franchise is still learning to navigate without future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, would be enough to inspire real doubt within the Rooney family hasn’t been paying attention the past 50 years or so. The prospect of Tomlin’s job being on the line, or the idea that he is fighting for his coaching survival, is nothing short of poppycock.
Among those who know the Rooneys well or have worked for that ownership group, it’s not even an idea worth debating. “No way,” said one person in NFL circles who is very close to the Rooneys. “No chance.” (He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not in a position to talk for them.) Someone else who is very familiar with the Rooneys’ thoughts about the state of their franchise said: “I would be shocked, shocked, if they were even thinking about it. Mike Tomlin isn’t getting fired.”
Now, that’s not to say that all is well for a team that is suddenly 7-6 or that there won’t be issues to address before Tomlin gets his next contract extension (likely to come this offseason). The Steelers are not getting nearly enough out of their top players in recent weeks, and their slow starts are a concern at the highest reaches of the organization. The seeming refusal to more fully integrate dynamic running back Jaylen Warren into the offense baffles many in the franchise. Offensive play caller Mike Sullivan’s short-yardage choices have been exasperating, especially in the loss to the Patriots, and Tomlin’s loyalty to former coordinator Matt Canada was another head-scratcher. But, individually and collectively, these aren’t grounds for termination in Pittsburgh.
Questions remain within the organization about the development of quarterback Kenny Pickett, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2022, as the offense has been marred by issues at the coordinator position and Pickett is now recovering from ankle surgery. Tomlin’s hiring decisions have been questioned inside and outside the organization, and he’s quite likely to face some probing from ownership to identify a more productive coordinator for 2024. (The chances of Sullivan remaining the offensive play caller next season, as I hear it, are basically nil coming off the debacle last Thursday night, when the Steelers gained just 264 yards).
The Rooneys are as acutely aware as their fan base of the team’s playoff drought — no postseason wins since the 2016 season — and there will be candid conversations about what needs to improve to get them back into Super Bowl contention. But to consider Tomlin not being a part of that process would be to discount generations of evidence to the contrary, as well as what remains a demonstrably strong relationship between ownership and Pittsburgh’s coach of the past 16 seasons.
Undoubtedly, we will all hear more about unrest among Steelers fans and growing frustration in western Pennsylvania. And perhaps this season has already slipped away. But if any ownership family is able to tune out the noise, trust its institutional judgment and understand the slim odds of finding someone even close to as qualified as Tomlin, it’s this one. And the prospect of Tomlin’s first losing season costing him his job — if, in fact, he does fail to win nine games — is somewhat laughable.
Much attention has been given to the upcoming coaching carousel, with up to a third of the league’s teams possibly ready to replace the coach who started this season. But it’s lining up to be a year of significant change in front offices as well.
I caucused a general manager and a few other executives about how the landscape is shaping up, and most had eyes on the same situations. The Broncos, as previously reported, are seen by rival execs as one winning franchise where a GM change wouldn’t be surprising, as Coach Sean Payton more fully reshapes the organization. Like the Broncos, the Vikings have altered the course of their season after a slow start, but I continue to hear that distance has grown between Coach Kevin O’Connell, who has done a tremendous job without Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson and has earned the respect of ownership, and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.
“If that becomes a tug of war, the head coach will win,” the GM I spoke with predicted.
The rest of the list comes from teams that are struggling.
The lowly Patriots will be in the market for a new GM as well as a new coach when Bill Belichick moves on. The Raiders are operating with an interim GM. The Panthers fired their coach already, and it would be an upset if Carolina’s changes don’t extend to the GM ranks in a few weeks. “It’s going to be both there,” said one personnel executive who knows many of the individuals who would be involved in that decision. The Glazer family anticipates hiring a new coach and general manager for the Buccaneers, with that franchise embracing a rebuild as the Tom Brady era recedes.
Tom Telesco has had a decade-long run as the Chargers’ GM, spanning numerous coaches, but there’s a strong expectation within the industry that the franchise will be looking for a new coach and GM. All three executives I asked about the Bears believed that even if they end up with the first overall selection from the trade they made with the Panthers, new team president Kevin Warren will seriously consider a full change in Chicago’s management and coaching ranks unless a playoff run renders that moot. And at this point, new Commanders owner Josh Harris would almost certainly favor a new arrangement in which the coaching and personnel sides are separate, meaning he would be looking for both a coach and a general manager, according to these execs.
Notes from around the league
Despite all the hoopla recently about Jim Harbaugh being on the verge of another new deal with the University of Michigan, people in the NFL aren’t really buying an end to his NFL thoughts. “He wants back in the NFL, bad,” the GM said. This probably ends up with him back in Ann Arbor, but don’t discount those NFL desires. … It seems doubtful there will be another in-season coach firing, but keep an eye on Brandon Staley with the Chargers — particularly if his defense keeps getting stream-rolled, and with quarterback Justin Herbert ruled out for the season after surgery on his finger. … If Cleveland Coach Kevin Stefanski hadn’t proclaimed Joe Flacco his starting QB for the rest of the season, there would have been a mutiny in that locker room. The Browns are now a legit downfield passing team again and, like the division-rival Bengals, have rallied behind a backup quarterback with an aggressive offense that has kept them in the playoff hunt.