There are only two worthwhile descriptions for a NFL franchise.
Super Bowl contender, or on a journey to become a Super Bowl contender.
If you don’t fit either category, it’s a waste of time.
A lot is made of Mike Tomlin’s record of never having a losing season. It sounds great. The reality is the Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since 2016. They do a great job avoiding being awful (until now, at least). That’s it. Hang the banner.
Tomlin’s teams have muddled along, being good enough to be vaguely relevant for a period without anyone actually thinking they’re going to win a Super Bowl.
This year they’re 7-7 with at least a chance to once again avoid a losing season. Yet during a three-game losing streak against the Cardinals, Patriots and Colts — nobody can say with a straight face that the Steelers are ‘contenders’.
For me, this is a dangerous place for a team to be. It prevents you from taking the actions needed to become contenders again. It’s why I worry about the Seahawks — because it feels like they’re in a very similar place.
For Seattle it’s one playoff win in six years, against a very average Eagles team featuring 40-year-old Josh McCown at quarterback. In the last seven seasons (including this one), they’ve won the NFC West just once. It’s their worst run since re-joining the division in 2002.
The Seahawks have been far from a bad team but they’ve also consistently felt like they’re a ways off being a serious challenger. On top of this, persistent issues have blighted the team — such as poor defensive output and an identity that comes and goes. It’s been nearly a decade since the Seahawks have felt like a legit contender.
Whenever this is brought up, there’s a rapid-fire response from some fans accusing others of being ‘spoilt’. How can you possibly complain about being in the playoff mix? Other teams would love to be in that position.
I would challenge that. Fans of the Browns, for example, do not dream of being the Seahawks. They dream of being the Chiefs, competing in three Super Bowls in recent years. They dream of being the 49ers, a consistent contender for multiple years. They’ll think about copying the Buccs and Rams, recent winners of the Super Bowl. Or can they find a way to emulate the Eagles, Super Bowl winners and runners-up within a few years?
They don’t want to be a team that is ‘good enough to maybe qualify for the playoffs’. It’s utterly pointless. As I said at the start, you need to either be a contender or be on a path to becoming one. Crappy teams don’t aspire to be average teams. The end result is the same. And fans of average teams shouldn’t settle into the comfort of merely not being ‘bad’.
I would argue the Steelers and Seahawks are stuck in a large NFL middle-ground — or purgatory as some people call it. They do just enough every year to stay in this zone and it just leads to avoiding making difficult decisions to enact needed change.
I can’t watch Pittsburgh’s last three games and think they’re a good off-season away. Their offense needs a total rebuild from scratch. This likely isn’t possible within 24 months, when a lot of the core, impressive defensive talent will be nearing the end of their careers.
The Seahawks are different, their issues flip-flop between offense and defense a lot more. They don’t have a defense like Pittsburgh’s but they have a better quarterback and weapons. Schematically they feel uncultured on both sides of the ball and they haven’t had a ‘big’ eye-catching win for several years (beating the Lions doesn’t count, I’m afraid).
The Steelers are 7-7 and the Seahawks are 6-7.
Both teams would lap the Panthers or Patriots in a race. Both would be battered by the 49ers and well-beaten by other legit contenders.
The problem is, neither team regresses enough to have a serious conversation about any of this. The topic is consistently dodged and those wishing to discuss it are derided as ungrateful lunatics.
Maybe Pittsburgh’s reaching that point now, given just how bad they’ve been recently? It started to happen in Seattle this week, with serious reporters speculating on Carroll’s future.
Yet if either or both teams sneak into the playoffs as a lousy seventh seed, making up the numbers so the greedy NFL can make even more money with it’s dumb ‘Super Wildcard Weekend’ nonsense, I suspect the same narrative will begin all over again.
‘How can you criticise Tomlin/Carroll, they’re in the playoffs!‘
Rinse and repeat. See you in 12 months where the same thing happens again. Meanwhile we all get a bit older, the Steelers still suck on offense and Carroll is still talking about trying to fix the same old problems and Jamal Adams is still earning a fortune to deliver a crappy PFF grade while celebrating the other team ‘only’ gaining seven yards on first down.
Neither team is on the path to contention. I suspect neither will get there without bold, serious change.
Firstly, the coaches. Both are Super Bowl winners yet neither seems likely to reach that point again. Particularly in the case of 72-year-old Carroll, with only two years remaining on his contract and possibly his career. Does anyone think two more years of doing the same thing in Seattle will lead to a title? If not, what’s the reason for continuing? Convenience ahead of a franchise sale we speculate a lot about but know little about in reality? Existing purely for Carroll to work to his preferred timescale, rather than what is most optimal for team success?
Meanwhile with Tomlin — Pittsburgh’s offense is so utterly dreadful, they look like a team that needs to pivot to a younger, more creative offensive mind — paired with a more aggressive approach to fixing the quarterback position.
They’ve been in charge since 2007 in Tomlin’s case and 2010 in Carroll’s. That’s a long time. Eventually, you need a different vision. Things can’t just go on forever. The Patriots are experiencing that currently. Bill Belichick’s legacy is being slightly impacted by seeing just how bad New England are without Tom Brady. Nobody will take away Belichick’s rightful place as one of the all-time greats. Yet it’s pretty clear now that Brady’s brilliance, paired with his ability to put up with Belichick’s grumpy, borderline toxic ways, is what led to so much success. Without Brady, the Patriots are bloody awful and fairly shambolic.
Without peak-Ben Roethlisberger, Tomlin likewise hasn’t been able to create a winner. Without the LOB, Marshawn Lynch and peak-Russell Wilson, Carroll’s in the same boat. Neither coach, as an individual, seems to be elevating their teams schematically. This is a stark contrast to the work of Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and even coaches like Zac Taylor, winning with a backup quarterback.
Tomlin and Carroll would be best served avoiding Belichick’s fate and going out with fond memories still attached, rather than letting things get even sourer.
Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the Seahawks will beat the collapsing, injury-hit Eagles on Monday and we’ll have a week of fans and media crowing that any suggestion of a future beyond Carroll is the stuff of entitlement and stupidity.
I said a few weeks ago I think Carroll can still be a Super Bowl Head Coach. In order to do it, though, he’d need to be prepared to change. My favourite Carroll quote is, “it’s never too late to reinvent yourself.” I wish he would’ve taken that advice a while ago, acknowledged his flaws (schematics, details) and gone out to employ the best coordinators money can buy and let them run the offense and defense, becoming an experienced overseer and motivator.
He’ll never do that. Control is too important for Carroll. He needs to do things his way. It’s the only reason he ever returned to the NFL, because the Seahawks were offering total control.
That’s not to say he hasn’t tried to delegate. Clearly we saw that with ‘Let Russ Cook’ in 2020. Yet at the first sign of trouble, he wrestled back control and they went back to Carroll-ball. It was indicative of how uncomfortable he is ceding responsibility and there’s no chance, sadly, of him ever being a Nick Saban type of Head Coach who gives the keys to his coordinators.
I can’t root against the Seahawks. I’m a Seahawks fan. I never miss a game, despite many beginning in the early hours of the morning. I’ve committed 15 years of my life to writing a blog about the team, eating my free time at a rate comparable to a dog let loose in a butcher’s.
I also can’t say I’ll be that pumped watching the Eagles game on Monday, or feeling very celebratory if they win. I fear the Seahawks will finish by beating some bad teams, potentially squeeze into the playoffs (they only need to usurp the Rams and Packers, who are both wildly inconsistent) and we’ll have more false dawn rhetoric, ‘run-it-back’ platitudes and we’ll get to witness 2024 looking exactly like 2023.
There are two, maybe three teams in the NFC who are actually good. The rest are mediocre or awful. Being seventh best in a bad conference, during a poor-quality NFL season, qualifying for the playoffs and then making very little noise in the post-season, is not attractive if all it does is delay the kind of front-line change required to get this team back to the top.
I don’t want to endure another year of excuses for having another very expensive bottom-10 defensive unit. I can’t listen to chatter about identity when they can’t run the ball. I don’t want to hear over-hyped praise for Seattle’s culture while people like Jamal Adams act like a jerk on social media with zero public accountability from Carroll or the team. Most importantly, I can’t watch Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay continue to dance rings around a coach who has no counter-punch for either of them.
New ideas, a new vision, a new quarterback, fresh attention to detail, expensive and underperforming players cut, re-emphasis on the trenches and the potential to be back on the path to contention, rather than deluding ourselves (as the Seahawks did with the Leonard Williams trade) that we’re already there.
That is what’s required in Seattle.
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