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Pittsburgh Steelers find patience doesn't preclude success

Jan. 25, 2011
 
Mike Tomlin is the Pittsburgh Steelers' third head coach since 1970. By contrast, the Washington Redskins have been through six coaches in 12 years.
Mike Tomlin is the Pittsburgh Steelers' third head coach since 1970. By contrast, the Washington Redskins have been through six coaches in 12 years. / Matt Slocum/AP

Here’s a toast to stability in the unstable NFL.

The Green Bay Packers’ opponent in Super Bowl XLV, the Pittsburgh Steelers, has had the longest coaching tenure in the league, and maybe in major professional sports in this country, for the last 40 years.

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Steelers have had three coaches: Chuck Noll (1969-91), Bill Cowher (1992-2006) and Mike Tomlin (2007-now). During that time, their 384-246-2 record is the league’s best. They’re about to play in their eighth Super Bowl over that time, including their third in the last six years.

Is that success coincidence? Hard to think to so.

But if the Rooneys, the family that has owned the Steelers since their founding in 1933, have proven the value of patience, having the courage of your convictions on the people you hire as coach and making decisions based on the long haul, then why are they the exception in the NFL and not the rule? This is, after all, a copycat league.

Maybe it’s their culture — the Steelers have been the family business for almost eight decades. Maybe it’s something more.

But their long-term success suggests it’s something more owners should think about before going on firing sprees.

To illustrate what separates the Steelers from most of the NFL, look no further than their handling of Cowher, whom they hired in 1992. He took the Steelers to the playoffs in each of his first seven years, including the Super Bowl in the ’95 season. But he never won the brass ring. Then when the playoff streak ended, Cowher’s teams went through a dry spell. The Steelers missed the playoffs the next three years and went 22-26 over that time.

In most NFL cities, that would have been it. Everyone clamoring for blood — “This guy can’t win the big one,” “He’s taken the franchise as far as he can,” “He doesn’t have what it takes,”— would have won the day.

But the Rooneys stuck with Cowher. Even then, it took until his 14th season, in 2005, for their steadfast approach to pay off with a Super Bowl win. Can you imagine anybody else in the NFL doing that now? Probably not.

Sure, there’s always the chance the Steelers would have found a better coach if they’d fired Cowher, and this isn’t saying patience always is the right move. Some coaches deserve to be canned.

Former Packers GM Ron Wolf was right to scuttle Ray Rhodes after his one season, 1999, because things were only going to get worse under Rhodes’ unorganized, too-lenient leadership.

Wade Phillips and Brad Childress deserved the ax from Dallas and Minnesota, respectively, this year, and probably even earlier in the season than they were. They’d lost their teams.

Even going back to the early 1990s, the Fords in Detroit were punished for sticking with Wayne Fontes for nine years, from 1988 to 1996. But his hold over them was self-salesmanship, not what his teams had done on the field. Fontes was perpetually mediocre; Cowher was not.

So no, patience isn’t always the way. But the Rooneys’ decades of experience in the NFL also taught them they just as likely would have set back their team as helped it if they’d let Cowher go. Cowher might not have won the most games in the league, but they thought highly of him, deemed him good at his craft and resisted the pressure to make a change. And they got their reward.

Contrast that with the Washington Redskins, who are proof that anyone on a bar stool can fire a coach, but that doesn’t make it the wise thing to do.

Dan Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999 and has been through six coaches in 12 years. No doubt he’s found each of those changes emotionally satisfying in the moment, but to say it hasn’t worked is the understatement of the year. His team is 86-106 and has been to the playoffs twice in 12 years, and one of those was his first season at the helm.

Thinking about both approaches brings to mind the mood about the Packers earlier this year. A short — or is it long? — five weeks ago, they’d lost two straight games: a costly upset at Detroit and then another loss at New England with backup Matt Flynn at quarterback. In e-mails and Internet chat questions around that time, some fans asked reasonable questions about what might happen to coach Mike McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson if the Packers lost their last two games or missed the playoffs. Would they be back? Should they be back?

But many others wanted, demanded, one or both to be fired now, now, now. Thompson was in his sixth year, McCarthy his fifth, and they’d had their chance. “They’re not Super Bowl quality,” “They’ve taken this team as far as they can.” You know the drill.

That’s what Dan Snyder would have said too. It looks a little silly now.

The point is, teams and coaches can have bad games, even bad years. It doesn’t mean they’re incompetent or stupid. Maybe they should be fired, maybe not. But it’s not a decision to make just because you’re mad you lost.

Maybe at least a few around the NFL are taking note. This offseason, the New York Giants stuck with Tom Coughlin after missing the playoffs for a second straight season, and the San Diego Chargers kept Norv Turner after his talented team flamed out at the end of the year. Coughlin has been with the Giants for seven seasons, Turner four. On NFL clocks, both were ripe to be let go.

Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com.

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