The Bears like to think of themselves as an equal to the Steelers, but the similarities essentially end at the fact they’re two of the longest-standing franchises in the NFL. Beyond that prestige, the Steelers have been a model of everything the Bears wish they were.
In the last 50 years, the Steelers have won the most games in the NFL, captured six championships and had just three coaches. The first two, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, are Hall of Famers. The third, current coach Mike Tomlin, already has made an overwhelming case to join them, and he’s just 49.
“The way that he leads his organization is rare,” said Bears coach Matt Nagy, who has talked with Tomlin occasionally at offseason meetings but mostly has admired his work from afar. “I love the way that he’s real with his coaches, he’s real with his players. He’s authentic.
“And he wins.”
Does he ever.
The Bears and dozens of other organizations can only dream of finding someone who checks every box in behind-the-scenes leadership and dominates on the field.
Now in Year 15, Tomlin has never had a losing season. He has made the playoffs nine times and is the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl, doing so at 36 after the 2008 season.
If he beats the Bears on Monday, Tomlin will reach 150 career victories in fewer games than it took Cowher and move into sole possession of 20th place on the all-time wins list. He reasonably could pass Joe Gibbs for 18th by the end of the season.
In a century-plus of Bears football, only George Halas has won at least 150 games. In more recent history, the team has tried four coaches during Tomlin’s tenure — with Nagy at risk of opening the door for a fifth if he doesn’t show chairman George McCaskey he can get the offense on track.
And Tomlin has done it his way. He came from the outside as a defensive backs coach under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden with the Buccaneers and as Vikings coach Brad Childress’ defensive coordinator, so he put his own touch on the organization.
“You feel it when you come in the building,” said Bears secondary coach Deshea Townsend, who played for Cowher and Tomlin with the Steelers from 1998 through 2009.
Tomlin exudes confidence as much or more than any coach in the NFL, and it resonates because of the on-field success. In the same way that Nagy’s nonstop optimism seems to fall flat amid the Bears’ mediocrity, Tomlin keeps strengthening his influence by stacking up wins.
“Every head coach has a certain style,” Nagy said. “His style is really good.”
Tomlin has been a constant in a league that’s always changing. He and his various offensive coordinators — from Bruce Arians in his first season to the current one, Matt Canada — have reshaped the Steelers’ offense as Ben Roethlisberger downshifted from powerhouse to barely hanging on.
His work on the other side of the ball, though, has been most vital to his longevity. Tomlin delivered exactly what the Steelers wanted when they hired him: a compelling leader at the front of their organization and a defensive mastermind.
They have been top-10 in fewest points allowed nine times under Tomlin and never worse than 18th. Contrast that with how Nagy has done on his side of the ball, with the Bears finishing ninth, 29th and 22nd in scoring and currently sitting 31st.
The combination of the right coach and quarterback has kept the Steelers at or near the top of the league for almost two decades. The Bears hope they’ve finally found the right quarterback in Justin Fields, but Nagy’s performance so far has been unconvincing.