Why Ben Roethlisberger should retire: Steelers should’ve hired Arians, not Tomlin

        Posted: January 2017; updated: April 2017

It's time for a change.

The Pittsburgh Steelers need to part ways with Mike Tomlin, wish him well, and quickly find a different coach to salvage what's left of the Ben Roethlisberger Era before it's gone.

They don't need a superstar coach. The model for this type of thing was established or cemented by the Denver Broncos a couple years ago. The difference between Gary Kubiak and John Fox proved enormous.

Tomlin's tenure is one of diminishing returns, and the returns have diminished enough. The performance of his team, on and off the field, is embarrassing. Big wins are negated by jaw-dropping losses. Incredibly, much of the small success he has achieved is still attributable to players from the Bill Cowher regime.

Tomlin is often embarrassed by his players. He has regularly picked the wrong guys. Every coach drafts busts or signs free agents who don't work out. The best ones correct those problems and move forward.

The most startling example of Tomlin's shortcomings is LeGarrette Blount. Blount just won his second Super Bowl ring since being cut by Tomlin. The Pittsburgh media, as it always does, took Tomlin's side vs. the player. Never was it asked why this guy could contribute for Bill Belichick but not Tomlin. Never was it asked, given Le'Veon Bell's enormous capacity for suspension and injury, whether the Steelers might've cut the wrong guy.

It would be one thing if cutting Blount re-asserted Tomlin's authority and galvanized the roster. It did anything but. The suspensions piled up, and so did the dumb penalties, guys regularly getting flagged for end-zone celebrations and wild tackling, recording locker-room speeches, assistant coaches who can't make it through a playoff run without getting arrested at a restaurant.

Maybe players and coaches respect Tomlin; more likely, they just don't really care.

Players under Tomlin have racked up an absurd amount of suspensions. That includes his quarterback, onetime star wideout, two elite running backs and the team's current best wide receiver (who is not Antonio Brown).

In fairness to Tomlin, he followed Bill Cowher, perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history. They've shared the same skilled general manager, Kevin Colbert, who is not perfect but outperforms many peers. With Cowher, Colbert signed Jeff Hartings, James Farrior and Kimo von Oelhoffen, character guys absolutely critical to Super Bowl success. They traded up to get Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes, without which you could forget about XL and XLIII. Tomlin's biggest free agent signing is Mike Mitchell, a mouthy, terrible safety. After that, there's Ladarius Green, who could barely get on the field.

Embarrassing as the Blount situation is, consider Tomlin's handling of his "Young Money" wide receiver corps. Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were all exceptional draft picks. When their contracts started to come due, the Steelers decided Wallace the most valuable. He declined an extension. Then they offered it to Brown, who took it, only to start complaining about it in a couple of years. Meanwhile, Sanders, the best of the 3, was ignored, recovered from his nagging foot injury, went elsewhere, and won a Super Bowl. Tomlin and/or the front office prioritized these players exactly in reverse of their value to the team.

Tomlin, a fine coaching prospect in 2007, never should've been hired by this franchise. How did we get to this point? Bill Cowher during the 2006 season sent signals that he was done, and, as is often the case, the team didn't really have a great succession plan.

Apparently, the best candidate Cowher could recommend to the Rooneys was Chan Gailey.

Cowher evidently wasn't that high on his offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or offensive line coach Russ Grimm as head coaching material. The Rooneys decided that those two were the top in-house candidates and eventually told Whisenhunt that Grimm was preferred. Then it became Grimm vs. Gailey vs. Tomlin vs. Ron Rivera.

Who wasn't in the mix? Bruce Arians, the Steelers' wide receivers coach who ultimately proved the best coach of all of the above, apparently unbeknownst to everyone.

When you have a franchise quarterback, you have to find a coach who's compatible with that quarterback. It's clear that Ben Roethlisberger, whose immaturity could fill its own page, was never consulted. The notion of Gailey made a small amount of sense. The notion of pairing Grimm, Tomlin or Rivera with Roethlisberger was absurd.

Roethlisberger thrived under Cowher only because Cowher was simply an incredible coach with enormous stature. But Cowher had all kinds of trouble assessing the QB position. He nearly got fired for hitching his star to Kordell Stewart. He probably put too many clamps on Roethlisberger (does it make sense that Neil O'Donnell was allowed to gun it in 1995 while Roethlisberger was forced to play a "run the football" operation?), but the results from Ben's first 2 seasons are undeniable. Cowher was so good that like Bill Belichick, despite being a defensive coach, he could've won multiple titles with a QB such as Roethlisberger.

Burnout was often suggested as a reason for Cowher's retirement. Surely he knew that his quarterback was immature, high maintenance, not a locker-room or film-room stalwart, capable of saying things in papers that coaches hate to see. After a 2006 season marred by a needless motorcycle accident and then incredible complacency, Cowher likely decided he didn't need this anymore.

Elite quarterbacks are an incredibly rare species. When you have one, you have to make the most of him. If you've got a Bill Cowher or Bill Belichick or Bill Parcells, great, your QBs won't underachieve. If you don't, it means you hire a coach who's compatible with your quarterback. In general, it's a bad idea for players to pick their coaches. But an elite QB, however immature, needs to be in on the process. Elite quarterbacks (think Elway mid-'90s and Favre late '90s) have quietly pushed out incompatible, defensive-minded coaches, to the benefit of their teams. There is no way anyone would say in 2007 that Mike Tomlin is just the coach who Ben Roethlisberger needs.

But the Steelers got a major break. Hiring Tomlin, nudging out Whisenhunt and Grimm and keeping the remaining coaches meant that Arians became Ben's guru. And it seems clear from years of articles that Ben connected far better with Arians than any other coach.

If Arians hadn't serendipitously been named offensive coordinator, the 2008 and 2010 Super Bowl appearances likely never happen.

Sadly, after 2011, rather than firing Tomlin, the Rooneys decided to fire Arians, the best coach on their team. Eventually Dick LeBeau was also made a scapegoat. Todd Haley, a fine coach who has zero connection with Roethlisberger, was brought in as the antidote. And the Steelers have done nothing since.

No question, Ben Roethlisberger has to wear the jacket for his own behavior. It is not Mike Tomlin's fault nor Bill Cowher's fault that Ben Roethlisberger has proved an enormously immature NFL quarterback. But Ben Roethlisberger is an enormous competitor, an absolute NFL all-time great. His opinion really does matter. The Steelers had a choice — either make the most of Ben Roethlisberger, or move on to another David Woodley and Neil O'Donnell and Tommy Maddox era. They chose something in between.

It took 13 years, but Roethlisberger after the 2016 AFC Championship Game finally said the smartest thing of his career — that the Steelers are outcoached, and he might not come back.

The beat writers scoffed. Should they? Now in fact probably is the best time for Roethlisberger to go. Bradshaw had some great football left in him after 1980, but the rest of the team was in rapid fade, and Terry couldn't win another playoff game. He had to bicker with Chuck for a couple more seasons, including the dreadful 1983 campaign with the elbow or shoulder problem that ended his career. See, Roethlisberger, whatever his faults, actually knows the team better than the beat writers do. If he thinks this thing isn't working, then it's not. He surely doesn't need the money. Does Ben want to go out on a playoff season ... or wait for another 2013?

Tomlin's era began with a strange disagreement between front office (yes) and coaches (no) as to whether Max Starks was any good. This was actually noted in the Pittsburgh media. Eventually allowed on the field after someone else's injury, Starks again played a key role in another Super Bowl run. His injury late in 2010 was a big reason the team was outmanned in Super Bowl XLV.

Tomlin's had a heap of trouble securing pass rushers. LaMarr Woodley, perhaps Tomlin's greatest draft pick, suddenly became uninterested in football after about 5 years. The team drafted and developed Jason Worilds only to abruptly get the same result. James Harrison was let go, only to be welcomed back out of dire necessity.

Terry Bradshaw, who did far more for the city of Pittsburgh than Tomlin ever did or will, called out Tomlin late in the 2016 season. The media, Pittsburgh and even national, tripped over itself to condemn Bradshaw and, for some strange reason, protect Tomlin. As Tomlin observed, Bradshaw's comments were "disrespectful." They also were true. What does Tomlin do? Is he a defensive mastermind? Of course not. This is the same Dick LeBeau operation for a dozen years, now helmed by Keith Butler, producing in this decade mediocre results year after year as the former stars got old and/or retired. Does Tomlin contribute on offense or with tactical moves such as onside kicks, hurry-up offense, etc.? Are you serious?

It's not just Bradshaw who wonders what's going on. Roethlisberger, who encountered far more off-field trouble during the Tomlin era than under the Cowher reign, strongly hinted he wants change and calls the team "outcoached" in its biggest game in 6 years. We don't know Roethlisberger and can't know exactly what he means. It likely has something to do with Tomlin's loose ship. It likely has something to do with playing for a Hall of Fame coach and winning — as did Troy Aikman and Brett Favre — and then having to play for a lesser operation with all sorts of distractions while your greatest years are squandered.

The best thing about Antonio Brown's Facebook Live? It revealed Tomlin not as a guy who puts a formidable chip on a team's shoulder but as a petty whiner, complaining about the Patriots getting an irrelevant extra day of rest. He likes to complain publicly that his headsets don't work in New England. What about his own players who can't get on the field? What about his own players who can't beat 4-12 teams?

The Steelers blew it when Cowher retired. They clearly weren't prepared for it. Dan Rooney, in his greatest miss as an owner, had the right guy at WR coach but apparently never considered him. He also should've been eyeing John Harbaugh, an outstanding coach, but his name never came up. They apparently, after interviewing Tomlin, were still going to hire Russ Grimm, who never got an offer anywhere else.

There is absolutely no reason for Mike Tomlin to remain with the Steelers. Everyone likes the stat about longevity of Pittsburgh football coaches. Beat writers cite coaching longevity as the reason the Steelers aren't like Cleveland. That's effect mistaken as cause. What was Chuck Noll's record against all those Cleveland coaches from 1980 to 1991? The Steelers had one coach in the '80s not because of anything in the '80s but everything in the '70s. Chuck Noll and the Steelers would've both been well-served if he had stepped down in 1980, going out on top. He might not have suffered burnout, but his final 12 years were abysmal, one home playoff game and all of two playoff wins by teams that had utterly no chance to reach a Super Bowl. The Steelers were merely incredibly lucky Cowher was available when Noll was finally nudged out. They were also lucky to get a new stadium (i.e., dollars for free agency and contract extensions) before Cowher left. Cowher made one decision worse than any made by Tomlin — he hitched his star to Kordell Stewart at quarterback. This nearly got him fired. Instead the team found another scapegoat, Tom Donahoe. The state of the current organization belongs to Tomlin (although his QB and best OLB remain supplied by Cowher).

Tomlin is undeniably a nice guy. That's irrelevant. He has been given far more tenure, salary and stature than he has merited. According to the Post-Gazette, in 2016, Tomlin is "reported" to make $7-$8 million a year. That means he has grossed over $50 million, almost certainly more money than any Steelers player except Ben Roethlisberger. See what that means ... ?

Here is all the Rooneys need to consider: If firing Tomlin is wrong, he will be readily scooped up by some other franchise and will be OK. If the demand for him is weak ... then what makes him the guy to lead the Steelers?

So who'd replace him? The Rooneys definitely aren't inclined to pay for celebrated coaches. That's fine — they don't need to for this to work. They need a reasonably tough guy with just enough stature. Maybe they could work out a deal with the Texans for Bill O'Brien. Or call Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville. Or summon former Cowher assistant Dom Capers from Green Bay. Maybe even Brad Childress of Kansas City. Those are all guys who know football. As new sheriff, they would make an instant impact; guys on this roster would play better. Like Kubiak, those are far better choices for this team than young candidates such as Kyle Shanahan. The next coach does not need to be Chuck Noll and spend 23 years here. That model is woefully unrealistic, a relic of the past. Teams should be prepared to change coaches. The goal is to be better next season.

Tomlin's status wouldn't matter if the Steelers weren't sitting on an aging Hall of Fame quarterback. It's almost impossible to win a Super Bowl without one. After Roethlisberger declines, or retires, expect no championships for a long time. That's simply the odds. So the team owes it to the players, the fans and most of all itself to do what it takes to win the titles while they're possible. That means fresh blood in the coaching position. Yesterday.

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