Overreactions from Steelers Nation: Do yinz like any offensive coordinator?
Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation” a weekly column where I poke fun at fans, reporters, and so-called experts while trying to figure out if some of these hot takes are real – or just for attention.
As the 2-5 Pittsburgh Steelers begin to practice for their upcoming matchup with the undefeated, 6-0 Philadelphia Eagles, we’re once again faced with another week of kneejerk reactions from anyone capable of publishing an opinion on the Internet.
A week removed from defeating Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home, we’ve returned back from the high of the rollercoaster to its low: now everyone must be fired again, after a 16-10 loss in Miami.
The finger pointing is all over the map. Some are blaming the quarterback. Kenny Pickett, this year’s first round draft pick, clearly isn’t “it”. Most know Mitchell Trubisky isn’t “it” either, but are begging to return to him too. (Please don’t! And I’ve already explained why countless times.)
Hell, you have people contemplating the unthinkable, well, to some fans anyway (not myself) and start Mason Rudolph.
Then there’s those who aim their displeasure at the coaches and even the owners. The funny thing is, none of this “fire the offensive coordinator” talk is hardly new. No, it’s been around for years and even dates back into the Bill Cowher era.
Ron Erhardt had a four-year stint as the OC when Cowher took the helm from Chuck Noll in 1992. His running plays kept the Steelers in the top ten during his time in town, but they were mostly middling with their pass game and points scored.
Chan Gailey was Erhardt’s successor, and wouldn’t make it through his second season, supplanted by Ray Sherman in 1997, who also wouldn’t stick beyond that year. Kevin Gilbride was next in line, and would also be gone after two seasons, making way for Mike Mularkey’s promotion from tight ends coach.
Mularkey would get the Steelers offense back in gear, finishing among the top five in points, yards, and of course, rushing. His third season would see a dip in production, and he too would leave, under different circumstances as he was hired to be the head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
Mularkey’s departure would see another tight ends coach promoted from within, as Ken Whisenhunt became the new OC and would last for the next three years, before interviewing for Cowher’s former spot, and ultimately passed on for Mike Tomlin. (Whisenhunt would be hired as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2007 instead.)
Tomlin’s first offensive coordinator hire followed the same promote-from-within mentality, as Bruce Arians was elevated from the wide receivers spot. And that’s a great place to begin.
At this time, the Steelers were riding high from a Super Bowl XL win with Cowher, to once again returning to the big game three years later under Tomlin. Things are good while they’re good, but following the Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers at the end of the 2010 season, the pitchforks and torches came for Arians as well.
Arians would last one more year as the Steelers OC through the 2011 season, a grand total of five seasons on the clock, as the Steelers became a turnover machine – but on offense this time, ranking 15th, 12th, and 20th in three of Arians’ last four seasons. The run game also dipped to mid-low rankings (23, 19, 11, 14) after the 2007 season and they struggled with scoring points (20, 12, 12, 20) or gaining yards/sustaining drives (22, 7, 14, 12).
Ben Roethlisberger was also sacked 215 times while Arians was his OC in Pittsburgh. To put that into perspective, after Arians was “not renewed” in 2012, Big Ben wouldn’t reach 215 total sacks taken until Week 8 of last season, in an October 31st game against the Cleveland Browns.
Todd Haley, the former head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and an offensive coordinator with Ken Whisenhunt’s Cardinals team that fell to the Steelers in Super Bowl 43, would replace Arians.
Under Haley’s six seasons with the Steelers, the offense would rank no lower than 14th in points (twice in his first two years) and would renew focus on the running game, ranking 2, 3, 7, and 3 in the back four years of his tenure.
Roethlisberger would go from 40+ sack seasons to only being touched 20, 17, and 21 times in the last three under Haley, which brought about some of his best individual seasons, including four of his six career Pro Bowl nods. Roethlisberger would also lead the league in passing yards in 2014 and yards-per-game in 2014 and 2015.
However, Haley became a scapegoat for a lot of the team’s issues in 2017, when the squandered a 13-3 record in a playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Fans were quick to scream “Fire Haley” at every turn, and it was well-known that the coordinator had a rocky relationship with the franchise quarterback, to where we even saw Haley lip “f*** you” to Roethlisberger from the sideline of a nationally televised game.
The Steelers would once again promote from within, hiring Big Ben’s quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner as the new OC. His relationship, a much friendlier one, was also well documented at the time… so much so, that the staff wouldn’t add a quarterbacks coach to replace the vacated position left by Ficthner’s promotion.
Fichtner’s duration as coordinator would be marred with missed opportunities, as Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season in which a 9-6-1 Steelers squad missed the playoffs for the first time in four years. Tensions were high as offensive line coach Mike Munchak left, Antonio Brown demanded a trade, and the Killer B’s were all but disbanded with Martavis Bryant sent off to Oakland prior, and Bell signing with the New York Jets in 2019.
But the worst was yet to come, as Roethlisberger sustained a season-ending elbow injury midway through the second game of the 2019 campaign. The team would roll with second-year pro Mason Rudolph and undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, neither of which took an NFL regular season snap prior, as Big Ben’s suitors.
Somehow, that team managed to finish 8-8, but injuries to James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster not only hurt their production and value to the team, but started to heat Randy’s seat some too. Acknowledging not having a quarterbacks coach, as well as looking at a potential red-shirt year replacement for the current OC, the team hired Matt Canada from the college ranks.
Canada’s hiring came as a call to “hire from outside” and “get fresh new ideas” that were perceived to be lacking with Fichtner, the latter of whom would give way to Canada taking his job after the 2020 season.
In Fichtner’s three seasons at offensive helm, the Steelers dropped to 31st, 29th, and dead last overall running the football. The passing offense, however, ranked first in attempts in two of the three seasons bookending Ben Roethlisberger’s missing 2019 year. (They would rank 26th in attempts and 31st in yards with Rudolph and Hodges.)
Now with Randy out the door, it was time to see what Canada can do to rejuvenate a 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger – sadly that didn’t come to fruition despite the Steelers making a second consecutive playoff appearance. The team would rank 21st in points, but 29th in rushing and only 15th in passing.
This year, through seven games, the pattern is worse, as the team currently ranks 31st in points scored, 30th in passing and 27th in rushing.
The pitchforks and torches are out again to fire the OC, much like they have been with nearly every name listed above. And I have to wonder what the next step might be?
If the Steelers make an uncharacteristic switch at the bye week, firing Canada, they will still largely adhere to his plays and concepts for the remainder of this season. There’s simply not enough time to install an entirely new offense within a two-week period, especially with any first-year quarterback at the helm.
But if they stick with Canada throughout, he could end up fairing even worse than his predecessors – especially the final years of Arians and almost all of Fichtner’s tenure. In that aspect, it’s clear that change is necessary, and it’s not a matter of if, but when Matt Canada’s term will likely come to a quick halt in much the same way as others have before him.
And like Canada and those before him, it’s unlikely the next hire will make fans happy… at least not for a long duration!