Kovacevic: Tomlin up to the tall tasks ahead
Let's get this out of the way early: If the Steelers fail to make the playoffs, it would — and should — mean nothing to Mike Tomlin's future with the team.
Even if they lose out to the Bengals and Browns.
Even if they finish 7-9 after starting out 6-3 in a mostly miserable AFC.
To even discuss the man's immediate future, to me, feels a little silly. Resumes do matter. Experience matters. For all the 24/7, tweet-and-text analysis in which our sporting culture now engages, no reasonable, rational fan (yeah, I know) could fairly assess Tomlin without weighing his:
• Two Super Bowl appearances, with one Lombardi Trophy.
• Four playoff berths in his first five years.
• 62-32 career record.
OK, with that said, as has been documented in this very space, Tomlin is not having a good 2012. And it's getting more glaring with each passing week that he has plenty of areas to address toward restoring the Steelers' elite status, as well as his once-sterling reputation for stewarding a winner.
Thus, I humbly offer these three wholly unsolicited concepts for the head coach's consideration, not so much for this weekend but for the weeks and months ahead:
1. Solve Ben vs. Todd
Tomlin predictably downplayed this topic Tuesday in his news conference, saying of Ben Roethlisberger's Sunday jabs at Todd Haley, “When you come up short, there are frustrations associated with that.”
Tomlin added that he met with Roethlisberger on Monday and that the QB is “on-board with what we're doing.”
Well, that's that, then.
Again, I'm behind Roethlisberger on this. He's the franchise player, and that's the lay of the land anymore.
To address that fully — and let's not pretend it won't come up anew — Tomlin must first accept that the star holds all the cards. He's got no choice. If it comes down to a him-or-me from Roethlisberger's perspective, the $102 million quarterback has to win that duel 102 times out of 102. And, yeah, even if that means finding a new coordinator.
I still don't buy that Tomlin had much to do with the switch from Bruce Arians to Haley, no matter the chest-thumping to the contrary. Something happened over Tomlin's head, and only Art Rooney II breathes the air up there.
If Tomlin is to reclaim his swagger at some point, he's got to reclaim his staff and his broader vision for winning football.
2. Shape up the defense
There are three ways to explain how this honest-to-Ziggy No. 1-ranked defense can exhibit sound strategy — hence, the low yardage totals — but so seldom get close enough to the ball for interceptions, fumbles or sacks: They're old, they get hurt easily and/or they're out of shape.
Or all three.
And all three, to some extent, are within Tomlin's control.
Setting aside the far larger task of finding more athletic replacements at some point, the coach can begin by asking why LaMarr Woodley, for one, has virtually vanished. Anyone isolating on No. 56 for any spell Sunday saw a $62 million linebacker being swallowed whole by anyone lining up across from him. On one play, the blocker doing the burying was 5-foot-8 running back Lance Dunbar.
To be fair, Woodley has had issues with an ankle and a long-troublesome hamstring. But the latter almost always is viewed as a conditioning issue. Not much of an excuse.
All this clearly is Woodley's responsibility, but there's no way Tomlin or linebackers coach Keith Butler — and coordinator in waiting — should have let it reach this point.
And Woodley's hardly alone.
3. Single out a leader
Leadership must originate within the locker room, but it's clearer now than ever that the committee approach isn't clicking somewhere. Brett Keisel and Roethlisberger are the captains, and both, to their credit, have been lauded by teammates for rousing speeches the past couple of weeks. But all we've seen translate to the field in that time is a flat-line loss to the Chargers and an equally blah first quarter Sunday.
Tomlin earned his reputation as a players' coach, one as much in harmony with his room as in control of it.
So where is that now?
I don't have the answers here. No one on the outside could. Maybe one player, someone in the James Farrior mold, can be anointed. Maybe Larry Foote if he's still got time on the clock. Whoever it is, one voice tends to resonate more than a cacophony in these settings.
Look, these Steelers aren't the NFL's most talented team. But they're significantly better than the sum of their results, and that buck stops on the desk of a highly capable coach facing the highest climb of his career.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.