PITTSBURGH — His top playmaker is skipping meetings and sabotaging games and sparking trade scenarios. His other top playmaker bagged the entire season. His team dropped four games in five weeks by seven points or fewer.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stood at a podium Wednesday as a man under attack. He was ready for all the smoke.
“I accept responsibility and I foster and develop every aspect of our culture,” Tomlin said. “That’s this game. That’s leadership. You embrace and respect and honor all aspects of that, certainly.”
If there’s one benefit of a missed playoff appearance, of wide receiver Antonio Brown‘s absence and running back Le’Veon Bell’s holdout, it’s this: A successful head coach can rediscover his edge.
How Tomlin handles the Brown saga and his coaching staff in the next few weeks and months will say plenty about the 2019 Steelers.
What happens when one of the NFL’s most accomplished current coaches shoots a 17-game brick dating to the failed onside kick in the playoffs against Jacksonville?
An impressive 123-64-1 career record loses some of its shine.
Fans who never were sold on him will feel emboldened, waving that “players’ coach” label proudly.
Previous issues — such as three playoff wins since 2011 despite 82 regular-season victories during that span — are no longer camouflaged, but illuminated.
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013, Tomlin isn’t hiding from any of that. He never has, often pointing out that winning is the only prerequisite for job security.
Tomlin promised that he and his staff, which could feature moving parts in the next week, would “wallow” in the 9-6-1 season and embrace change, however it comes.
“Is it challenging? Certainly. Am I appropriately compensated for those challenges? Certainly,” Tomlin said. “When you get tired of those challenges, when you wear the whistle and you stand at the podium, you need to find a new line of work. I just don’t have that sentiment. That’s why I embrace it in the ways that I do, not that I like it, not that it’s enjoyable. It’s not, but I’m not running, and I’m certainly not seeking comfort in those things relative to our performance because when we’re good, you find ways to overcome them, you minimize, you make them less of a story.”
Tomlin is still the right coach for the Steelers in 2019, but hard decisions and harsh truths await as the Steelers formulate a plan to improve.
That plan will undoubtedly include team president Art Rooney II, who can get to the root of why dubious distinctions such as this now exist:
The Steelers are the third NFL team since 1990 to start 7-2-1 or better through 10 games and fail to reach the playoffs. The other two teams, the 1995 Raiders (8-2) and 1993 Dolphins (8-2), lost their starting quarterbacks to injury.
Such an unsettling collapse triggers change for even the most stable franchises.
What Tomlin couldn’t control is a series of flukish moments that prevented wins. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missing most of the second half in Oakland with a rib issue. JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s fumble in New Orleans. Untimely officiating.
What he could control is a defense that struggled mightily to close out games, an odd streak of 10 consecutive lost challenges, and aggressive calls — mainly, the Jacksonville onside play and the fake punt in New Orleans — backfiring.
And he deserves his share of criticism for the predicament with Brown, which Tomlin says will be handled “appropriately so.”
By benching Brown in Sunday’s finale against Cincinnati, Tomlin seems ready to take a stand against his All-Pro receiver. But criticism for not checking Brown harder years earlier is probably warranted.
None of that means Tomlin has lost the locker room.
“There’s no guess on who you’re going to get,” tight end Vance McDonald said. “You get Coach Tomlin. That’s a catalyst.”
“There’s no other way I’d rather have an NFL head coach than the way Mike Tomlin does it,” left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said.
Villanueva is about to see how Tomlin handles one of his biggest challenges. Based on Wednesday’s news conference, he seems eager for that collision.