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Rooney II wants to make Tomlin a priority

| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010

The Steelers have a longstanding policy of not talking about contract negotiations.

Team president Art Rooney II, however, made it pretty clear that one item on the Steelers' offseason to-do list is signing coach Mike Tomlin to a new deal.

"I think Mike's going to be our coach for a long period of time," Rooney II told the Tribune-Review on Friday. "That's certainly what we're shooting for, and that's his intention, so we'll deal with it at the appropriate time."

The Steelers traditionally sign their head coach to an extension when he has two years left on his deal. Tomlin has one year to go on the four-year deal he signed in January 2007, and the Steelers hold an option on his contract for the 2011 season.

Since succeeding Bill Cowher, Tomlin has become the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl. He also has led the Steelers to a pair of AFC North titles, though they slipped to 9-7 this season and missed the playoffs.

Tomlin coaxed a three-game winning streak out of the Steelers to finish the season. The job he did after a five-game losing streak torpedoed the Steelers' hopes of defending their Super Bowl title and made an impression on Rooney II.

"It showed something about Mike that he's not going to let a team give up on itself," Rooney II said. "That's the kind of coach we thought he was, and I think he obviously had a significant challenge to get us through this year. While there were disappointments about the season, that aspect of it was a good sign for the future."

Rooney II spoke extensively with the Tribune-Review about the franchise's future. Some highlights:

» Rooney II made it clear that the line for the Steelers re-signing their own free agents forms behind nose tackle Casey Hampton.

Hampton will become an unrestricted free agent March 1, and Rooney II and Tomlin said the Steelers want the Pro Bowler back. The Steelers can prevent Hampton from hitting the open market by using a franchise tag on him.

If they tag Hampton, the Steelers would have to offer him a one-year deal with a salary that is the average of what the five highest-paid defensive linemen made in 2009.

"That will be part of our offseason plan, figuring out the best way to do that and how to handle Casey," Rooney II said. "We'll get into others and make some decisions about what we can do contract-wise with various other players."

» Despite speculation that the Steelers' front office put pressure on Tomlin to fire offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Rooney II said he never had any such discussions with Tomlin when they talked about making changes to the coaching staff.

"Mike came in and said he thought we should make some changes, and I certainly agreed with him," Rooney II said. "I never went to Mike and asked him to consider firing B.A., and that wasn't on his agenda, so that's something that never came up, was never discussed."

» Rooney II said the Steelers must run the ball more effectively next season. He also said the 50 sacks quarterback Ben Roethlisberger endured last year were "not an acceptable number."

The Steelers have hired a new offensive line coach, Sean Kugler. But Rooney II said part of the onus on reducing the number of times Roethlisberger is sacked falls on Roethlisberger.

"The offensive line's got to do its part, receivers have to recognize the blitz, Ben's go to get them the ball. All of those pieces have to fit together," Rooney II said. "Ben, as the leader of the offense, has to be able to help pull all of those pieces together, and I'm sure he will. He's someone I know wants to continue to improve and wants to get better and be considered one of the top quarterbacks in the league."

Steelers president Art Rooney II on ...

Whether the defense's age contributed to the struggles it had in the fourth quarter of games in 2009:

"It could be part of it. It certainly is something we'll have to evaluate as we go through the process this year and evaluate each player and each position. It's an undeniable factor that you've got to recognize in this business, that you've got to be able to evaluate when someone is not up to the standard that they used to play at."

The possibility of no salary cap for the 2010 season and how it affects the Steelers:

"Clearly, it creates some uncertainty about planning for the future. There are changes we've got to deal with and be prepared to adjust to. It's just one of those factors that's out there that the next couple of years are going to be something you wouldn't describe as business as usual, and we're just going to have to deal with it."

Whether the Steelers will be at a competitive disadvantage if there is no salary cap because no collective bargaining agreement is in place between the owners and players:

"Let's put it this way: In the long-term, I expect us to have a salary cap, and this year will kind of be a one-year situation that we'll get through. What we've had over the last decade or more in our collective bargaining agreement and our revenue sharing system I think has all worked well. We've got to find the right system and the right adjustments going forward to continue being successful."

Where the focus of the Steelers is right now:

"At this point, certainly the priority is putting the staff together and finding the best people we can find for our coaching staff, and I think we're well under way in that regard. Once we get that sort of concluded, we'll turn our attention to getting ready for the draft and getting ready to deal with the various contract situations. It's a jigsaw puzzle, and you kind of have to put all of the pieces in place."

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