Go ahead and fire them.
Fire Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley, Keith Butler and the entire coaching staff.
Fire them all.
That’s what pretty much the entirety of Steelers Nation will demand after Sunday night, and I can’t say I blame them after that deflating, possibly devastating defensive collapse to the Cowboys and the 35-30 crusher that followed.
One moment, Ben Roethlisberger pulls a Dan Marino with a dazzling fake-spike touchdown to Antonio Brown, for what should have been a fantasy finish to his “Follow me” comment earlier in the week:
Then next, the defense lays down and dies.
You witnessed it. And if you were among the 67,737, chances are excellent you’ve never been part of anything like it. The last thing anyone would need is a revisiting.
So yeah, go ahead and fire them.
Fire them all.
If they lose next week in Cleveland, fire them before they can get back on the bus.
And yeah, barring that, fire them if this team doesn’t make the playoffs.
No bluff. No hype. No hot take. Because the fact is, there’s no longer anywhere else to point.
Tomlin’s got an ever-growing list of problems, and a rookie safety accidentally grabbing a facemask isn’t one of them, though Sean Davis is sure to take his share of the heat.
Lay off Davis. He’s a kid. He’s talented. He’s smart. He’ll learn and be stronger.
You want real problems?
How about a defense so sickeningly soft that, when Dallas got the ball back after Ben’s beautiful play, the 42 seconds still on the clock undoubtedly had every single soul in the place convinced the Cowboys would come back?
Come on, fess up. You felt it, too.
Heck, even the stadium’s in-game operations backed off a second playing of ‘Renegade,’ which I almost couldn’t believe.
But that’s what this defense has become. There have been a couple blips and a couple individual bright spots, sure. But when these guys are tasked with winning the game, they don’t. And that’s not new. We’ve seen it now for half-a-decade and half-a-dozen wasted high draft picks on defensive studs turned duds. We’ve seen it for far too long, and there’s no longer an end in sight.
When Tomlin finished his opening monologue in the postgame press conference, I asked one simple question: Is he seeing progress with this defense?
So basically, no.
And that’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it?
Tomlin’s chosen defensive coordinator, Keith Butler, has had his playbook reduced to a Gordian knot for which neither of them, very clearly, has an answer. They entered the season terrified to blitz because they needed to shield their shaky secondary. Then, they started getting steamrollered by ordinary running backs for 200-plus yards and began filling the box. Then, when finally feeling at least a little confident in a young secondary, they started blitzing again, only to have this kind of thing happen:
That up there is Dez Bryant’s 50-yard touchdown catch from Dak Prescott. Blitzing up the middle is Mike Mitchell, who normally would be back helping another rookie, Artie Burns, to cover one of the NFL’s premier receivers. Anthony Chickillo also comes late.
So blame Burns for being beaten. Blame the ref for not flagging Bryant’s push-off.
But ultimately, blame the defense for failing all over the field.
Just as it did on Ezekiel Elliott’s Vaudevillian 83-yard run …
… and on Elliott’s 14-yard touchdown run with 1:55 left that was so egregiously easy …
… that the Steelers seriously entertained questions afterward as to whether they’d intentionally allowed him to score so they get the ball back sooner. No snapping. No indignation.
Even Tomlin responded to a question about allowing Dallas to score with a calm, “No, they scored.”
Stop and think about that for a second. The defense on that run was so pathetic that this was perceived, even by the perpetrators, as a wholly legit line of questioning.
“The Cowboys made the splash plays,” Tomlin said.
No, sorry. Because the term ‘splash’ in football connotes doing something special. It’s a positive. Elliott running all over the field like a wild ostrich isn’t ‘splash.’ It’s a defense that doesn’t know what it’s doing or, if it does, how to do it. That play up there isn’t ‘splash’ anything.
It’s Lawrence Timmons, a veteran who’s by now so used to having to compensate for other people’s mistakes, straying from the hole “I should have filled, and I wish I could have it again.”
And it’s Ryan Shazier badly overshooting his blitz, something he confessed to me happened a lot:
Cam Heyward, the defensive leader who could barely breathe afterward because of a pectoral injury but also probably because this performance was eating him alive, was adamant that Butler’s defensive calls were sound on the big plays.
“It was the right call, every time,” the big man said. “We just didn’t execute.”
Listen to him, watch him:
I’ve never heard or seen him like that.
The responsibility rises to the top. Kevin Colbert and Tomlin built this defense. Tomlin and Butler coach this defense. It isn’t nearly good enough and it isn’t collectively getting any better.
That’s a problem.
You want another real problem?
The franchise quarterback, very evidently, doesn’t think his coach is doing much of a job. At least in one area.
Roethlisberger’s gathering around his locker stall opened with an innocuous question about how the Steelers can move forward from this four-game losing streak.
“We’ll chew this up,” he answered. “And we need to be more disciplined and more accountable.”
A bit later, someone asked if the Steelers have the right guys in the locker room to get things right.
“We have no choice. They’re a great football team. Like I said, we’re undisciplined and not accountable. That’s why they’re one of the best in the business, and we’re not right now.”
So he was asked by our beat writer Mark Kaboly about using the word ‘accountable’ a couple times and how the Steelers might achieve that.
“I don’t know. Is it players? Is it coaches? I don’t know, but we need to get there quick.”
Here’s the full video for the fullest context …
… but make no mistake: When the topic is accountability in team sports, and it’s raised by the team’s top player, and said player openly offers that the ‘coaches’ might be culpable, that’s not just a problem. That’s a lit fuse.
Add to that Roethlisberger’s public critique a month ago of Tomlin’s excessively physical practices, in his view, and a few other under-the-breath elements to the equation, and I’m not sure he could make it any more obvious that, even if there isn’t some outright rift, they aren’t exactly synchronizing their swimming these days.
I’m not going to take this too far. They’ve coexisted for far too long, they’ve won a Super Bowl together, and they’ve had much other success. That hasn’t happened because they hate each other or something silly like that.
I’m also not going to speculate as to what Roethlisberger’s specific issue might be, if it’s even specific. It could be anything.
That doesn’t matter nearly as much as … wow, just go up and read that again.
Understand this: Roethlisberger isn’t without his flaws, not then and not now. But if there’s one trait of his that I’ve believed to be truest since I’ve known him, it’s that he’s motivated by Super Bowls. It’s the way he defines his career, no matter how others might. It’s what he wants more than anything in football, and it’s absolutely what he wanted most heading into this season that, until the past month, had seemed so promising.
He’ll do anything to make that happen, even a him-or-me. And I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he did.
Art Rooney II made the serious mistake of once siding against Roethlisberger in replacing Bruce Arians with Haley, and one would hope he’d see that wasn’t a risk worth taking then or now. As another team in town has illustrated for a long time, the star player is always, always more valuable than any executive or coach.
This star player wants ‘accountability,’ and only one person can deliver that.
You want one last real problem?
Hey, the club is 4-5. And facing the Browns on the road, where … oh, you know:
If they lose to that team, of all teams … yeah, fire all of them.
I’m not intending this stance as idle gimmickry, and I don’t take it lightly. My respect and admiration for Tomlin is on the record and hasn’t altered in the slightest, even if he isn’t exactly best buds with most anyone in this business. He’s a good man, a good coach. And for what it’s worth, his history shows that his teams do bounce back, including from the lowest lows. I’ll never forget the gloomiest locker room I’ve ever covered, that day in London a couple years back when the Steelers were 0-4, and how he straightened that into an 8-4 finish.
But this team was supposed to be more than this. So much more, it could be argued.
And even if it’s doing nothing more than meeting expectations in some eyes, it’s not up for debate that any roster with Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell shouldn’t be wallowing this way.
So I’ll repeat: If this team fails to make the playoffs, fire them all.