It just didn’t seem real.
The Browns had a 28-0 lead on the Steelers in the first quarter of a playoff game against a backdrop of empty seats at Heinz Field.
The empty stadium, and the fact that it was the Browns, were giveaways that it had to be a dream, the kind of crazy imagery that our brain works up during rapid eye movement. Something we wake up from and laugh at.
But, um, empty stadiums now are a reality in the NFL, as are the Browns and their 48-37 wild-card win over the Steelers Sunday night.
A whole lot of other things just got real for the Steelers after their most humbling playoff loss in franchise history.
At or near the top of that list is a serious evaluation of Mike Tomlin.
Just five weeks ago, the Steelers woke up with an 11-0 record. That didn’t seem real, either. After all, it had been 41 years since they had even started a season 4-0. The Patriots, Packers, Saints and Colts (during the Peyton Manning era) were the kinds of franchises that started seasons 11-0. Not the Steelers. The first three months of the 2020 NFL season were like a dream that Steelers fans didn’t want to wake up from.
Well, that 11-0 record was real. What wasn’t real was any chance of the Steelers winning their seventh Super Bowl.
The reality was that the Steelers’ had little chance of getting past Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs or Josh Allen and the Bills. But they should have at least earned a trip to Buffalo or Kansas City. Bowing out in one of those stadiums still would have been painful, but a lot more forgivable than Sunday night’s demise on their own turf against a team missing several players and coaches, including its head coach, because of COVID-19.
Should Tomlin be fired for this? Answering that question is a matter of weighing his overall body of work against this fireable offense.
This was only the 17th time since 1940 that any team had allowed 28 points in the first quarter, according to Stathead, and just the second time in a playoff game.
The next two Browns touchdowns were set up by a Steelers punt after they failed to convert a third-and-1 and the second of Roethlisberger’s three first-half interceptions.
Roethlisberger and the defense deserve plenty of the blame for the Steelers’ disastrous start, but the coach has to get the team ready to play. This season, the Steelers fell behind 24-7 to the Colts, 17-0 to the Bengals, 13-0 to the Cowboys and 14-3 to the Texans.
This penchant for slow starts has been magnified in the Steelers’ last two playoff losses, both at home. On Sunday, five of the Browns’ first nine offensive plays went for more than 10 yards, including two touchdowns. In the 2017 divisional round, the Steelers spotted the Jaguars 21 points in a 45-42 loss. And unlike this year, the Steelers had a path to a championship in 2017.
The Steelers would have had to go to New England again in the AFC championship game. But the Patriots were vulnerable that year. The Steelers essentially beat them in Pittsburgh that year, except that Jesse James‘ game-winning touchdown was wrongfully overturned. After beating the Steelers, the Blake Bortles-led Jaguars had a 10-point lead on the Patriots in the fourth quarter of the conference title game but couldn’t close the deal, and the Patriots ultimately fell to Nick Foles and the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Had the Steelers just come out stronger against Jacksonville and then gone on to face beatable Patriots and Eagles teams, their 12-year championship drought might only be three years, and Tomlin’s job security wouldn’t be debatable. That said, the coach who did win the Super Bowl that year, Doug Pederson, was fired Monday by the Eagles.
Another common thread between those playoff losses to Jacksonville and Cleveland is Steelers players filling up the opponent’s billboard with motivational material.
Le’Veon Bell tweeted in 2017 that he was looking forward to a rematch with the Patriots before the Steelers had even faced the Jaguars. Even Tomlin got caught up in all the hubris during the regular season with his “We should win it all” interview with Tony Dungy.
We all know about JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s “same-old Browns” rant in the week leading up to Sunday’s game. Of course, it’s not like Smith-Schuster needed to light a fire under the Browns, the game was pretty much handed to them.
The Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since Antonio Brown‘s infamous Facetime display in Kansas City in 2016. Tomlin was caught on video bad-mouthing the Patriots and the Steelers got thumped at New England the next week.
It seems that the downside of drafting so many star wide receivers is that fame gets in the way and they eventually become problems. Smith-Schuster, who caught 13 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, can’t be blamed for this loss. Still, Tomlin needs better control of the organizational culture so that players don’t go rogue on social or traditional media.
Sure, Bill Cowher‘s teams did plenty of trash talking that they couldn’t back up, but at least Cowher strung together six straight playoff appearances and reached the postseason with three different starting quarterbacks before winning the Super Bowl with Roethlisberger in 2005.
Despite having a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Tomlin hasn’t reached the Super Bowl in 10 years. He’s 3-6 in playoff games during that time. Unlike Chuck Noll and Cowher before him, Tomlin’s quarterback situation has been been stable for his entire career with the Steelers but his resume still falls short of Cowher’s.
Tomlin also seems to have lost his late-season touch. There was a time when the Steelers would finish the season strong after midseason slumps. The Steelers were 20-3 in December-January regular-season games from 2013 to 2017. Since then, they’re 6-10.
The coach who proclaims that he doesn’t live in his fears did so twice on Sunday night. He called for a punt from the Browns 38 down 28-0 in the second quarter. Then, after the Steelers out-scored the Browns 13-0 in the third quarter and cut their deficit to 35-23, Tomlin cooled all that momentum by punting on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers’ 46. Two and a half minutes later Mayfield threw his third touchdown pass of the game to make it 42-23. The Steelers pulled to within 42-29, but Roethlisberger’s fourth interception of the game squashed out any remaining comeback hopes.
So much is made of the Steelers’ stability with their head coaches. Noll coached for 23 years and Cowher coached for 15 years after that. Tomlin has just finished his 14th season. Is he reaching an expiration date? Is it time for a refresh? Three times in their 87-year history, the Steelers have identified a little-known thirtysomething assistant coach who eventually would put Lombardis in their trophy case. Can they do it a fourth time?
It’s not something they should try unless they have to, meaning Tomlin still should have the right to step down if and when he wants to. He hasn’t yet failed enough to be fired.
He might not have Roethlisberger for too much longer. Maybe we’ll see just how good of a coach he is with an average-at-best quarterback.
For now, Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and team owner Art Rooney II need to sift through the ruins of the 2020 season, and Tomlin should have to explain how 11-0 turned into a playoff faceplant.
Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.