BOCA RATON, Fla. -- John Mara and Art Rooney II are exemplary NFL owners. They own multiple Super Bowls, assume leadership roles for the league and handle media duties with aplomb.
But Mara wants one thing Rooney has: A coaching lineup consistently free from uncertainty. Every year, Rooney attends the NFL owners meetings with the cachet of having had only three Pittsburgh Steelers head coaches since 1969, less turnover over four decades than most teams commit on a Sunday.
Mara, the Giants owner, took first-year head coach Ben McAdoo to the Boca Raton Resort for this week’s owners meetings. He wouldn’t mind emulating the Pittsburgh model.
“I’m envious of them,” said Mara of the Steelers. “They set the standard for that. That’s something we all strive for.”
There’s coaching stability in the NFL, and then there’s Pittsburgh, which has lapped the field in hiring-to-firing ratio.
Of the NFL’s 19 Super Bowl winners, the closest franchise to the Steelers is the Seattle Seahawks, who have had seven non-interim head coaches since entering the league in 1976. Most NFL franchises exceeded double digits in coaching changes during that span.
The Steelers were patient with Chuck Noll, who started with three straight losing seasons but followed with four Super Bowl titles and winning records in 15 of his last 20 seasons. Mike Tomlin has yet to record a losing season in nine seasons, and Bill Cowher won 62 percent of his games over 15 campaigns.
That’s how contracts get extended. That’s three head coaches, none of whom has been fired. Perhaps Noll had a longer leash then than he would today, but his winning still triggered this improbable run.
Mara and others attribute the longevity to Pittsburgh’s dedication to winning. Rooney simplifies things.
“We are fortunate to have three good men available to come be our head coach,” Rooney said. “We’ve tried to support all three of them when they became our coach. Obviously Coach Noll put in place a foundation that we still build on today. Coach Cowher and Coach Tomlin have tried to build on that, and it’s been successful. I don’t like to criticize other people’s way of doing things, but we do feel there’s value in stability and continuity, and so that’s worked for us.”
The Rooneys have been willing to ride through a few dark patches, too. Cowher posted back-to-back losing seasons before breaking through with a Super Bowl win.
In New York, three losing seasons were too many for Tom Coughlin to survive despite two rings in 12 seasons.
The Steelers haven’t faced a similar decision on a declining coach in an era when coaches are hired and fired at dizzying rates. But to hear Mara tell it, the Steelers avoid those decisions by how they prepare.
“It’s having the patience to stay with them when things aren’t going so well, and also to have an organization that produces talent that allows (those coaches) to win,” Mara said.
Bears coach John Fox saw this operation firsthand as an assistant for Noll from 1989-91. Fox said he learned one truism: Football trumps business.
Pittsburgh’s coaching trend is a healthy reminder to the rest of the league, Fox said, assuming teams have the right coach at the helm.
“It starts at the top,” Fox said. “They aren’t quick to react.”
At least in theory, the Steelers sustain success because the job gets easier with familiar faces. Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert are working their 10th NFL draft together. Tomlin calls the duo an “old married couple” that doesn’t care who gets the credit. As the Steelers were signing tight end Ladarius Green to a four-year deal earlier this month, Colbert and Tomlin revisited Green’s draft scouting report their staff made together. Most new staffs don’t have that luxury. The two know what each other want to see on the field.
“I don’t take the stability for granted,” Tomlin said. “I go to work every day and earn the right to continue to do so.”
So does Sean Payton, who told the media he carried a five-year contract extension from the New Orleans Saints in his briefcase at the owners meetings. “We’re all fortunate to do something we love,” he said.
Payton is one of the NFL’s longest-tenured coaches, having been in New Orleans since 2006.
If he fulfills his extension, he’ll finish just short of the Steelers’ average.