PHOENIX — After a disappointing, drama-filled 9-6-1 season — not to mention an offseason that included the dumping of two All-Pro players — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin used the NFL owners meetings Tuesday as an opportunity to outline how his team could get back to its playoff-making, scandal-free ways in 2019.
And it started with defending and empowering his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
The 37-year-old Roethlisberger, the last remaining Steeler from their 2008 Super Bowl team, isn’t afraid to publicly call out teammates, as he did with the now-jettisoned Antonio Brown last season. This tendency has led some to criticize Roethlisberger, but Tomlin reiterated Tuesday that he’s good with how his quarterback leads, and he fully expects him to have another productive, prolific season in 2019 as the Steelers’ alpha dog.
“I have no problem with his play or his leadership,” Tomlin said. “You know him — you don’t do what he has done, at the level that he has done it, for the time in which he’s done it, without responding appropriately to challenges and adversity. That’s just in his DNA.”
Mike Tomlin: ‘I consider last year a failure’
Tomlin himself hasn’t escaped criticism over the past several months, either. With his players repeatedly taking jabs at star running back Le’Veon Bell throughout his season-long absence due to a contract dispute — not to mention Brown’s multiple blowups, which seemed to stem from a lack of communication or respect between all parties — the Steelers had so much drama last year that it caught the attention of everyone, from the media to some notable former Steelers, and even led to questions about whether Tomlin had enough control of the locker room.
On Tuesday, Tomlin declined to share how he has grown as a coach after such a trying season. It’s a question he gets a lot, he said, and he has no interest in quantifying it. But he admitted that he knows there’s more he can do to help the Steelers get back on track.
“Certainly I think reflection is a part of this, particularly when you have failure,” Tomlin said. “And I consider last year a failure. Reflection and the analysis of how we operate and how I function within that is just a natural point of procedure.
“We were a 9-6-1 football team last year. We all need to look into the mirror at what we do and how we do it, starting with me. That is the approach I am taking.”
Tomlin, however, added that he’s open to growth and is constantly working on self-improvement (without going into specifics). And that, when combined with the personal responsibility he hopes his remaining players take for righting the ship in Pittsburgh, is enough to make him optimistic that the challenges his team faces in 2019 will be less pronounced than a year ago.
“I’m looking forward to the growth and development of some men, and maybe developing in a leadership type of way that maybe wasn’t revealed in 2018 in some instances,” Tomlin said. “So, we’ll write that story.”
To that end, Tomlin said his strategy for building a winning culture is the same as it has ever been.
“Let your pet peeves be known,” he said. “Set some boundaries. Provide a structure in which people can be their best, and then ultimately win football games.”
Can addition by subtraction work for Steelers?
When asked by Yahoo Sports to cultivate a team where the locker room polices itself, Tomlin was even more succinct.
“I think you get quality men who happen to be quality players,” Tomlin said. “It starts there.”
Tomlin then expressed optimism, once again, that the foundation is laid for that to sprout in Pittsburgh. With Bell off to the New York Jets and Brown shipped to Oakland for third- and fifth-round picks, Tomlin said he’ll be looking at several returning players — including Bell’s and Brown’s replacements as the top skill players in a prolific offense — to find out if the Steelers’ perceived theory of addition by subtraction this offseason is truly valid.
“We’ll see — I know that we have some plays that need to be made, and somebody has to make them,” Tomlin said. “I know we had a Pro Bowl wide receiver [JuJu Smith-Schuster] who was on our team last year who is still on our team, and we had a Pro Bowl running back [James Conner] on our team last year who’s still on our team. They better make plays, and we better develop and acquire and develop people to assist them in making the plays.”
In a best-case scenario, the Steelers would see Conner and Smith-Schuster — two of their best young players — fill the void of Bell and Brown by growing into respected locker room presences for a team that seemed rudderless at times in 2018. Tomlin admits he isn’t sure who will help Roethlisberger seize control of the team, but he’s confident it will happen.
“I think we’re going to develop that for 2019 and I don’t want to assume anything as we sit here,” Tomlin said. “We’re in the process of acquiring talent via free agency and the draft and blending and developing that talent, and whatever our roles were in 2018, I don’t want to assume anything as it relates to 2019.”
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