LONDON – Mike Tomlin was mad late Sunday night.
He stalked the corridor between the two soccer dressing chambers that served as the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room at Wembley Stadium after their 34-27 loss to Minnesota. He wore the same black Steelers T-shirt he had on under his jacket during the game. The jacket was tied around his waist. He was not going to shower before the nine-hour flight across the Atlantic. His team had dropped to 0-4 for the first time in 45 years, no hot water was going to change that.
So he did his best to rush his team out of the last place he wanted to remain. England couldn't disappear fast enough. He had approached the Steelers' venture to London as a business trip, arriving just two days before the game and now the business was failing.
He fell back against a cinder block wall between the two dressing chambers.
"Ahhhhhhh," he said softly but loud enough to hear.
He looked at the team's owner, Dan Rooney, and sighed.
"All those big plays," he said.
The Steelers dynasty of the last decade has fallen. Its defense has aged. Players have left. Center Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season in the first half of the first game. For years Pittsburgh was the lion of the AFC, a team that would battle through whatever calamities befell it. Now it can't beat a winless team with a replacement quarterback on a soccer field in Europe.
"Right now you can say we are the worst team in the league," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said as he stood in front of his locker.
And Tomlin quietly raged. The last time a Pittsburgh team started this badly was the year before Chuck Noll arrived as head coach. That was the start of a glorious 4 ½ decade run of dominance and championships overseen by just three coaches: Noll, Bill Cowher and himself. Now he, Mike Tomlin, was in charge of 0-4 and he couldn't seem to stand the sight.
He stared hard at the ceiling of the makeshift press conference room when he came in to address the media, taking a long look at the strands of bunting that dangled from the ceiling before stepping to the lectern.
"Obviously a disappointing loss," he said. "But really who am I kidding? They all are, regardless of the manner of which they unfold."
What angered him the most was the "explosion plays," those made by Vikings like running back Adrian Peterson who stormed through tackles and receiver Greg Jennings, who weaved through the lunging hands of what seemed like half of Pittsburgh's defense on his way to a 70-yard touchdown. Those he couldn't handle.
"Going to chew everything we've got coming," he growled.
Then he said this: "I have great patience. We'll continue to work and get better as long as I see belief and effort and continued improvement in detail because that's what's going to change the outcome of these games.
"Those who don't, they won't be a part of it, whoever it may be. It's just that simple."
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So much is wrong with the Steelers right now that isn't anyone's fault or justifies a cleansing of the roster. Pouncey's injury has caused an earthquake on the offensive line that continued to ripple on Sunday when left guard Ramon Foster left with an unspecified pectoral injury. This meant Pittsburgh went against Jared Allen and the Vikings' aggressive defensive line with even more of a makeshift line, rotating more players out of position. The result was a swarm of tacklers spilling around Roethlisberger every time he dropped back to pass.
On defense safety Troy Polamalu, the team's once-swaggering playmaker, has to spend much of the games up near the line since the Steelers are desperate to stop the run – something they once did with ease.
The Steelers are a lost former champion, though not as hopeless as the New York Giants whose plunge to 0-4 has been more inexplicable and certainly more pronounced. The Giants appear lost these days. Pittsburgh's players understand what is wrong and they fight through their predicaments much the way they did in the old days when simply having the will to win was enough to get to the playoffs.
On Sunday, in a foreign stadium, beneath a British flag, they tried to will that elusive first victory. They battled back from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to be 6 yards from a tie. That comeback was all Roethlisberger, who threw for 383 yards while trying to elude the Vikings who poured in around him on nearly every play. They finally got him on that last third down at the 6, one pulling his jersey in a horse collar tackle, the other leaping on his head as he fell. The ball rolled out of his hands and 0-4 was clinched.
Later, Roethlisberger winced as he dressed. He sat at his locker and struggled to pull on his socks. His knee seemed sore. The index finger on his passing hand ached, having been struck on a Vikings player's arm during a second-half throw. He smiled and said it was the normal residual of a tough game. But his struggle to pull on his warm-up pants and T-shirt seemed to be much more than that. He looked broken, tired, defeated.
"I have to hope we can turn it around," he said. "You have to believe you are going to be part of something special. If you don't, you shouldn't be here."
He smiled sadly.
Tomlin, meanwhile, stood in the passageway between the dressing chambers. There was no smile. His eyes remained angry. A British reporter approached Roethlisberger to ask about the experience of playing in London. Tomlin had a team employee end the interview. He wanted to leave.
The coach took one last look around the dressing chambers and noticed a half-naked Brad Keisel – he of the gigantic beard fame – chatting merrily with a band of British reporters hanging on his impressions of their homeland. Tomlin grumbled to another team employee who made a quick slashing gesture.
The British reporters would have to engage Keisel in another lifetime. The Steelers were 0-4 and Mike Tomlin didn't like it one bit. The door slammed shut on London and the worst football time Pittsburgh has known since three years before he was born.