PHOENIX — Coach Mike Tomlin isn’t absolving anyone from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 9-6-1 season and the drama surrounding it.
“We all need to look in the mirror in terms of what we do and how we do it, starting with me,” Tomlin told reporters from the NFL owners meetings Tuesday.
Tomlin is one of the league’s most successful coaches with a .654 winning percentage over 12 seasons, but the Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013 after losing three late-season games by three points apiece.
The Steelers want — scratch that, need — players who want to be in Pittsburgh, because lately it’s trendy to find a way out of here.
If star power isn’t everything, the Steelers will hope that a new mantra plays out in 2019 as they regroup without two of the game’s best playmakers.
Tomlin fielded questions about the departure of Le’Veon Bell to the New York Jets, the Antonio Brown trade to the Oakland Raiders, ex-players criticizing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership and the head coach’s role in it all.
One of the most powerful offensive trios has broken up, forcing Pittsburgh’s offense into a new look.
Brown and Bell both took aim at Roethlisberger’s presence in the locker room on their way out of town, with Brown tweeting Roethlisberger has an ‘owner mentality’ as if he’s bigger than the team.
Tomlin said he has “no problem with (Roethlisberger’s) play or leadership,” but he did stress the look-in-the-mirror stance applies to all of his players, quarterback included.
“That’s the approach I’m taking, that’s the approach I’ll ask him to take,” Tomlin said. “Not in response to any criticism to the outside or anything of that nature, just doing what’s appropriate in terms of us being as good as we need to be.”
Tomlin and Roethlisberger haven’t spoken about the criticisms and the aftermath of the Brown trade, Tomlin said, but that’s not uncommon because the Steelers are immersed in NFL draft prep and players are away for the offseason.
Responding to challenges is in Roethlisberger’s DNA and has led to great success as a two-time Super Bowl winner, Tomlin said.
Roethlisberger rankled Brown when he used his weekly radio show to critique Brown’s route-running in a Week 12 loss to Denver.
However, Several current teammates used social media to defend Roethlisberger this week, with receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster saying he’s “so blessed” to play with a “true leader” such as his quarterback.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who was Roethlisberger’s offensive coordinator from 2007-11, said players need to get over Roethlisberger’s tough love.
“Guys have to have thicker skin, man,” Arians said. “He’s the leader. He’s the guy. Early in his career everybody said, ‘Hey, you’re not vocal enough.’ But you have Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca and you didn’t have to be. It’s his team. It’s the way it should be.”
Roethlisberger has plenty of talent left on offense. As Tomlin pointed out, the Steelers have Pro Bowlers (Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner) at the positions Brown and Bell play.
But Tomlin admits the loss of two All-Pros is “unfortunate.”
“They are quality players. They will be missed. But change is a part of our business,” Tomlin said. “We’re comfortable with the talent that we have and our plan to add to that talent and develop that talent.”
Will the Steelers experience addition by subtraction?
Tomlin said let’s wait and see.
“I know that we’ve got some plays that need to be made. Somebody’s got to make them,” Tomlin said. “The tape will tell the story. The tape does the talking. They need no bold predictions from me. That’s not my vibe. I don’t move that way.”