PITTSBURGH — Days after the first “Fire Canada” chants rained down at Acrisure Stadium in mid-September, starting a fan-led movement that would stretch across sports and cities, embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the Pittsburgh Steelers were back on the practice field at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Tight end Connor Heyward jogged across the formation with the assignment of faking a jet sweep, a concept that drew the ire of fans perhaps more than anything else in Canada’s largely ineffective playbook.
But, like so many things in the Steelers’ offense, the entire play was out of whack. Center Mason Cole snapped the ball — and nailed Heyward right in the groin. If there was a moment that summed up an offense full of pre-snap motion and devoid of scoring, this was it.
Heyward would be OK. Canada would not.
On Tuesday morning, after two-and-a-half seasons of offensive ineptitude and countless calls for his job, Canada was finally fired by the Steelers. Running backs coach Eddie Faulkner will serve as the interim offensive coordinator, and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan will call the plays.
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Coach Mike Tomlin said the decision was “mine and mine alone.”
“Rest assured that this decision was not taken lightly,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Matt, personally and professionally. It was not easy. But I thought it was necessary.”
Mike Tomlin on the decision to fire Matt Canada:
“This is a result-oriented business. To be short, the improvements were not rapid enough or consistent enough for us to proceed.” pic.twitter.com/KTyo2RHPFf
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) November 21, 2023
The termination ends a stretch of 44 regular-season games during which the Steelers averaged the fifth-fewest points in the league (17.9). But even that stat doesn’t fully encapsulate the dysfunction and disarray. The offense failed to produce 400 yards even once in 45 games (including playoffs) with Canada calling the plays. Every other NFL team had at least four such games in that span, and the average team had 10. In 33 of 45 games, the Steelers’ offense failed to score over 20 points in regulation.
Four different quarterbacks took snaps during that stretch. None were successful. It reached the point in Pittsburgh where fans had started chanting “Fire Canada” at Pittsburgh Penguins hockey games. Local grocery store Giant Eagle made cookie cakes with “Fire Canada” in black and gold icing.
Still, considering Canada was in the final year of his three-year contract and the Steelers historically do not fire coaches in the middle of seasons, he appeared to be a lame-duck coordinator riding out the final days of his tenure. Instead, the organization broke from precedent by reaching the inevitable divorce 10 games into the season.
“This is a result-oriented business,” Tomlin said. “To be short, the improvements were not rapid enough or consistent enough for us to proceed.”
Throughout Canada’s entire coaching career, it seems the football world hasn’t been able to figure out what to make of him.
At times in his coaching journey, he’s been seen as an offensive innovator on his way up. Respected coaches like Sean McVay borrowed concepts from Canada, including his polarizing jet motions and pre-snap shifts. In 2016, Canada was the only offensive coach to be a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top collegiate assistant coach after Pitt averaged a school-record 42 points per game.
Other times? He’s been seen as the problem. He parlayed that record-setting campaign at Pitt into a lucrative three-year deal as LSU offensive coordinator that made him one of college football’s highest-paid assistants. He lost play-calling responsibilities before the first season’s end. Former Tigers coach Ed Orgeron fired him after one year, publicly calling the hiring a “mistake.”
His tenure with Pittsburgh can be seen only as an abject failure.
When the Steelers promoted Canada from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator ahead of the 2021 season, he inherited whatever was left in Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame right arm. In his first year as an NFL play caller, Canada’s offense finished 20th in scoring, averaging 19.8 points per game on offense. That was Roethlisberger’s quietest offensive output in a decade.
The hope at the time was that a new, young quarterback would have the necessary mobility to extend plays, a fresh arm to attack downfield and, maybe most importantly, an open mind that would allow Canada to unfurl his entire playbook.
It never happened.
Season after season, the offense only found new ways to fail. In 2022, the Steelers slid even further, finishing 26th in offensive scoring (18.1). Frequently, analysts blasted Canada for his simple schemes and inability to adjust. Last season, Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt suggested the offense was easy for opponents to prepare against.
“We knew what they were going to do,” he said. “They like to do the same plays over and over.”
Later that season, Colts defenders were caught on a live mic screaming, “It’s the same plays!”
The excuse last year was that the Steelers were breaking in rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, who was thrust into action in the middle of the season. But even with an offseason to build a connection with teammates and another year to become familiar with the playbook, the results only got worse.
This season, Pittsburgh ranks 28th in offensive points per game (15.0), 28th in yards per game (280.1) and 31st in passing yards per game (170).
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While the Steelers had a number of young, new pieces on offense in recent years, they have also invested heavily enough on this side of the ball that the production should be better. The skill positions are bursting with pedigree, with first-round picks at quarterback (Pickett), running back (Najee Harris) and offensive tackle (Broderick Jones). The Steelers also recently expended second-round picks at receiver (George Pickens) and tight end (Pat Freiermuth) and, ahead of the 2022 season, rewarded Diontae Johnson with a two-year, $36.71 million deal, hoping he could recapture his Pro Bowl best.
Instead, each and every one of those players underperformed with Canada calling the shots. Harris has been hit in the backfield more times than you can count. Johnson went the entire 2022 season without a touchdown. Pickett, who ranks 27th in passer rating (79.2) and 29th in completion percentage (60.5), is the first quarterback since the 1970 merger with at least 500 attempts to throw a touchdown pass on fewer than 2 percent of his attempts.
Inefficiencies devolved into dysfunction.
Following a Week 9 victory over the Tennessee Titans, during which Pickens caught two passes for minus-1 yard, the second-year receiver scrubbed his Instagram of any Steelers references. He posted “Free Me” in a story that was quickly deleted.
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The final straw came on Sunday in Cleveland. Pickett completed just 53.6 percent of his passes for 106 yards. On numerous occasions, he and Johnson weren’t on the same page, causing Johnson to fume on the sidelines. Jones wrapped Johnson in a bear hug and pulled him away from a heated exchange with a staff member. Tomlin later stepped in to try to calm the receiver.
After the game, emotions continued to flow. A distraught Harris hinted that the dysfunction went beyond the sideline outbursts.
“There’s just a lot of stuff that goes around that you guys don’t see,” Harris said. “I’m just at a point, man, where I’m tired of the s—.”
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He went on to bemoan the lack of creativity on offense, saying that the Browns were sitting on every screen pass and it felt like at times they knew exactly what was coming.
“I just don’t know what to do,” Harris said. “I feel like I am stuck in this situation where I don’t have an answer to it, and all I can do is ride this little wave.”
The ride is over. The coordinator is gone. So too are the excuses, now that Pickett doesn’t have a human shield to absorb criticism.
It was hard at times to isolate variables and assign blame with a coordinator who had never proven he could succeed at the NFL level and a quarterback who has never shown he can be a steady NFL passer. Canada’s firing ends that. Pickett is running out of excuses, and will need to deliver if he doesn’t want to be the next person on the way out.
Just something to consider:
In 2017, the New York Giants had produced just 16.0 points per game (27th) through the first five weeks. Ben McAdoo turned to Mike Sullivan as play caller. And from week 6 to the end of season, they were last in the league with 13.6 points per game.
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) November 21, 2023
(Photo: Nick Cammett / Getty Images)
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