How Mike Tomlin compares to several Hall of Fame coaches

One of the more common complaints I read on the Internet is that Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin “isn’t a good coach”. I spend enough time defending that comment alone that I feel I should be paid to be his personal PR manager. Some of the more egregious comments are calling for Tomlin’s firing, drudging up old “cheerleader” comments that were made by Terry Bradshaw, or claiming that the current coach inherited Bill Cowher‘s team.

As silly as all of those comments are, none quite struck me like those from Scott Kacsmar from the Pro Football Writers of America. It’s not that Mr. Kacsmar said anything that was wrong, and I don’t intend the mention of his name to be a debate, as his opinions are fair and have merit. But they sparked some thought, as I’ve been a defender of Mike Tomlin’s for some time.

In fact, this is more of a response to those who hold a similar belief or worse. (The “Fire Tomlin” crowd.)

Before I begin, here’s what Kacsmar sent out when asked about the current NFL coaching crop, including Tomlin.

At first, I felt the comparison was fair. Each of these long-tenured, Tomlin and Saints coach Sean Payton along with Packers coach Mike McCarthy, doesn’t jump off the page as dominant, brilliant football minds in the same way that Patriots coach Bill Belichick does. I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, even the biggest Patriots haters, who wouldn’t agree that Belichick is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But the rest? I wasn’t sure.

That’s why I started doing some digging through coaches who are in Canton. I also looked at some retired coaches who haven’t had their name called for the honor yet, but that wasn’t as intriguing. I could also speculate on which current coaches might be future Hall of Famers, but at the end of the day, the mention of Mike Tomlin is what made me tick.

So the question is, is Mike Tomlin someone worthy of that distinction?

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First things first: I’m someone who feels that Mike Tomlin gets a lot of unfair criticism, especially for never having a losing season. The remainder is both a simple and a complex answer as to how Tomlin stacks up to current and former coaches. When I dug through the numbers, I saw that his immediate peers, Payton and McCarthy, have also been fairly successful. Each has won over 100 games, seldom have losing seasons. (Payton has four in twelve seasons, McCarthy two over the same.) There’s also the obvious common bond all three of these coaches share in that they’ve all won a Super Bowl.

One Super Bowl to be exact.

Surely that isn’t “great”? Right? I mean, how can you be inducted into a Hall of Fame, reserved only for the best of the best, having only won one Super Bowl?

Well, that was part of my reason for the poll below, which listed four coaches who are currently enshrined in Canton. I asked the general public who had the most Super Bowl victories of the four, as I wanted to see what the public perception of being a “great” coach is. I could’ve added different names, but I didn’t for a specific reason I’ll explain below.

Here were the results from the small sample:

The final tallies had over half of our voters correctly choose the “Big Tuna” Bill Parcells as the Hall of Fame coach with the most victories. Parcells won two Super Bowls, two with the New York Giants (and lost another appearance with the New England Patriots).

Surprisingly, some responders chose Marv Levy, who led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl games. However, Levy was never victorious in any of them.

As for the other two coaches listed, you may be surprised to find that Tony Dungy won a single Lombardi trophy, coaching the Indianapolis Colts to a win in Super Bowl XLI. I have a hunch some people may have cheated to look up the answer and mistakenly saw that Dungy’s Wikipedia entry has him listed as a two-time champion, but his other ring came as a player: Dungy was a member of the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team.

The final name listed, one synonymous with video gamers, is Oakland Raiders coach and legendary broadcaster John Madden. Madden came in second in our voting but also only won a single Super Bowl.

As mentioned above, I’m aware there are other coaches in the Hall of Fame with more Super Bowl rings, or other accomplishments. Many in the Hall plied their craft before there was such a thing as the Super Bowl. That’s why the focus of the exercise was on these specific coaches. Three of the four coaches named in the poll (sans Levy) are the most recent coaches who have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It was also deliberate that two of them, like Tomlin, share a single Super Bowl win on their resume. Combined with the others track records, that not only shows how difficult but also how rare it is to coach a team to a Super Bowl victory. Even Bill Parcells, who won it twice, couldn’t duplicate the same success with another squad.

Determining “greatness” by looking at the past is important, but comparing current coaching legacies to others of their same era is also key. In an era where coaches are constantly fired and job security is at a premium, few coaches tend to have the longevity of someone like Mike Tomlin. Even rarer is having the same success when you consider long-tenured coaches such as Dallas’ Jason Garrett and Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis. Both have been around forever, but truly have nothing to show for their long careers. The pair has combined for ten total playoff appearances, but a 1-9 postseason record… in 22.5 seasons!

Of course, those are both the bottom end of the curve, with Belichick showing up at the top. Following the New England coach (whose regular season win percentage is.679), Mike Tomlin has a 116–60 (.659) regular season record compared with Sean Payton‘s 105–71 (.597) and Mike McCarthy’s 121–70–1 (.633). Tomlin has never had a losing season in eleven years as the Steelers main man, while Payton has had four losing campaigns in the same amount of seasons and McCarthy has had two losing years in twelve.

That’s why when thinking about Tomlin’s place in history, even at this stage of his career, I feel he doesn’t get the proper recognition he deserves. The calls for him to be fired or claiming he only wins with “talent” are borderline preposterous. I could debate those points until the cows come home; Tomlin has won with several backup quarterbacks (Batch, Dixon, Leftwich, Vick, and Jones) as well as injuries to key, Pro Bowl players over the years such as Le’Veon Bell or Maurkice Pouncey, in addition to Ben Roethlisberger missing time, Martavis Bryant being suspended, and having to go through a rebuilding phase.

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However, making excuses wasn’t the crux of this exercise. It was to see how Mike Tomlin ranks among other coaches.

When I put together this poll I was intentionally looking for Super Bowl era coaches who were enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and didn’t have the four Super Bowls of a Chuck Noll or the three victories like Joe Gibbs. While coming anything short of winning a Super Bowl is often looked at as a failure by most critics, the rarity of which it comes is exemplified by the Hall of Fame coaches mentioned.

But if he were to retire today, where would he rank among the game’s greats?

He’s clearly a match for Hall of Famer John Madden. He currently has a greater career win percentage than Marv Levy, Bill Parcells and Tony Dungy. That’s not something to take lightly. Again, Madden, Parcells, and Dungy are the three most recent coaches enshrined in Canton. They aren’t the only leaders to be immortalized there, as names such as Halas, Lambeau, Lombardi, and Brown grace the halls as do Super Bowl winners such as Landry, Noll, Gibbs, and Shula. But outside of those names (and a few select others) just how will history stack up for someone like Mike Tomlin? Will they be revered or overlooked?

If Super Bowls were the only benchmark on a path to Canton, perhaps Madden, Levy, and Dungy would not have made it in. Many of Mike’s detractors feel only one Super Bowl win is a “failure”. Yet, if we take into consideration the accomplishments of those listed when compared with Tomlin’s, there’s a solid argument for not only he, but others like Payton or McCarthy, as well as a few more names Kacsmar pointed out (like Bill Cowher or Dan Reeves) who are also just as, if not more deserving of being immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

Add the volatile coaching climate of the present day NFL and I’d make a case that the Steelers current head coach may need to one day be in consideration to have his bronze bust sitting on the shelf next to these legends.

Yes, there are coaches with more Super Bowl wins or a deeper legacy who have yet to go into the Hall. Again, that’s not my argument here. I’m not trying to say that Tomlin is better than any of them, rather, that their resumes are all too similar to simply dismiss the Steelers coach as someone “who consistently struggles with the same problems year after year”. Based on his success when compared to a number of coaches throughout history, he surely deserves better than the “fire him” and “cheerleader” comments he receives.

More or less his lack of recognition and respect is the heart of this article. With how infrequent coaches are currently inducted into the Hall of Fame, I wouldn’t plant my flag on Tomlin getting in any time following his retirement. There are the handful of names Mr. Kacsmar correctly pointed out who deserve a nod before we can even bring up Tomlin’s name as part of that discussion. But make no doubt about it: Tomlin is a special talent.

An often overlooked one, who when it’s all said and done, may not be as overlooked when we go back and see what he was able to accomplish versus that of his peers.

That may not make him a Hall of Famer, but it also doesn’t make him a “bad” coach.

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