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Ron Cook

Ron Cook: Mike Tomlin should've followed Bill Belichick in replacing his offensive coordinator

PITTSBURGH — Two coaches.

Two different approaches.

Bill Belichick attempted to fix the New England Patriots' offensive shortcomings this past season by hiring Bill O'Brien as the team's offensive coordinator last week. O'Brien is a terrific coach, who had a strong resume with the Houston Texans — at least until he was allowed to make player personnel decisions — and with Penn State and Alabama.

Mike Tomlin ignored the Steelers' offensive woes by bringing back Matt Canada as his offensive coordinator. Tomlin apparently is satisfied with an offense that finished 26th in the NFL by averaging 18.1 points per game and had the third-fewest touchdowns in the league with 28.

Patriots fans should be thrilled.

But Steelers fans?

Not so much.

Belichick had little choice but to make a change. His decision to have special assistant/offensive line coach Matt Patricia call the Patriots' plays this past season after Josh McDaniels left for the Las Vegas Raiders' head job turned out to be a disaster. Patricia wasn't qualified. O'Brien is a significant upgrade. He did wondrous work as Penn State's head coach after the Jerry Sandusky nightmare, led the Texans to four playoff appearances in his final six years as their head coach and helped Alabama quarterback Bryce Young win the Heisman Trophy in 2021 as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator.

Tomlin should have had no choice but to replace Canada. The Steelers offense was just as awful as the Patriots'. It not only couldn't score points. It had no splash. Its longest offensive touchdown was a 31-yard pass from Kenny Pickett to George Pickens in the final game against Cleveland. That offense was described as amateurish by many of the NFL's notable observers, including Merril Hoge and Steve Smith Sr.

"It's Saturday-ish," Smith said on NFL Network late in the season. "I'm saying his play-calling is Saturday. It isn't going to work here. Not on this level. He's calling Saturday plays on Sunday."

Art Rooney II is aware of all the criticism directed at Canada. He met with the Pittsburgh media on Thursday and had a predictable explanation for the decision to retain Canada, who has just three years of NFL coaching experience.

"You want to see a team improve, no matter what your record," Rooney said. "That's what you're shooting for. That's what we did."

It's true the Steelers offense did improve in the second half of the season when the team followed a 2-6 start with a 7-2 finish. Pickett improved, throwing just one interception in his final eight games after throwing eight in his first five games. The running game, with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, improved. The offensive linemen, who started every game together, improved to the point the team was able to average 142.1 rushing yards per game in the final seven games.

Pickett's development was the best part of the second half of the season, by far.

"They seemed to work well together," Rooney said of Canada and Pickett. "With a new offensive coordinator, you'd start all over again."

I get that.

I also understand Pickett and especially Harris are bullish on Canada.

"We all believe in Canada," Harris said after that final game against Cleveland.

I'm just having a hard time giving so much weight to the Steelers' 7-2 finish. How much do you factor the competition into the improvement? They beat teams such as New Orleans, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Carolina and Las Vegas down the stretch. Earlier in the season, they showed in blowout losses to Buffalo and Philadelphia that they are miles and miles behind the NFL's elite teams.

And was the improvement enough to make you think the Steelers will be competitive next season in the AFC in general and in the AFC North Division in particular? How do they make up ground on Cincinnati with Joe Burrow and on Baltimore if Lamar Jackson is back and healthy? How do they hold off Cleveland when, presumably, Deshaun Watson will be back at the top of his game?

Rooney acknowledged on Thursday the Bengals "are going to be hard to compete with in the future" but is undeterred, nonetheless.

"We felt there was enough there to build on," he said of the Steelers' late-season surge.

I feel good about what Pickett and Pickens did as rookies and what Harris and Pat Freiermuth did as second-year players. How can you not? Those players provide hope moving forward.

I just wish I felt as good about Canada. Or even close to it.

Belichick got it right.

Tomlin and the Steelers did not.

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