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The Two year Scorecard-Is Mike Tomlin a better coach than Bill Cowher

The Two Year Scorecard:
Is Mike Tomlin a better coach than Bill Cowher?
by Rob Carter

In football, more than any other sport, coaches can have a powerful affect on the outcome of the game. Every play is carefully planned out during the week, before it is sent in for the players to run during the game. It’s not a “throw the new coach into the water and see if they sink or swim” kind of game. With strategy being so carefully considered, coaching a football team takes time to see the true merit of a coach.

So, how does Mike Tomlin’s first two years measure up to Bill Cowher’s first two? For Tomlin, he has two more regular season wins than his predecessor, and he also has three playoff wins. Cowher didn't even win a playoff game until his third season of coaching.

If you compare position by position of the teams in 2008 and 2007, versus 1993 and 1992, there is definitely more talent on the teams than the early years of Cowher. One big advantage for Tomlin over Cowher is at the quarterback position. The first two years Cowher didn’t have the players Tomlin had. Byron Leftwich is a better back up quarterback than anybody on the ’92 – ‘93 teams. And Big Ben may become the best quarterback in team history, but that’s a subject for another article. Cowher took over a team that went 7 -9 in the last year under Knoll, and had not made a Super Bowl in 11 years. Mike Tomlin, by comparison, took over a team that had went 8 - 8 under Cowher, and was one season removed from having won a Super Bowl. In fact a lot of players he inherited from Cowher were still on the team for this year’s Super Bowl. So, in the case of who had better raw talent to work with in their first years, Tomlin had an advantage in that he inherited the stronger team.

But in order to really get a fair analysis, let’s dig deeper and take a look at the level of competition both men coached against. Cowher’s 1992 team lost to a very experienced Buffalo Bills team that had won two AFC championships previously. And don’t forget the week before that the Bills had just completed the largest comeback in NFL playoff history. They were a formidable foe to face.

However, Tomlin’s ’07 Steelers faced a very talented Jacksonville team. They only lost on a controversial play. And interestingly enough, this was a play which the NFL later apologized that they did not call holding on the Jaguars like they should have. “Mike Pereira, the NFL's head of officiating, admitted yesterday that his crew working the Steelers-Jaguars playoff game erred in not calling a holding penalty against Jacksonville on a crucial play that allowed the Jaguars to kick the winning field goal.” 1

Follow this up with the recent ’08 season, where Tomlin beat a solid San Diego team, then the arch rival Baltimore Ravens, and won the Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals’ absolutely unstoppable Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzjerald . These seasons and the overwhelming opposition the Steelers faced make Tomlin’s two year coaching gig not only incredible, but it has now become very historic as well.

Even when comparing the playoff achievements of the first two years, it’s pretty apparent that Cowher may have been too conservative, thus not able to have playoff success early in his career. Meanwhile Tomlin’s playoff strategies were much more aggressive. Such as, a failed fake punt against San Diego, and throwing deep to Limas Sweed. Even though neither of these plays worked, I guarantee Cowher would have never taken the chance. Tomlin allowed Santonio Holmes to return punts in the game, where Cowher allowed Rod Woodson to only return punts during the preseason. Cowher never would have done that in the playoffs.

In retrospect the results also point to another one of the fundamental difference between them, and this leads to our final comparison – the underlying difference in these coaches’ philosophies. On one hand you have Mike Tomlin’s freeing, let your best players make the plays, mentality versus Cowher’s conservative, tell your players not to make a mistake, mentality. And here the proof is in the pudding. Two years for Tomlin and look at the results. This year’s win in the playoffs over the Ravens ranks pretty high in my favorite games list. And Tomlin’s freeing philosophy comes through loud and clear.

So, what’s the final two year scoreboard for the better coach? It’s pretty daunting for me to choose between two such renowned coaches, whom I have really enjoyed watching. But, when it comes down to it, the two year comparison says it all. Mike Tomlin is the better coach.
-Rob Carter ©2009

1 Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wednesday, April 02, 2008,
NFL Spring Meetings Notebook: Radio helmets for defense gets OK, too.


  1. OK -you nailed it! You make some good points and I see what you mean, Tomlin is the better coach. Hope you keep posting!

  2. Really insightful - I like Cowher, but I have to say Tomlin has so far impressed me a lot more. Well presented argument, hope to read more from you!