By Chris Schisler
John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin are two of the best coaches in the NFL. They are both long-tenured coaches with a Super Bowl ring. They’re apt for comparison because they are the two head coaches of football’s best rivalry. The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers are both winning teams who have a long track record of continuity and respectable work in the NFL Draft. Comparing the two coaches is a completely fair exercise.
The big thing to point out here is that Harbaugh and Tomlin have fairly equal resumes. Tomlin has coached in two Super Bowls, while Harbaugh has only reached one. Still, Harbaugh has three more playoff wins than Tomlin and has reached the AFC Championship three times.
Harbaugh has gone 129-79 since being hired in 2008. Tomlin is 145-78-1 since being hired in 2007. The Steelers and the Ravens have been fairly neck and neck. Counting the postseason, the Ravens have played the Steelers 29 times since 2008. Baltimore has won 14 of those games. If you just go off wins, losses, and playoff records it’s about as even as it can get.
The other thing that makes this so challenging is that both coaches have a similar style of coaching. They’re player’s coaches. They form a strong relationship with their teams and their genuine enthusiasm goes a long way in building connections. Just about every player that has played under either of them will say that they are player’s coaches (other than infamously Bernard Pollard).
One advantage that Mike Tomlin has had is that he was a defensive coordinator, and he can get more involved from an X’s and O’s standpoint. While Harbaugh is more involved and on top of things, than it sometimes comes across, this is an area where Tomlin probably has the most confidence. If Tomlin had to call the defense, it would feel natural for him.
Harbaugh leans more heavily on his coordinators. It’s smooth when the right people are in place. Harbaugh has historically had a hard time picking offensive coordinators though. Even on the defensive side, Harbaugh’s loyalty to his staff can hurt him. Multiple offensive coordinators have over-stayed their welcome in Baltimore and Dean Pees was there way too long.
Both coaches do a good job of keeping the train on the tracks. Tomlin famously hasn’t had a losing season. Harbaugh has one losing mark blemishing his resume, though it felt inevitable in 2015 with all the injuries. I’d argue that Harbaugh does a better job of turning the tides and slowing down a major skid in a season.
Think about this past season. The Steelers were 1-4 to finish the regular season and then they lost to the Cleveland Browns in the postseason. After an 11-0 start where they were barely tested, things went downhill. The 11-0 record masked the Steelers’ problems and gave them a false sense of momentum. They got worse as the season progressed and scraped by on an easy schedule. Tomlin lost the pulse of his team.
Tomlin has had some turmoil that wasn’t his fault. The “Killer B’s” era with Antonio Brown and Le’veon Bell in Pittsburgh was probably always going to end the way it did. Tomlin’s weakness comes from the very fact that he’s such a player’s coach. He’s almost one of the guys, and he has a hard time reeling it in when his players get out of hand.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron specifically went out of their way to be diva skilled position players. There were multiple spots where it was a distraction to the Steelers. Tomlin has had some very talented players that are hard to manage, but he creates a culture that allows them to be hard to deal with in the first place.
While Harbaugh’s message has gone stale at times, he’s continually found a way not to lose the locker room. While Tomlin comes off as the more rah-rah coach, Harbaugh is a better motivator and he provides more focus.
Tomlin’s style is a double-edged sword though. His strength as a coach is his passion and his willingness to buy into the tough and hard-nosed brand of Steelers football. He’s a perfect frontman and his core principles are the winning ones. You can say a lot of things about Tomlin, but there are few men in any profession more consistent than he is. Tomlin is a very authentic and driven man.
Tomlin has a slightly higher winning percentage than Harbaugh. He kind of should though if you think about it. Harbaugh spent most of his career with Joe Flacco as his quarterback. Make no mistake about it, Flacco is a franchise quarterback. Still, Tomlin had a huge advantage with Ben Roethlisberger in his prime.
Roethlisberger is going to Canton someday. Flacco almost certainly isn’t. In the years after the Super Bowl XLVII victory, Flacco was mostly pedestrian while Roethlisberger was putting out monster seasons. Both teams were incredibly consistent winners, but only one team had a quarterback destined for a gold jacket. That was so often the difference when the Ravens fell to the Steelers with a fairly comparable roster. Quarterback is the most important position and when you factor that in, Harbaugh and Tomlin’s records and results seem even closer.
Harbaugh’s top strength is adaptability. You thought I was going to start with the Lamar Jackson example but let’s stick in the Flacco era for a bit. In 2012, Harbaugh fired Cam Cameron. When he had to do it, he pulled the trigger. When Joe Flacco was ready to reach his professional peak, he told the new play-caller, Jim Caldwell, to let the ball fly.
While Flacco couldn’t repeat it, he had a majestic run to the Super Bowl. A team that had always relied upon defense and the run game was all the suddenly throwing their way to a Lombardi Trophy.
When it was almost time for the Flacco era to end, the Ravens preemptively drafted Lamar Jackson. When Jackson became the starter, Harbaugh had his team put out a brand of football that was completely different.
Everything centered on the run game and churning out long drives. In 2019, Baltimore had the most unique offense in the NFL The Ravens became very aggressive on fourth downs and played an analytics-based game. They went 14-2. Harbaugh took himself off the hot seat and won the AP NFL Coach of the Year award. The amount of successful change from Harbaugh was astounding.
Tomlin has never won the AP NFL Coach of the Year honor. He’s come very close. When the Steelers almost made the postseason without Ben Roethlisberger, Tomlin was certainly a candidate. That was some of Tomlin’s best work, but Harbaugh won the 2019 award. It is worth pointing out for the sake of this conversation that Tomlin was the youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl.
While Tomlin is less focused on analytics, he is a fantastic football strategist. Winning any game with Devlin Hodges as your quarterback is living proof of that fact. The fact that the Steelers have beaten the Ravens with Charlie Batch is proof of that fact. You can put his Steelers teams into a bad spot and he finds a way to be competitive. He’s smart and he has always had an abundance of will to win.
Verdict: Slight nod to John Harbaugh
The more diplomatic answer is that it is a dealer’s choice. Ravens fans are more likely to choose Harbaugh and Steelers fans are more likely to take Tomlin. Prefacing it with that, I’m going to go with John Harbaugh. While I don’t think you can go wrong here, I think Harbaugh is the coach I would hire in the hypothetical scenario where I ran an NFL team.
Here’s why I lean towards Harbaugh, other than the obvious bias of familiarity and the fact that this is a Ravens blog; I think Harbaugh is a perfect leader. Does the coach speak get old after a loss? Absolutely. I would actually argue that Tomlin gives the more entertaining press conferences, not that it really factors into the equation.
While Harbaugh is a player’s coach, he’s not really one of the guys. He’s the boss. He works with the players and the player-coach relationship is generally a healthy one. When things go south, he’s the conductor and his voice doesn’t get lost in the crowd. When things are good, he keeps the team mostly grounded. I think Harbaugh’s leadership is on a different level and that is why I ultimately give him the nod.
These are clearly the two best coaches not named Bill Belichick in football. You can’t go wrong. I offered my analysis and opinion, but it really is a dealer’s choice here.