Harris: Tomlin contract not a done deal
Since the close of the 2009 season, I've deliberated over when — and why — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will sign a eagerly anticipated contract extension. Or, if he deserves one.
As we enter the second week in June, with offseason workouts concluding Thursday and Tomlin entering the final year of his contract, my thoughts are clear.
I don't believe the Steelers' brass is completely sold on Tomlin.
Several factors nudged me toward that opinion.
When Tomlin won Super Bowl XLIII in his second season, becoming the youngest coach in NFL history to do so, his star was never higher. Yet, the Steelers didn't pull the trigger on a new deal.
Maybe Tomlin's asking price is too high. Or, maybe the Steelers want more time to determine if Tomlin is another George Seifert or Barry Switzer — coaches who won a Super Bowl with someone else's players.
Does Tomlin deserve a contract extension• Of course he does.
But contract extensions should be a joyous occasion for both sides. The lack of urgency toward a new deal for Tomlin has become quite painful.
What strikes a nerve for me about the lack of a new deal for Tomlin is the team's track record for taking care of its coaches who win.
Tomlin's three-year coaching record is 31-17 with two playoff appearances. He's 3-1 in the postseason.
Consider that Steelers management never failed to re-sign Bill Cowher with fewer than two years on his contract until the last moment.
In 2006, the sides failed to agree on a new deal. When Cowher resigned following the 2006 season, he had one year left on his contract.
In January, team president Art Rooney II told the Tribune-Review, "I think Mike's going to be our coach for a long time. That's certainly what we're shooting for, and that's his intention, so we'll deal with it at the appropriate time."
The "appropriate time" might have been a few months ago, but a lot has happened since January. Not the least of which is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will open the season apart from his teammates after violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Other significant changes have also taken place.
Rooney promised the Steelers will concentrate more on the run despite a record- setting passing output in 2009 — not at all what Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians envisioned following last year's high-octane attack.
For another, the Steelers re-signed two players from other teams who lost their starting jobs under Tomlin — linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden.
Rarely does a coach, particularly a Steelers coach, bring back players he determined were no longer starters after letting them go — not to mention signing both players to contract extensions upon their return.
What's telling for me is a slight shift in philosophy — on offense and defense — away from Tomlin's point of view.
For instance, while Tomlin spoke repeatedly about his secondary needing to create more splash plays — for example, interceptions — during the team's five-game losing streak last season, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told me recently, "I don't really use interceptions as an evaluating criteria. I think they're nice, they're good — you want them. (But) the No. 1 thing is the other guy doesn't catch the ball."
Of course, the Steelers could sign Tomlin to a new deal before the end of the week. Management may want to have Tomlin's contract situation settled before the start of training camp July 30 so as to not create another distraction along with the media circus that's sure to shadow Roethlisberger around Latrobe.
After all, the last thing management wants to do is give players the impression that Tomlin, even though the team holds an option on his contract for the 2011 season, isn't going to be their coach for a long time — unless he's not their long-term choice.
The same holds true for some of the assistants hired when Tomlin took over in 2007. That includes Arians, who was the target of offseason media reports that Tomlin considered letting him go — a charge Tomlin denies.
Put another way: If the Steelers don't sign Tomlin to a new deal before the start of the season, it's a vote of no-confidence for a coach who made history in his second season.