"Questions," came the command from the podium, one final time this winter at Heinz Field. And that's how Mike Tomlin phrases it, by the way. In the form of a command.
So yeah, I had questions. I'm betting the entirety of Steelers Nation's bleeding with questions.
Not that he intended to actually answer any ...
Hey, I tried.
So did another reporter a minute later, asking how hard it must be to swallow missing the playoffs.
"Again, I'm not getting into that," Tomlin came back. "I was talking about what happened in the stadium today, the assessment of this game and so forth. We can paint with a broader brush on Tuesday."
Wait, it'll be OK to paint with a broader brush Tuesday, but it isn't OK right after the culmination of the ugliest collapse our city's once-proud football franchise has endured since ... since ... who knows when?
Sorry, Coach. You don't set the rules here anymore than you do in your own locker room.
The Steelers beat the Bengals, 16-13, of course. And big whoop.
Because counting on the bleeping Browns was exactly the psychotic postscript a season like this deserved, as was the impromptu watch party that popped up inside the stadium to witness Baker Mayfield's boys falling short on the big board. I mean, it was fun to see the Steelers' players and fans cheering in concert, but let's not pretend the whole scene wasn't unsettling.
Or that the whole season wasn't unsettling.
On the outside, anyway.
I'm honestly not sure what to make of that locker room afterward. I've covered rooms after eliminations that ranged from down to devastated, but there'd never been one to break from that range until this. And this one blew the doors off. This was like preseason. Players from veterans to rookies and everyone in between had chins raised, shoulders up, saying all upbeat stuff about having missed out on a moment here or there.
Understand this, please, before I proceed: This isn't necessarily a criticism of the players. All that matters in the football culture is Sunday. More than any other sport, whatever came before or what's still to come is willfully tuned out. And the postgame tone with this team -- and most teams -- is set immediately by the head coach. He'll tell the players something as they're gathered 'round the room and, once the doors are opened to reporters, that sentiment will get echoed in quotes all over.
Which is how this non-coincidental convergence of ideas occurred after this game ...
"The ball didn't go our way sometimes," Cam Heyward would say. "Our execution in critical moments wasn't what we needed it to be."
"A couple plays here or there is all it takes in this league," David DeCastro would say.
I had no idea who these men were or what they'd done with Heyward and DeCastro, but it was everywhere.
"I'm not looking at anything negative," James Conner would say. "There's no reason to go back to earlier in the season."
The aliens possessed James, too.
And my God, they claimed Ramon Foster, the king of candor:
Nowhere else could signs of this broader conclusion be found. It was business as usual: Ben Roethlisberger walked over to his offensive linemen, offering hugs and appreciation. Tomlin passed through the room, shaking hands and checking on a couple of banged-up guys. Art Rooney and Kevin Colbert stood in their signature spot near a support beam, speaking casually. Players everywhere were poking at each other, piping up and ... look, it wasn't celebratory but it sure wasn't sullen.
Hey, it was Sunday. They'd won.
And yet again, that's fine, in and of itself. Even if the Bengals were missing 18 players, including most of their important ones, the goal set for this Sunday was achieved. The culture is the culture.
But what's concerned me for a while about these Steelers is that the time for serious introspection, for authentic accountability, seldom ever arrives.
It won't come Tuesday, either. Oh, Tomlin will bring out that 'broad brush' and be semi-open about facets beyond beating half the Cincinnati roster, but take it to the bank he won't revisit six turnovers in Cleveland. Or not showing up at all for the first meeting with the Ravens, a lack of effort that still bugs me like no other. Or four more turnovers in Denver. Or blowing a 16-point lead to the Chargers. Or whatever in hell kept Roethlisberger stuck on the sideline in Oakland. Or the questionable calls in New Orleans, where they took their only truly valiant loss and still looked stupid.
He might be asked about the 11-challenge losing streak, and he'll retort with something about needing to be better.
He might be asked about hiring specialty coaches, as others have in the NFL -- even the knuckle-dragging Raiders have 'em -- to assist with video replays, clock management and/or officiating issues, and he'll go nebulous about always wanting to learn more.
He might be asked about the incessant drama, which this season more than any other embarrassed the Steelers across the football world, and he'll condescend with one of those, 'Guys, you know I don't talk about social media' ... as if somehow social media exists in some alternate reality. Or that social media itself is the culprit. Or even relevant to a specific dramatic situation.
He might be asked to evaluate Keith Butler, Danny Smith, Joey Porter and others on his staff who've done more damage than good, and he'll set some vague timetable for which he expects to weigh everyone's work equally.
Some of these replies will be rejected on a need-to-know basis, and that's understandable. We don't have a right to be privy to everything we ask, whether it's media or fans. But we do have a right, in taking an interest in the team, to expect that all of the above actually gets addressed.
I've got zero faith, from hard precedent, that it will. Not at an appropriate level, and certainly not in a proper scope.
Want some proper scope?
Here goes: The Steelers are 3-5 in playoff games since reaching their last Super Bowl in 2010. As in three playoff wins over eight years. As in those three wins having come against a terribly depleted Miami team, and against Marvin Lewis and Andy Reid, the NFL's ultimate playoff failures. As in once advancing past the first playoff round. As in twice being eliminated in the first playoff game after regular seasons of 12-plus wins.
As in three years, now officially, of not making the playoffs at all.
Of feeling this hollow ...
[caption id="attachment_750687" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Mike Hilton after the Browns' loss was shown on the big board. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
And this with a Hall of Fame quarterback, a Hall of Fame wide receiver, occasionally elite accompanying talent on offense, and a richly experienced line, all of which are the most vital ingredients to success in the modern game.
As much as Tomlin loathes talking about last week, good luck trying to get him to talk about last year, never mind the entire decade.
Maybe it's time he does talk about it. All of it, not just a given Sunday.
But not with us.
Rooney won't fire Tomlin. Hoping for it is a waste of energy. Expecting it is plain nuts.
But that hardly means there's no chance at an upgraded head coach. Or in converting all those close losses into close wins:
There just has to be a willingness from the very top to force genuine change. And that's something Art II, unlike Art Sr. or Dan, hasn't yet had to do in his tenure as chairman. Those men presided over firings and hirings. They brought aboard Chuck Noll, then Bill Cowher, then Tomlin. All succeeded. All have their names engraved on the Lombardi. All were excellent choices.
It's time for Art II to take up the mantle.
Sure, shoving Bruce Arians out the door in favor of Todd Haley was his call, contrary to a few clumsy protestations that followed. He shouldn't have hidden behind it, either. He should have stood tall, told everyone he felt the franchise quarterback needed to stay in the pocket to lengthen his career, and that this coordinator was a better fit for that. For all of Haley's many failings, that aspect was commendably achieved.
This would be different. This has to be different. This wouldn't be undermining the head coach as much as it would be overhauling him.
Art II needs to ask those questions up there. Tomlin can dismiss nobodies like me, but he can't do that with the boss. He needs to structure a list of concerns, not from one Sunday but from all Sundays, and conduct ... I don't want to call it an inquiry because that sounds super-serious, but more along the lines of an exhaustive job evaluation. He needs to prepare like a litigator. He needs to come armed with information, not just about how the Steelers operate but also how the NFL's other 31 teams operate, for better or worse.
I can't state this strongly enough: One person in the Steelers' hierarchy is capable of this. And if he doesn't do it, that's irresponsible stewardship of a civic -- and family -- trust.
If all that happens here is Rooney, Colbert and Tomlin conduct the same meetings at the same points in the year going over the same things, if their joint response is to dump Butler and/or Smith and nothing else, then everything will stay the same.
Obviously, as one of them might word it.
[caption id="attachment_750771" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Mike Tomlin and the Bengals' Marvin Lewis after the game. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
But if Rooney can put Tomlin on the defensive for the first time in his tenure, if he can make clear his very real dissatisfaction with the Steelers' showing in 2018 ... not just that they lost but how and why they lost ... then one of two things will happen:
1. Tomlin will listen and, theoretically, become a more effective, more open-minded and better supported coach.
2. Tomlin will resist.
If it's the latter, that's when the chairman asks for a resignation. Because that's when there's a legitimate, irreparable gulf in philosophies. And that's when there can be only one boss.
Do I envision the latter will come about?
Not in the slightest. But if it's never entered into the equation, then that's when the coach can run the place however he wants for however long he wants. That's when the coach can 'find comfort,' to borrow one of Tomlin's pet terms, in the length of his tenure and those of the two men who preceded him over the past half-century.
I'll repeat: This has to be different.
The Steelers didn't miss out on the playoffs on this day. They didn't miss out in Oakland or Denver or Cleveland, even though Foster and others would acknowledge, "The tie in Cleveland came first, and that was the worst." They didn't miss out because of anything that began at any point this season, maybe not even last season or the season before that.
It's been a cumulative effect, and the solution will come from a cumulative stance. One that's got to take precedence over anything else this offseason.
Maybe they can get started on Tuesday.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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