Commentary

Tomlin should avoid sophomore slump

Updated: September 29, 2008, 3:01 PM ET
By Bill Barnwell | FootballOutsiders.com

Mike TomlinAaron Josefczyk/Icon SMIWith the Steelers off to a 2-1 start, it appears Mike Tomlin will avoid a second-year letdown.
Because the Pittsburgh Steelers don't change coaches very often, second-year head coach Mike Tomlin is constantly under a microscope.

For a fan base that prepared "Fire Bill Cowher" petitions before the oft-scowling coach won Super Bowl XL, every Tomlin decision is cause for scrutiny. Then again, when your two predecessors won a combined five Super Bowls, the pressure's on to get everything right.

One concern that's been raised about Tomlin by Steelers fans is the so-called "second-year curse" -- the step backward new head coaches often seem to take after having a successful first season. A lot of that hype stems from what happened in 2007, when two second-year coaches, the New York Jets' Eric Mangini and the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton, both saw their teams falter and fail to make the playoffs a year after winning 10 games and making the postseason.

Both coaches came in under extraordinary circumstances -- the Saints suffered through a lost season after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while the Jets were among the most injury-riddled teams in NFL history the same year -- and re-energized their teams with new personnel and schemes. The following year, though, Payton's play calling got overly cute, culminating in a fumble on a trick play that gave Tampa Bay a win that essentially clinched the NFC South, while Mangini's exotic defensive schemes were exploited by teams who simply ran the ball up the gut at will on a porous defensive line.

Tomlin came to the Steelers following a Super Bowl-hangover season that saw Ben Roethlisberger play poorly and the secondary struggle with injuries. In Tomlin's first season, the Steelers also won 10 games and claimed the AFC North title, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Much like Mangini's arrival saw the ascension of budding stars Jerricho Cotchery and Kerry Rhodes to the starting lineup, Tomlin's first year saw the ascension of James Harrison, with LaMarr Woodley following suit this season.

Will Tomlin suffer the same fate that Mangini and Payton did in their second years? Is there really a second-year curse for successful rookie coaches?

Since 1986, first-year coaches who have won 10 or more games (adjusted for a 16-game schedule, with ties counting as a half-win) have averaged 10.7 wins in their rookie campaigns, but in their sophomore seasons, they've averaged only 8.8 wins -- nearly two wins less. So, there must be a curse, right?

Not so fast. We have to compare these coaches to other, more experienced coaches with similar teams, in order to see if the same trend holds true. In this case, we're looking at every 10 wins-or-better team since 1986 that didn't have a first-year coach. In the year after their successful season, those teams averaged nine wins. That implies that most successful teams -- not just those run by second-year coaches -- tend to see their performance regress some. This implication also takes Mangini and Payton off the hook, to an extent

If you're looking for a more reliable indicator of why the Jets and Saints crashed in 2007, you can start with one invented more than 20 years ago for a different sport -- the "Plexiglass Principle." Coined by baseball sabermetrician Bill James in one of his famed Baseball Abstracts, the term describes a simple observation that teams that take a huge step forward in a given year tend to give back some of their performance in the following season. Both the Saints and the Jets took huge steps forward, winning six and seven more games, respectively, in 2006 than they did in 2005, only to regress some in 2007. The Saints and the Jets lost a combined nine more games in 2007 than they did in 2006.

Of course, two teams shouldn't convince anyone of anything; if we examine whether the Plexiglass Principle holds for football teams as a whole, the answer is yes. Since 1986, teams that improved their record by five or more wins in a given season saw their victories in the following season decrease by 2.7 wins.

Obviously, the Saints and Jets fit right into this mold, and unlike the hypothesis of the second-year curse, this explanation is much better news for the Steelers. They won 10 games in 2007 after winning eight games the year before; thus, the Plexiglass Principle should have little bearing on their performance in 2008.

Tomlin certainly isn't a perfect coach. His head-in-the-sand attitude toward the usage patterns of Willie Parker helped contribute to the injuries Parker suffered at the end of 2007 and earlier this season. Tomlin was criticized for some of his decisions in the playoff loss to Jacksonville, but every coach takes some flak, and Tomlin's ability to build a system that fits his players -- even if it's not, in the case of the defense, the style he prefers to use -- is a rare but important skill.

Suggesting that the Steelers will struggle this year simply because Tomlin is in his second season is inaccurate.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.