After 14 seasons without a losing campaign, this could be the most challenging year yet for Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
Mike Tomlin has never endured more losses than wins in a season. Unless he does his best coaching job this year, he might learn the feeling of finishing below .500.
Tomlin, 49, has been top dog with the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007. Since then, he’s won seven AFC North titles, made nine playoff appearances, reached two Super Bowls and won one. All told, his 145 wins in said span is second-most in football behind only Bill Belichick.
Entering 2021, Tomlin enters training camp with his biggest challenge to date: an aging star quarterback and a crumbling roster around him.
Ben Roethlisberger is the only signal-caller Tomlin has ever known in Pittsburgh, but his twilight is upon us. Last year, the Steelers started 11-0 before fading to 12-4 down the stretch. Much of the descent was based on a team which couldn’t run the ball and a quarterback who, when tasked to carry the offense, simply could not.
After Week 6, the Steelers didn’t have a 100-yard rushing game from any of their backs. In Weeks 13 and 14 against the Washington Football Team and Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh’s leading runners combined for 33 yards.
Without ground support, Roethlisberger was hopeless. Despite having a trio of quality receivers, the 38-year-old didn’t average 8.0 yards per attempt in any 2020 game. Roethlisberger is the only quarterback to start at least nine games last year and not hit the benchmark.
Although some misguidedly blame former offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s quick-game scheme, the design was necessary. Roethlisberger could only complete the occasional deep ball with his rebuilt right elbow, and only outside the numbers. Long throws inside the numerals were off limits, as the ball hanged up for too long.
The last time we saw Roethlisberger, he threw four interceptions (on 68 attempts) in a Wild Card loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Now Roethlisberger returns behind a much worse line. This offseason, Pittsburgh watched as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard Matt Feiler left in free agency. Longtime center Maurkice Pouncey retired, and on Friday, the Steelers released six-time Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro before signing the talented but oft-injured Trai Turner on a one-year deal to replace him.
All told, Pittsburgh is relying on a patchwork offensive line. Outside of Turner, the projected starting group combines for 42 career starts, with none having more than Chukwuma Okorafor’s 19.
It’s a dangerous gamble with an immobile Roethlisberger and a desperate need for the quintet to open up rushing lanes for rookie running back Najee Harris.
All this circles back to Tomlin.
While the defense should remain one of the league’s better units –even after losing edge rusher Bud Dupree and cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton — the offense is a mess. In today’s NFL, being without a passing game is the easiest way to lose and do so often.
For Tomlin, arguably the biggest challenge will be navigating the obvious truth. With Roethlisberger under center, especially behind this line, Pittsburgh needs to win ugly without telling its quarterback he’s no longer a top-tier talent.
Furthermore, the AFC North is one of the league’s best divisions. While the Cincinnati Bengals remain the weakest team on paper, they’re clearly improved, while the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens are contending clubs who each made major upgrades this offseason.
For decades, Pittsburgh has been the NFL’s model of consistency. Since 1972, it has only twice endured three-year stretches without a postseason berth. Dating back to 1969, the Steelers have only had three coaches in Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin. The first two are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a place Tomlin could certainly wind up.
If Tomlin guides the Steelers deep into the playoffs this year, he should be up for NFL Coach of the Year — an award he’s somehow never won. Even with a Super Bowl ring, doing so would constitute his best coaching job.
If the Steelers are to succeed this season, they’ll need it.
Top 10 quarterbacks of the 1990s
1. Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers (30,894 yards, 235 TDs, 5x Pro Bowler, 3x MVP, SB champ)
2. Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers (200 TDs, 3x First-Team All-Pro, 2x MVP, SB champ)
3. John Elway, Denver Broncos (30,280 passing yards, 180 TDs, 6x Pro Bowler, 2x SB champ)
4. Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys (29,561 yards, 149 TDs, 6x Pro Bowler, 3x SB champ)
5. Jim Kelly, Buffalo Bills (22,556 yards, 156 TDs, 1x First-Team All-Pro, 4x SB appearances)
6. Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins (33,508 yards, 200 TDs, 4x Pro Bowler, one AFCCG appearance)
7. Warren Moon, Oilers/Vikings/Seahawks (30,817 yards, 189 TDs, 7x Pro Bowler)
8. Drew Bledsoe, New England Patriots (25,966 yards, SB appearance, 3x Pro Bowler)
9. Mark Brunell, Jacksonville Jaguars (15,572 yards, 86 TDs, two AFCCG appearances)
10. Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams (SB champ, MVP, SB MVP, 40 TD-season)
“We knew the issue with the cap and then obviously the cap went down this year, coming off the bizarre year with the pandemic, the cap actually shrunk. So we knew there were going to be some big decisions we would have to make coming up. The way everything worked out, we feel pretty good,” Smith said. “We feel like it was a win-win. With the salary cap, and Julio going to Tennessee and us right now being able to solve our short-term issue with the cap.”
– Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith on the Julio Jones trade
Smith went in-depth on a variety of topics on The Cris Collinsworth Podcast, and his insight into the Jones deal was both basic and correct. Atlanta was left in brutal financial position by former general manager Thomas Dimitroff. The new regime had to dig out, and while trading a future Hall of Famer isn’t easy, it was the Falcons’ only option.
Uniform nerd alert…
The only teams which have the nicknames on their helmets? The Las Vegas Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets.
Info learned this week
1. Carl Nassib makes landmark announcement, sees overwhelming support
Nobody should have their truth. Congrats to Carl Nassib for living his last week.
Nassib, 28, became the first NFL player to acknowledge being homosexual while still active. In an encouraging sign of the changing times, the former Penn State star was lauded and supported across the country, including by scores of current players.
As has been said many places, it’ll be great when such an announcement generates no headlines. While we aren’t there yet, it’s important to take stock of where we stand. Even a decade or 15 years ago, one imagines the reaction would have been much different. Certainly Nassib would have received some kindness, but many would’ve come out with vitriol and consternation.
In a world that now includes gay marriage and many shows that include such relationships, a younger generation is growing up more aware, inclusive and understanding. It’s a wonderful change to see in our society.
Good for Nassib on speaking his truth. It’ll empower legions more to do the same.
2. Baker Mayfield extension coming? The Browns have a decision to make
Three quarterbacks are waiting for their extensions. Baker Mayfield isn’t looking to wait much longer.
On Wednesday, Mayfield’s agent, Jack Mills, told Cleveland reporter Tony Grossi he’s looking for a deal before summer ends. It’s odd to hear an agent be so up front when negotiating a huge deal, which brings forth a few scenarios.
Scenario #1: Mayfield wants security and in exchange, is willing to take a bit less now than he might with a huge year in 2021. Although he was good last season, the former No. 1 overall pick has never thrown for 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns, won a division or reached a Pro Bowl.
In short, he’s going to get paid, but he deserves something similar to Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins. Adjusting for the cap increases to come, that’s roughly $32-33 million annually. More than $35 million per year would put him with Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson. Can’t happen.
Scenario #2: Mills is frustrated with the lack of progress towards an extension. Again, this is only a speculative scenario, but let’s say the Browns want to see Mayfield play another season before committing long term. Mills understands that should Cleveland and/or Mayfield falter this year, a ton of money goes poof. While Mayfield would gain ample leverage with a great 2021, it’s a massive risk.
Ultimately, smart money says Mayfield signs an extension in Cleveland whether this offseason or next. It’s a question more of when than if, and the dollar amount largely hinges on whether he plays out the upcoming year on his rookie deal.
3. Chiefs dealing with Frank Clark arrests, but what changes?
The Kansas City Chiefs are enjoying an excellent offseason. However, a problem has arose.
Star defensive end Frank Clark was arrested last weekend over suspicion of having a concealed firearm — in this case a submachine gun — in his possession. The charge is a felony. Clark was detained in Los Angeles (CA) County before being released on bond. Reportedly, this is the second time Clark has been arrested this offseason. The other instance coming in March allegedly over loaded guns in his vehicle.
FanSided has been told the Chiefs have no official comment, but are aware of the situation.
Ultimately, Clark’s actions could be cause for suspension. Some have speculated the team could review the veteran’s contract in an effort to void guarantees, but a league source indicates Kansas City won’t be doing so. Additionally, don’t look for the Chiefs to add a veteran pass rusher in response to the news, as the AFC champs have serviceable depth in Taco Charlton and second-year man Mike Danna.
Still, this is a rough start to what amounts to a contract year for Clark. Although he has two years remaining on his deal, the Chiefs can save $13.4 million by releasing him next offseason, and $21.35 million in ’23.
4. NFL puts Scouting Combine up for auction starting in 2023
More money for the NFL. Bad news for those within the league.
While it comes as no surprise, the league is allowing every NFL city to bid for the annual Scouting Combine beginning in 2023. With the event going primetime in 2020 before being cancelled due to COVID-19 this spring, it was a matter of time that it left Indianapolis. By doing so, the combine because a money-maker, instead of a showcase for the rookies.
Talking to a bevy of league sources over the years, this was a much-maligned decision. Both NFL personnel and agents believe Indy is the perfect spot for the event, because the medical checkups and on-field drills are in close proximity. Additionally, much of the groundwork for free agency happens in hotel rooms, restaurants and bars. The whole league is essentially on a few blocks of Indianapolis, making business easy to complete. Not so in more spread out areas.
Ultimately, this was always going to happen as the Scouting Combine went from a sleepy week (from a media standpoint) to a showstopper. The only question was when, and we now have the answer.
5. Tom Brady was bitter about mystery team
In short, who cares? This is what happens when it’s June and a star player talks about anything.
Now we’ve spent a good week trying to figure out who Brady was talking about when he went on HBO’s The Shop: Uninterrupted and said a team which pursued him in free agency ultimately decided to drop out, keeping, as Brady put it, that motherfu**er.
Ultimately, it could have been Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo or even someone else. Unless Brady wants it out there, it’s all conjecture. Fun conjecture, but nothing more. And that’s all it need to be for it to make headlines in June.
With due respect to the Indianapolis Colts, why is seemingly everyone so high on them?
Last year, Indy went 11-5 with Philip Rivers playing good football. The defense was stout, the coaching excellent and the division weak. The Colts had a chance to upset the Bills in the Wild Card round but fell a bit short. Disappointing, but a solid year.
Then, this offseason, Indianapolis watched Rivers and left tackle Anthony Castonzo retire, offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni leave for the Philadelphia Eagles (more on that below) and both defensive tackle Denico Autry and edge rusher Justin Houston depart in free agency.
Replacing Rivers? Carson Wentz, who was arguably the worst starting quarterback in football last year. Despite making only 12 starts, Wentz led the league with 15 interceptions, took an NFL-worst 50 sacks, completed 57.4 percent of his attempts and average 6.0 YPA. Brutal stuff.
While Wentz gets to reunite with former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, with whom he found major success, is that enough to return Wentz to passable form? While the Colts have better weapons than Philadelphia, the combo of Michael Pittman Jr. and T.Y. Hilton isn’t making people forget Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison.
Additionally, Houston was replaced by first-round pick Kwity Paye. Like any draft pick, Paye might end up being great, or be a non-factor as a rookie. At left tackle, Eric Fisher comes in with a one-year deal but will likely miss the early portion of the season, recovering from a torn Achilles.
Yes, things could go well for the Colts. Wentz could reemerge, Paye might be a stud from the start, Fisher could return healthy and shore up the left side and the loss of Sirianni could be overblown with Reich in the building.
Or, Indianapolis could realize there’s a reason Philadelphia ate $34 million in dead money to rid itself of Wentz, and so on. The Colts are certainly one of the biggest wild cards in 2021.
Inside the league
What do the New Orleans Saints look like this year, and going forward?
After years of steady expectations as a contender with Drew Brees under center, New Orleans now turns to Jameis Winston. Winston, 26, is coming off a year of being an understudy, following a 2019 campaign which saw more than 5,000 passing yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but also 30 interceptions.
The looming question is what has Winston learned under the tutelage of Brees and head coach Sean Payton?
There is more pressure on Winston than might be initially thought. Asking one high-ranking league source who they believed had the worst draft class, they chose the Saints. This coming after a free agency in which New Orleans lost corner Janoris Jenkins, edge rusher Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and tight end Jared Cook without any notable additions.
In short, the defense is worse, and the weapons are receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara with little else. Winston needs to be aggressive yet calculated, avoiding the mistakes that got him jettisoned from Tampa Bay.
Winston, only a one-year contract, has massive upside as well. If he has a bounce-back campaign, he’ll set himself up for the franchise tag — approximately $25 million — or a lucrative, long-term deal either in New Orleans or elsewhere.
While the Saints have major questions surrounding them, few teams are more intriguing with a wider range of realistic outcomes.
We tend to minimize NFL history pre-Super Bowl era, and it’s a shame. This week, a couple all-time great to highlight: Sammy Baugh and Don Hutson.
Before Baugh, the quarterback position was largely one of handing off to the halfback or running. Once the TCU product came along, combined with the T-Formation rising in popularity, things changed. Baugh played 16 seasons with Washington and led the league in passing yardage four times, completion rate eight times, touchdown tosses on two occasions and passer rating three times.
All told, Baugh threw for 21,886 yards and 187 touchdowns, outlandish figures for anybody in the era save for Chicago Bears’ star Sid Luckman. Baugh also completed 56.5 percent of his attempts — including an absurd 70.3 percent in 1945 — in an age when hitting of half your heaves was an accomplishment.
As for Hutson, nobody in NFL lore has ever dominated a position like he did. An 11-year star with the Green Bay Packers, the Arkansas native was an eight-time First-Team All-Pro and twice named MVP before going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1963.
Hudson led the NFL in receiving yards seven times, including 1942 when he amassed 1,211 yards on 74 receptions in 11 games. Ray McLean of the Chicago Bears came in second that season with 571 yards. Nobody else had 425. As for catches, no other player totaled 28.
Hudson also paced the circuit in receptions on eight occasions, and led the league in touchdown catches every year but two. He finished with 7,991 yards and 99 touchdowns, both records by wide margins at the time.
It’s hard to remember players we don’t have much film on, but they existed, and they were great.
There are seven first-time NFL head coaches this season. It’ll be fascinating to see which succeed.
Of the teams with new men leading the charge — the Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons, Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit Lions, Eagles, Jets and Jaguars — Los Angeles appears the best bet.
The Chargers have the best Super Bowl odds of the group at 33/1. In fact, nobody else is better than 60/1, with the others all figuring to finish last in their respective divisions, save for Jacksonville, which may beat out Houston.
What’s more intriguing, though, is the lack of experience for each man. Don’t mistake that for a criticism, but more observation. The Jaguars’ Urban Meyer is a famed college coach with titles at Ohio State and Florida, but he’s never coached at the NFL level. The other six — David Culley, Arthur Smith, Brandon Staley, Dan Campbell, Robert Saleh and Sirianni — have all been pro football coaches for years, albeit Staley only having four years to his name.
Still, when is the last time none of the previous winter’s coaching vacancies were filled by a retread? The answer is 2008, when John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens), Jim Zorn (Washington), Tony Sparano (Miami) and Mike Smith (Atlanta) were brought aboard. Harbaugh remains a fixture in Charm City, Smith had a solid tenure and the other two were out quickly.
Seven teams, seven new faces. Expectations range wildly for each in their first season.
The bigger question is which lasts the longest, and which is overmatched from the start?