Mike Tomlin, the Biggest Non-Loser
NFL Week 18 - With the Pittsburgh Steelers' 26-16 win over the Cleveland Browns on Monday night, Mike Tomlin became the first coach in NFL history to have a non-losing season in each of his first 15 years.
Wait, a "non-losing season in each of his first 15 seasons?" Why, that sounds like a topic for…
Arbitrary Milestone Theater: Mike Tomlin
Every once in a while, Walkthrough goes on a rant after a player or coach reaches some dubious milestone that sounds like it was dreamed up by the editor of his team's media guide. This segment is dedicated to the memory of John Madden.
First of all, we mean no disrespect whatsoever to Tomlin, who has kept the Steelers in or around the Super Bowl conversation for years despite coaching lots of incendiary personalities and dealing with a stubbornly old-fashioned organizational mindset. This year's Steelers should not be anywhere near the wild-card picture entering Week 18, but Tomlin has found ways to win just about every winnable game on the schedule. He's a tremendous coach who is often taken for granted.
That said, the obvious tell in Tomlin's arbitrary milestone is "non-losing seasons," which conceals lots of venial sins. The Steelers finished 8-8 in 2012, 2013, and 2019, and they could still finish 8-8-1 this year. Tomlin has had two separate streaks of five straight winning seasons, which is impressive, but he needs a win against the Ravens on Sunday to extend his current "streak" to two years.
Tomlin broke the "record" of 14 consecutive non-losing seasons to start a career held by Marty Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer's streak began when he took over the 1984 Browns from Sam Rutigliano and went 4-4 in the second half of the season. He then led the Browns to an 8-8 record in 1985. Twelve straight winning seasons followed. Schottenheimer's run was remarkable, but the "streak" is artificially inflated.
The list of coaches with long consecutive winning-season streaks at the start of their careers is dominated by Mount Rushmore-caliber Hall of Fame coaches, as you might expect:
Shula's accomplishment was the most impressive by far as it spans two franchises and such a long, tumultuous era. He shepherded the Colts through Johnny Unitas' later years, then took over an AFL doormat Dolphins franchise at the dawn of the merger and turned them into an instant success. Most of the other AFL weaklings (Patriots, Broncos, Oilers, Chargers) were so unprofessionally managed that it took them several seasons to gain equal footing with their NFL opponents, a historic reality masked in part by the immediate success of the Madden Raiders and Shula's Dolphins.
Most coaches start their careers taking over rebuilding projects, so the "first X years" caveat of Tomlin's milestone automatically excludes the likes of Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells, and Steelers legend Chuck Noll. Bill Belichick's shaky Browns tenure also keeps him off the list. Tomlin's streak, as it has been defined, was made possible in part by Bill Cowher, and Cowher began his career with six consecutive winning seasons in part because of Noll. While the Steelers get a little hidebound when it comes to avoiding free agency and approaching contract negotiations an inflexible way, they have sound reasons to remain traditionalists.
George Seifert's eight-season streak was significantly the result of Walsh's long-time dominance. Madden's streak was aided by the brilliance of Al Davis and his functionary John Rauch. Even Shula got a boost by taking over a Colts roster full of Weeb Ewbank's aging Hall of Famers. Again, no disrespect to any of these coaches, but the parameters of this milestone are designed to highlight great coaches who happened to take over already-strong franchises (or ancient legends like George Halas and Curly Lambeau, who helmed financially solvent franchises who spent the 1920s clobbering glorified barnstormers).
Tomlin's winning percentage of .642 is more interesting than his milestone. Tomlin's .642 rate currently ranks 20th overall, ahead of Andy Reid, Sean Payton, Cowher, Gibbs, Bud Grant, Walsh, Landry, Parcells, Noll, and a host of legends. Percentage rankings necessarily come with the caveat that they often go down late in an individual's career. Three more .500-ish seasons or a 5-12 collapse would slide Tomlin down the all-time rankings. At the same time, only 16 individuals have coached more than 20 NFL seasons, and Tomlin is all but assured of reaching that milestone if he chooses to.
Is Tomlin a Hall of Famer? He has a case, especially with Cowher now in. I'm agnostic about Hall of Fame coaches now that they are in a separate category from players: if they aren't cluttering up the Finalist ballot, let's err on the side of generosity.
Tomlin could shake off any ambivalence about his Hall of Fame candidacy over the next few years by rebuilding a playoff-caliber Steelers roster without Ben Roethlisberger. He could also quiet any skeptics by somehow getting the Steelers a playoff victory or two this season, because the 2021 Steelers have become a great example of how avoiding a losing season can be a triumph in its own right.
PropWatch: Washington Football Team's New Name
Last week was supposed to be the final installment of PropWatch, but Walkthrough is an unreliable narrator.
The Washington Football Team announced that they would finally unveil their new nickname, logo, and a heap of what's sure to be exceptionally made merchandise. BetUSA appears to be taking action on the new name, and we post the odds as of January 4 here for conversational purposes: Walkthrough never recommends wagering on an event that already occurred and which dozens/hundreds of folks along a decision/production chain already know the outcome of.
WFT (Same) (+300)
Red Hogs (+600)
Washington Washingtons (+1500)
Washington George's (+1500)
Washington FC (+1800)
THE Washington Football Team (+2000)
RedWolves has apparently ruled out by the organization due to copyright issues, as was Washington Marvel's Avengers. Washington Winnie The Poohs, however, may now be in play.
Anyway, it speaks to the malaise of incompetence permanently draped over the organization that the dreadful WFT status quo is the odds-on favorite. The benefits of steering into the skid and embracing that soccer-style moniker faded with its novelty early last season. "Washington FC" has less of a sweatpants-to-work feel to it, but again: the soccer-scented charm has worn off. "THE Washington Football Team" is delightfully obnoxious in an Ohio State sort of way; those odds might have been greater if Dwayne Haskins were still the team's quarterback. "Megan THEE Washington Football Team" has a ring to it but is not being considered.
"Presidents" is awful, as modern presidents tend to be reviled by half the population and are often only politely tolerated by the other half. Then again, Dan Snyder's approval ratings are so low that even the worst president (don't you DARE argue this point in the comments) is a universally beloved role model by comparison.
"Red Hogs" has been Walkthrough's favorite since before the old nickname was dropped, as the "hogs" imagery was embraced by the team's fanbase (and rival fanbases) in our early-1980s childhood. Oddly enough, "Red Smurfs" has never been considered, perhaps because of copyright issues; never f*ck with Peyo's lawyers. Red Hogs also has domain name/search engine optimization appeal, which cannot be overlooked these days: a web search for "Red Hogs" is more likely to lead to the team's website or on-line apparel shop than a search for "Presidents" or "Admirals."
"Defenders" and "Commanders" sound blandly generic, making them best bets to have emerged from the sort of focus group Snyder would hire. "Armada" and "Admirals" sound cool and would be excellent names for a Norfolk-based team. There's an outside chance that the franchise may try to court fans in the Norfolk/Newport News/Hampton Roads area, a well-populated region only tangentially/traditionally attached to Washington DC, with a naval theme. Such a strategy would probably fail, but that never stopped this organization before.
No one appears to be taking odds on Washington bringing back the old nickname and logo. Walkthrough would not put it past Snyder for a moment, and we would almost admire the pure hateful scuzziness of the act. "I'm a billionaire and can do whatever I want, so take THAT, snowflakes. Muahahahahahaha." At least the gloves and mask would be off.
Walkthrough has some preferences but doesn't really care much which name Washington selects. We're just tired of calling the team "Washington." Our editors here and elsewhere don't like WFT (which we also despise) or Football Team, and we hate the passive sound of sentences which refer to a team by its location all the time.
So c'mon, Washington Snyder Cuts. You don't have to make the right decision. Just make any decision.
TebowMania Ten Years After: The World Turned Upside Down
This will probably be the final installment of TebowMania: Ten Years After until March.
We are gathered today to unironically celebrate one of the most memorable moments in NFL history: Tim Tebow's 80-yard game-winning overtime touchdown pass to the late, great Demaryius Thomas 10 years ago Saturday on January 8, 2012.
Demaryius Thomas will always be a @Broncos legend.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) October 30, 2018
No matter what you thought or think of Tebow, that was a breathtaking moment, the kind that no one who watched will ever forget, the kind that keeps us glued to our televisions through Saints-Falcons games every Sunday in the hope of witnessing something unforgettable.
Follow this link for a substantial highlight montage that will catch you up on some forgotten subplots of that Broncos' 29-23 win over the Steelers: safety Ryan Clark's deactivation in Denver due to concerns about his sickle cell anemia traits, Ben Roethlisberger's gimpy ankle (or foot), a host of other Steelers injuries, and some legit early-game Tebow highlights.
As you can tell from these Audibles at the Line excerpts, the Football Outsiders crew was pleasantly surprised, not snarky or dismissive, about Tebow's triumph. Note also that many of the Steelers criticisms sound like the sort of things we have heard and said throughout the 2021 season.
Aaron Schatz: The first Denver scoring drive demonstrates one of the weird things about the Tebow offense: We think of Tebow as throwing a lot of short passes, bubble screens and whatnot, but actually he has thrown a lot of deep passes. It's one of the reasons his DVOA isn't at the bottom of the league despite that horrible completion rate. They've actually got more of a 1970s passing game. They just went down the field on two plays: a 51-yard pass and a 30-yard touchdown pass.
Vince Verhei: Tebow was third behind Matt Schaub and Carson Palmer in yards per completion this year.
Danny Tuccitto: On Denver's touchdown drive to make it 7-6, two things stand out to me about Pittsburgh's pass defense: (1) they only rushed four on third-and-long, which allowed Tebow to do his scramble thing, and (2) turn your heads and make a play on the ball, guys!
Aaron Schatz: Nearing halftime, it looks like the foot is a problem for Roethlisberger. He can't move in the pocket at all, which is a huge part of his game. And oy, that interception. It wasn't really that bad. He just overthrew Heath Miller by a little bit. The problem is that there was a Denver defensive back in zone sitting right behind where Miller was trying to catch the ball, so it went right into his hands. It's not a bad decision if Roethlisberger throws it accurately.
Mike Tanier: Watch him when he goes from shotgun to the line to talk to the center. He has this weird hobble when he is not thinking about where he is stepping. I think every step he makes is planned, and he is bracing for pain. That cannot help the throwing mechanics.
Tom Gower: So now Max Starks has a knee injury, but they're shoving him back in there at left tackle just because of the other options, and they can't trust their protection with a gimpy quarterback so they go empty with five-wide. I think Roethlisberger has really gotten a lot better, compared to a couple years ago, at getting the ball out in the quick passing game, but the doom-saying Steelers fans all recognize this as a recipe for potential disaster.
Danny Tuccitto: Ladies and gentlemen, your "Maurkice Pouncey is out" moment.
Mike Tanier: You didn't like that orbital snap by Doug Legursky?
Danny Tuccitto: I'm pretty sure Legursky's snap reached escape velocity. He was trying to one-up Balloon Boy.
Aaron Schatz: Pittsburgh really telegraphs its wide receiver screens with the motions and formations. Also, it doesn't help when they are backwards and fumbled ... Tebow had those deep throws early and now he's actually zipping in a few nice medium-length throws. But Roethlisberger is also looking better ... he's actually moving around in the pocket, and rolled out to get the touchdown pass to [Jerricho] Cotchery that tied it.
Rivers McCown: They have to have upped the painkiller dose at halftime. Tebow's missed throw on third-and-8 of the Broncos' last possession in regulation was just brutal. The kind of throw that his critics feast on. That said, it's hard to hate on anyone connecting on the deep ball as often as he is in this game.
Ben Muth: Of course Tim Tebow is the first quarterback to play with the new OT rules.
Aaron Schatz: And the new overtime rules prove to be meaningless when Ike Taylor can't tackle Demaryius Thomas.
Danny Tuccitto: Holy sh-t, Ike Taylor needs to consider another profession next year.
Aaron Schatz: The thing is, Taylor had a great year, based on FO game charting stats. He just had his worst game of the year at the worst possible time.
Rivers McCown: I know Ryan Clark wasn't much in our charting stats, but I have to think having him probably would have helped with the whole "Tim Tebow averaging 15.0 yards per attempt" thing.
This is the first time since 2006 that all the home teams advanced out of the wild-card games.
Aaron Schatz: The Broncos really took advantage of how heavily the Steelers were playing the run all day. But Tebow hasn't been able to make those throws the last three weeks. Today he suddenly was making all of those throws.
Robert Weintraub: When John Elway says let 'er rip, you let 'er rip. Taylor needs to be forced to take the bus home.
Tom Gower: That was a ... more interesting game than I expected, and one I enjoyed watching.
J.J. Cooper: I'm a Steelers fan, so I know I have no room to complain about playoff losses. We have had a lot of good memories to go with the occasional gut-punch. That being said, watching my team lose to a Tim Tebow-led team because of Tebow's passing does rank as the worst playoff loss I can remember in my personal fandom. The loss to the Titans in 2002 in overtime where a running into the kicker penalty gave the Titans a second attempt at a kick was tough. Dan Marino throwing all over the Steelers in 1984 wasn't fun either. The AFC Championship Game losses in 1994 and 2001 were brutal. But losing to an air-it-out Tebow attack? That's seeing your Florida vacation ruined by a surprise blizzard.
That being said, credit to Tebow for throwing with conviction, something he hadn't shown in recent weeks. And Thomas completely abused Taylor over and over.
That playoff win was Tebow's resurrection moment: TebowMania was a dying fad before this game but bounced back stronger than ever afterward. The win also appeared to legitimize everything that Tebow did during the 2011 season. It's one thing to lead a few 16-13 victories on 50-plus-yard field goals against horrendous teams and quite another to score 29 points against even a banged-up version of the Steelers in the postseason. Tebow and the Broncos would get shut down the following week by Tom Brady and the Patriots, but that happens against Brady and the Patriots. That playoff performance sustained Tebow's legacy in some circles through, well, last August.
Now that we have praised Tebow (sort of), let's also praise one of my other favorite punchlines throughout the 2010s: John Elway.
Where even the soberest among us were nearly swept up in the hysteria—in mid-December 2011, I wrote an Eminem-inspired Walkthrough dramatic soliloquy about how John Elway should build an option-heavy offense around Tebow—Elway saw an opportunity. He kept his head and engineered one of the most successful quarterback coups in NFL history, first trading Tebow when his stock was at its highest to the Jets, then assuaging the masses by signing Peyton Manning as a replacement. Elway went on to become a frustrating general manager with a terrible draft record and an obsession with tall veteran quarterbacks. But he was masterful in the winter and spring of 2022.
But that's a tale for another Walkthrough.
Two more trips down memory lane before we wrap. First, TebowMania quickly transitioned to Linsanity in January and February of 2012, thanks to the success of Jeremy Lin of the NBA's New York Knicks. Was there something in the water in 2012 that caused silly nationwide sports fads? No, there was something on our smartphones and tablets: the exploding popularity of social media, which larger media outlets were learning to marshal, turned trending topics into giddy crazes. The audience has adjusted to the language and pace of the news cycle over the last decade, but in 2011, a crowd talking about the same thing on Twitter was more likely to draw ever-larger crowds until it spilled over into television and everyday life.
Also, click that earlier Audibles at the Line link to reminisce about the other game that took place on the day the Broncos beat the Steelers: a 28-2 victory by the eventual-champion New York Giants over the Atlanta Falcons. You might recall that the Falcons failed on a pair of fourth-and-short quarterback sneaks in field goal range, which helped the Giants gain control of the game. Our commentary consists of a long discussion on the merits of fourth-down aggressiveness, with me playing Devil's Advocate and suggesting that, despite the analytics, a little conservatism might not be a bad thing.
The more things change over a decade, the more they remain the same.