Mike Tomlin says he doesn’t deal in hypotheticals, so he wasn’t going to answer any questions about how the Pittsburgh Steelers have fared without Ben Roethlisberger this season or how they might fare without Mason Rudolph this week.
The Steelers coach is masterful at maneuvering through minefields, avoiding answers with typical Tomlinisms such as this go-to gem: If you have red paint, you paint the barn red.
It was something of a revelation when Tomlin said, when it comes to their starting quarterback, the Steelers have run out of red paint and have go with yellow.
But we all knew what question was coming — no one more than Tomlin. He was expecting it. Yet when asked about his reaction to the rampant rumor heis the preferred candidate of the Washington Redskins, Tomlin delivered a truth bomb.
“I’m the head coach of a 1-4 football team that’s going on the road to play a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback with my third quarterback,” Tomlin said. “You think I’m worried about anything this week other than that?”
That was a stunning admission by Tomlin. He is overwhelmed by the prospect of being down to starting undrafted free agent rookie Devlin Hodges — who didn’t make the final cut and was on the practice squad two weeks ago — against Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
For a team that claims to be singularly focused on football, the Steelers come across as one that can’t seem to concentrate enough to win close games. They could be 4-1, if not for single-digit losses to Seattle, San Francisco and Baltimore. Not to make excuses, as Tomlin took offense to a suggestion the Steelers players are doing just that.
“We have a right-minded group. We’ve got a group that’s competitive by nature, a group that’s (ticked) off, to be honest with you, and appropriately so but not misplaced or displaced,” Tomlin said. “We don’t see ourselves as misfortunate. We’ve had control and the opportunity to win these games and our record is our record, so we’re bringing that approach to our preparation. That’s my level of expectation, and I don’t waste a lot of time hypothesizing about any other.”
So it was amazing the most hypothetical question of his weekly news conference drew the most insightful answer. Instead of simply dismissing the Redskins rumor as ridiculous, Tomlin gave us a glimpse of his vulnerability.
You know how these rumors get started: Tomlin is from Hampton, Va. His son Dino plays at Maryland. The Steelers are staring at the possibility of missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season and don’t have a 2020 first-round draft pick. The Redskins want to make a splash by hiring a coach who has won a Super Bowl championship and are willing to pay.
It all starts to sound plausible until you consider how it goes against the way the Steelers have done business. Where the Steelers have hired three head coaches since 1969, the Redskins have fired seven since 2000.
That’s what is startling about these Steelers, a veteran group that has been slow to accept they still are expected to win this season without Roethlisberger riding to their rescue. Left guard Ramon Foster told the 93.7 FM morning show Tuesday the Steelers have been “spoiled” by their success and years of playing with the franchise quarterback.
The Steelers like to say the standard is the standard but seem to want an exception for a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Everyone expected a drop-off at the position, just not a careening off the cliff.
Tomlin tried to sidestep the difficulty of trying to win with his third-string quarterback by comparing it to Mike Vick starting against the Chargers on “Monday Night Football” in October 2015. Never mind Vick was a former No. 1 overall draft pick making his 114th career start in the NFL or that Hodges is making his starting debut.
“I’ve been in this thing long enough,” Tomlin said, “that it’s all been pretty much a re-run to me.”
This isn’t a hypothetical but the straight truth: No matter how “comfortable” Tomlin says he is at quarterback, his reaction to the Redskins rumor showed the Steelers coach has to hope this pilot doesn’t go into syndication.