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Tim Benz: Blaming assistant coaches won’t fix Pittsburgh’s plodding sports teams


During the last episode of “cartoon galleryOn FS1, retired Pittsburgh Steeler Willie Colon said his former coach Mike Tomlin is in a tough spot.

“I love Mike Tomlin. But I have to officially say he’s on the hot seat,” Colon said. “When you talk about his overall record, you’re talking about 17 seasons, where he had an 8-10 playoff record, and only four seasons with playoff wins. Oh, and he had some loyal teams, even with Ben Roethlisberger. The problem with Mike Tomlin right now is that he’s winning games he’s supposed to win, but losing games he shouldn’t be losing.

Colon continued to cite those painful defeats in early December last year in back-to-back home games against the lowly Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots.

“No business loses those games,” Colon continued. “Now Steeler Nation is frustrated because they’re looking at an organization that’s way above average, and then they’re losing games like crap. I’m like, ‘Okay, who are the Pittsburgh Steelers? Are they the bullies or are they the dweebs now? If you lose to the Patriots and the Cardinals, you’re going to look like a dweeb .

First, my thanks to Colon for putting the word “dweebs” back into the American lexicon. This is a useful dig. I feel like I haven’t heard that since the mid-90s.

Second, I also give Colon credit for being a former Tomlin player who isn’t afraid to point out the coach’s track record of recent shortcomings on a national platform. Most former Steelers in this role simply regress to, “Don’t you know Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season?!” They never look at how this outdated law was constructed, and by extension, the rest of America doesn’t look at it either.

The only problem with Colon’s statement about Tomlin being “on the hot seat” is that… well, that’s not true. It should be. But it is not.

Tomlin is not on the hot seat with Steelers president Art Rooney II. And it won’t be until he finally has a losing season. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he won’t be in the hot seat until he loses several seasons in a row.


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That’s simply how much confidence the Steelers have in Tomlin despite evidence to the contrary that suggests he no longer has the magic touch he had in his first five seasons. Those years led to two Super Bowl appearances, three division titles, a Vince Lombardi Trophy and a 55-25 record.

Instead, his offensive coordinators are always “on the hot seat.” The newly appointed Arthur Smith is Tomlin’s fifth in command. None of the previous four left entirely on their own.

Likewise, with the Penguins, Mike Sullivan is entering the extension portion of his contract, despite failing to win a playoff run since the start of the 2019 season and failing to make the playoffs the past two years.

Instead of firing him, the Penguins fired assistant coach Todd Reirden on Friday. This is the second time we’ve seen Sullivan’s staff reformed without Sullivan himself being touched. After the 2020 season, former general manager Jim Rutherford announced that assistants Mark Recchi, Sergey Gonchar and Jacques Martin You will not get new contracts.

With the Pirates, hitting coach Andy Haynes is the guy who holds his feet to the fire. That’s understandable given the Bucs’ atrocious offense this year and minimal results since he was hired before the 2022 season. However, if Haines is fired, it would mean Derek Shelton — a manager with a hitting coach background himself — would get his third assistant In this position since his arrival in 2020.

Although his career record is 234-347.

And that’s exactly what we’re doing here in Pittsburgh right now – from a fan and media standpoint. We shoot slings and arrows at assistant coaches, directing all our anger at them because screaming about head coaches seems like screaming into a void.

This is mainly because senior management with the city’s three professional sports teams is, in general, very comfortable with their mediocrity and low levels of success. As a result, very little pressure is applied to head coaches/managers.

As noted early in this post (and probably 10 times before you leave your house today), Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.

That’s good enough for Rooney II, even though Tomlin hasn’t had a playoff win in seven years — a long-running drought dating back to the Immaculate Reception. Even the legendary Chuck Noll was eased into retirement after serving six such years over seven seasons between 1985-1991. Bill Cowher began to feel the pressure after three years from 1998-2000.

But because of what Tomlin did over his first four or five seasons, it seems like he can’t be blamed. Likewise, Sullivan’s Stanley Cup in 2016-17 feels recent. But his last playoff series win in the first round of 2018 certainly wasn’t that. In hockey terms, going six years without a playoff win is a famine.

However, Fenway Sports Group and new general manager Kyle Dubas seem as content to see the brilliance in those two Cups as if they were won with Sullivan as their employee (which he wasn’t), and they are all but pushing back on any suggestion that a head coaching change is necessary.

By comparison, after winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, former coach Dan Byselsma lasted just five additional seasons, and his team won four playoff rounds in that time.

As far as Shelton is concerned, his .403 winning percentage is what it is. Then again, given the lack of a competitive roster he’s been given to work with over the years, perhaps general manager Ben Cherington is the focal point of this conversation from a Pirates perspective rather than an on-field manager.

Either way, I’m going to go out on a really shaky limb here and declare that replacing the hitting coach is not the cure-all for what ails the Pirates organization.

Bold, eh?

This doesn’t mean Haines isn’t worth checking out. I’m also not excusing Rearden, who just coached the Pens’ horrendous power play to a 30th-place finish in the NHL despite some Hall of Fame talent. And I’m not suggesting that Matt Canada keep his job with the Steelers before he was fired midway through last season.

Every one of these men – and many of their predecessors – were worth replacing. But what about the men who hired them and/or were their bosses on staff at each franchise? What about franchise management and ownership?

No, none of us will be able to buy teams away from any of the current owners. We cannot make them change their coaches and managers. But we can point out when a partial change is made and an empty scapegoat is presented.

It’s the head coaches in this city – and their bosses and the underperforming players – who need to feel the blowback to a city of champions fading into a city of early elimination.

At least Colon is telling the truth. The rest of us can try from time to time in any of our forums as well. Column like this. Talk show. Blog. Posted on social media. whatever.

But who are we? Just a bunch of dweebs.

Unfortunately, until the ownership and upper management of the three local franchises begin to feel at all uncomfortable with the constant stream of pedestrian results their teams are producing, the assistant coaches will be the ones to take the blame.

And really, what would that do?

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribliv.com Or via X. All Tweets can be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless otherwise stated.

Categories:
Penguins / NHL | Pirates/MLB | Sports | Steelers/NFL | Breakfast with Benz | Tim Benz columns





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