PITTSBURGH – Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL. Only Bill Belichick has been the head coach of the same team for a longer time. He’s widely considered to be one of the league’s best in the game.
But, according to Pro Football Focus, Tomlin, who’s led the Steelers to two Super Bowls and won one as head coach, is the 13th-best head coach in the NFL.
The always-innovative site recently published a column ranking the NFL’s head coaches by a certain criteria that you can read about in-depth here.
In a nutshell: PFF made a model “where the fixed effects are the salaries of each starter on both sides of the ball, including an indicator for if the player is a rookie, and the target is points scored or allowed in a season … We can then use Pythagorean wins to estimate how many games the coach would win with an average team, defined as a team scoring and allowing 348 points in a season. This was the average mark for all teams between the 2017-2021 seasons.”
The model only accounts from 2011-now and it doesn’t consider “factors such as roster construction decisions or giving outsized weight to factors such as passing rate or fourth-down decisions.” The model also isn’t opponent-adjusted and doesn’t include first-time head coaches such as Matt Eberflus, Brian Daboll, etc.
Sorry for the summary, but it’s important to allow for context considering how this model evaluated Tomlin.
PFF’s model is simply wrong and there’s no way around it
And it’s wrong in a big, big way.
PFF is a great website/outlet and the work they do is essential to understanding the game from an analytical angle. But sometimes, you can get too deep into the weeds and that’s exactly what they’re doing, here.
There are already errors with the formula. Not accounting for fourth-down decisions and not adjusting for opponents are big factors to leave out. Postseason results are also important. And not at least including Super Bowl-winning seasons before 2011 is an extremely bad decision, as well. All of those are certainly quantifiable and the fact they’re weighted heavily is fine to include.
But, regardless, the results are just weird. Ahead of Tomlin are Kliff Kingsbury at a ridiculously-high No. 4, Mike McCarthy at No. 10, and Brandon Staley at No. 12. Even Sean McVay is at 11 and Zac Taylor is all the way at 22.
Regardless, Tomlin is the name at the bottom of the “Good Coaches” tier at 13, which is simply inane, at the end of the day.
Below is PFF’s reasoning:
13. MIKE TOMLIN, PITTSBURGH STEELERS (9.3 – 7.7 RECORD WITH AVERAGE ROSTER)
- Offensive Rank: 13/26 (+25 points scored a season)
- Defensive Rank: 5/26 (-10 points allowed a season)
If this list were to consider how well a coach manages a team off the gridiron, Tomlin would undoubtedly be in the top tier. His defenses have been consistently strong, but he suffers in these rankings due to having one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL throughout his head coach tenure lead his offense without consistently elite results.
Part of being a good coach is in fact motivating guys off the field, because it clearly affects how they play on the field. It’s pretty simple. However, PFF can’t quantify that properly -which is understandable- which is why it’s not included.
That doesn’t mean it should be left out, though. This is where the problem with being too analytically-minded can come in, at times. You don’t have to strictly go by the numbers. Football is so much more. But I digress.
Back to Tomlin and PFF’s comments about the Steelers offense. Per Football Outsiders, the Steelers were a top-8 offense six of the 11 seasons from 2011-2021. That includes a five year run (2014-2018) of never ranking lower than eighth. Four of those five seasons saw the offense finish no lower than sixth.
2020 and 2021 are tough to evaluate due to all of the injuries the team went through and Ben Roethlisberger’s rapid decline. However, the one thing that holds true is a) Tomlin still found a way to avoid a losing season and b) still made the postseason both years. His ability to get the Steelers into the postseason goes far beyond math equations. Not many coaches, in fact hardly any coaches, can do that.
Tomlin is an elite coach and is likely a Hall of Famer, as well. To have him at 13th is already serving him a massive heap of disrespect. With all due respect, to see coaches such as the three aforementioned guys ahead of him – two of which have yet to even win a playoff game – just adds an unquantifiable amount of insult to injury.
PFF is great, but this is certainly not one of their best moments. I’d recommend avoiding this model -or at least make some big changes- in the future.
You can check out the full set of rankings, here.
Featured image via Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports