It goes without saying; the 2013 Steelers season was a trying one. The team started 0-4, recorded their worst defensive game ever, and had embarrassing losses to bad teams. Steelers fans were quick to point fingers at everyone imaginable. Most were pointed at Mike Tomlin. That’s fair; he’s the head coach, so of course he’s going to take much of the blame. That was to be expected.
Then came the unexpected. In mid-November, rumors began to swirl that Ben Roethlisberger would ask to be traded after the season. The rumors spread like wild fire, which was unsurprising. What was surprising is how many fans actually thought it’d be a good idea to trade Ben. I don’t know if people forgot what the years between Bradshaw and Ben were like, but they weren’t pretty. Remember the Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Kent Graham, Jim Miller, Mike Tomczak, and Kordell Stewart? Sure, the Steelers made it to a few AFC Championship games and even a Super Bowl in the 25 years between Bradshaw and Ben. But the Steelers struggled mightily in those games without a franchise quarterback. When Roethlisberger became a Steeler, things changed dramatically. He brought consistency and stability to the quarterback position, something the franchised had lacked in previous two decades. In addition to his two Super Bowl rings, he owns a 10-4 playoff record and every passing record in franchise history.
Overreactions are typical among sports fans. In the midst of 16 weeks of a losing record, Steelers fans were upset. Changes were and are still warranted. However, the notion that they should fire a Super Bowl-winning coach and trade his two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback after a mediocre season is a crazy, knee-jerk overreaction. Neither of these moves would make the team better; in fact, they’d make them worse. For fans that don’t like the notion of rebuilding years, if the Steelers get rid of Tomlin and Ben, welcome to 3-5 years of rebuilding.
To make my point, I’m going to bring up the recent history of the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are a mess of a franchise. They’re perennial losers. They’ve never won a Super Bowl, never ever been to one. On Sunday after the Steelers game, they fired head coach Rob Chudzinski after one season as coach. How anyone could be expected to turn the Browns around in just one year is beyond me. Players were furious, one even saying, “This organization is a joke.”
That anonymous player is right. The Browns are a joke. Chudzinski was the third head coach in the last four years for the Browns. The Steelers have famously had just three head coaches since 1969. In that time, they’ve been to eight Super Bowls and won six. In the 36 seasons prior to Chuck Noll’s hiring, the Steelers had 14 different head coaches (though they changed coaches 16 times—Walt Kiesling had three separate stints at head coach). In those 36 seasons, the Steelers were pretty bad, playing in just one playoff game prior to the Noll era. It’s easy to see that stability at head coach has been a factor in the franchise’s success. As of Sunday, Tomlin has coached 112 regular season games. The last time the Browns had a head coach last for that many games was Blanton Collier, who coached from 1963-1970.
Continuing to use the Browns as an example, let’s look at the notion of trading Ben and easily drafting a replacement. Since 1999, the Browns have drafted three quarterbacks in the first round; all were obviously expected to be franchise quarterbacks. Those three men are Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, and Brandon Weeden. I don’t need to tell you how those guys worked out. Good college quarterbacks do not always turn into to good NFL quarterbacks. Draft busts occur every single year. Remember in the late 1990s, when some thought Ryan Leaf was better than Peyton Manning? No draft pick is ever a sure thing, especially when it comes to quarterbacks.
Since Ben was drafted in 2004, he’s been their starter (minus the first two games of the 2004 season). When he’s been injured or has sat before the playoffs, just four other guys have started games in his place—Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, and Byron Leftwich.
In the same span of time, the Browns have had 16 different men start at quarterback—Jeff Garcia, Kelly Holcomb, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thad Lewis, Brian Hoyer, and Jason Campbell. If you’re saying “who?” to some of these guys, you’re certainly not alone.
Conclusions: The Steelers make more good decisions than bad ones. Stability at head coach is a good thing. Franchise quarterbacks are not easy to come by. Knee-jerk reactions usually don’t work out. This team is still in better position moving forward than the vast majority of NFL franchises. Missing the playoffs two years in a row may suck for the Steelers and their fans, but it could always be worse—just ask fans in Cleveland–or in Jacksonville, New York, Houston, D.C., and Buffalo.