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Tim Benz: Mike Tomlin’s contract extension shows Steelers love stability … and accept mediocrity

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In the big scheme of things, Mike Tomlin’s contract extension with the Pittsburgh Steelers signed Monday isn’t the commitment it appears to be.

Is there any coaching contract in pro sports that is?

According to Forbes.com and the ProFootballNetwork, Steelers owner Art Rooney II is only 30th on the list of 32 NFL owners when it comes to personal wealth.

But that number is still at $1.2 billion, and the franchise itself was worth an estimated $4.63 billion heading into the 2023 season.

It’s not like a coaching contract counts against the salary cap. Rooney could fire Tomlin as soon as the ink dries on the new deal, and regardless of how much money Tomlin is owed per year, Rooney won’t miss it.

But Tomlin isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He wasn’t going anywhere, even when the Steelers were at the nadir of his tenure last December. That’s when they were 7-7, having lost three games in a row to non-playoff competition from Arizona, New England and Indianapolis.

Back then, I was besieged by people asking if Tomlin would be fired if he finally had a losing season. It would’ve been his first since being hired in 2007.

I’ll say now what I said then and what I’ll say for years to come: only if that losing season was 0-17.

After 0-17 the year before.

Yeah, a 34-game losing streak might change Rooney II’s mind on Tomlin … maybe. But pretty much nothing short of that will.

I’m sure Rooney sees this move as a commitment to stability.

Sure. I get that.

I also see it as a commitment to mediocrity. Because that’s what the Steelers have been for the last seven years under Tomlin. Mediocre. Average. Middle of the road. Good enough to be in the playoff mix. Never good enough to win a playoff game.

The national media is already banging its drums in favor of Tomlin after this move. They’ll collectively chant the “he’s never had a losing season” refrain or dip into the well of “he’d have another job tomorrow if the Steelers let him go today” or regurgitate the “you know, the Jets would love to have a guy like Tomlin” song and dance.

All of that is true.

Here’s something else that is true: the Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since the 2016 postseason. Of the NFL’s 32 teams, 23 other clubs have managed to do so. It’s not the monumental accomplishment we’ve built it up to be in Pittsburgh, and, honestly, the drought here under Tomlin should be a much bigger story than how it is told nationally.

Tomlin was showered with praise for rallying the Steelers to 10 wins last year and nine the year before that.

Big deal. Twelve of the 32 teams in the league had 10 wins in 2023. Nineteen teams had a winning record. Sixteen teams — half the NFL — had a winning record in 2022. Unless you flat-out stink in the NFL these days, you are in the hunt.

Over the last 13 years, that has been Tomlin’s greatest accomplishment as Steelers coach. He’s never let the organization flat-out stink.

As evidence, since the start of 2011, Tomlin-coached Steelers teams have failed to win a playoff game in 11 of 13 campaigns. Five seasons ended without a playoff berth at all. Six of those heralded “non-losing” seasons ended with only eight or nine wins.

Is that track record worthy of an extension through 2027? I guess it is for Rooney.

This contract extension says much more about Rooney than it does Tomlin. The owner of the Steelers is comfortable with being comfortable. He is comfortable with being average. He’s tucked in, nice and snug under a blanket-sized Terrible Towel, with nine or 10 wins every year.

Warm and content with running the football, playing solid defense, less-than-dynamic quarterback play and a playoff win every decade or so.

On paper, the Steelers and Tomlin are now tied to one another through 2027. But did we really need a piece of paper to tell us that? Based on how the Rooney family operates, we’ll probably still be referring to Tomlin as the Steelers head coach in 2037.

Actually, by then, he’ll only be 65 years old. A spring chicken! Let’s say 2047 instead.

After all, since 1969, when Chuck Noll was hired, there have been as many Steelers coaches (three) as there have been owners.

In fact, in that stretch of time, there have been more popes in the Vatican (five) than there have been Steelers coaches on the North Side (three).

For those in the fan base who want a change, don’t look for a puff of white smoke any time soon. My guess is, unless Tomlin wants to leave on his own, he and Rooney will be together up to 2027.

And probably well beyond.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via X. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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