Tomlin eager for new leaders to emerge
Mike Tomlin knew the Pittsburgh Steelers were in for a bumpy offseason. The overhaul has been even harsher than promised.
The mass exodus started a few days after the 2011 season came to a sudden end with an overtime loss to the Denver Broncos. Longtime nose tackle Chris Hoke retired. So did offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, though his sabbatical barely lasted a week before he resurfaced in Indianapolis.
Hines Ward. James Farrior. Aaron Smith. Chris Kemoeatu. The linchpins of one of football's most stable and successful franchises have beat a steady path out the door over the last three months, some the departures part of a salary purge, others the cold reality of advancing age.
While Tomlin knew such a drastic sea change was inevitable, he's also concerned about how the locker room responds.
''It's a changing of the guard,'' Tomlin said Tuesday at the NFL meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. ''We are at the void of some leaders that we've had for an awesome run. Some guys are going to have to step up in that regard, but the more I think about it - and I've had a lot of time to think about it - it has already kind of evolved.''
Whoever takes over will be part of a team in transition. It's part of life in the NFL, though one the Steelers have largely managed to avoid over the last decade. Not this season, though Tomlin doesn't see a problem as much as he sees an opportunity.
''Football is about change,'' Tomlin said.
And Tomlin stressed he's a major part of the decision-making process, shooting down speculation owner Art Rooney II told the coach to get rid of Arians.
''I don't know where some of these perceptions come from,'' Tomlin said. ''I don't break my neck and try to combat them in any way. I don't know where they come from, I don't.''
The same goes for hiring Arians' replacement, former Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley. Tomlin insists he's the one that made the call on bringing in Haley.
''Don't get me wrong, Art Rooney II owns the football team,'' Tomlin said. ''He can do what he wants to do, but those directions did not happen.''
Tomlin praised Haley for bringing a new enthusiasm to the building and the ''awesome'' ideas Haley has for getting the Steelers into the end zone. Pittsburgh finished tied for 21st in the league in scoring and a decided lack of touchdown production in the red zone. Those numbers have to change if the Steelers are to get back to the Super Bowl.
It's a task Haley has embraced and Tomlin downplayed any sort of personality clash between the sometimes hard-nosed Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It took the two a few days to communicate following Haley's hire, though Tomlin believes reading anything into it is ill-advised.
''I think the more those two guys work closely,'' he said, ''they will get an understanding of who they are, what their desires are from a professional standpoint, and I don't expect any issues in that regard.''
Tomlin is more concerned about what the offense is going to look like when it gets on the field.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace is a restricted free agent, and teams still have a few weeks to decide whether signing the Pro Bowler is worth the first-round draft pick they would have to surrender to do so.
General manager Kevin Colbert has stressed the Steelers would love to keep the speedy Wallace in the fold, a sentiment Tomlin echoed. Throw in the maturation of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders and Tomlin knows the Steelers have blended into a pass-first team.
''I think our game has evolved into that,'' Tomlin said. ''I think it's legislated and officiated in that way. ... For me, it's about playing to your strengths in an effort to win football games.''
The running game, by comparison, is a question mark. Isaac Redman was the only healthy regular contributor by the end of the season. Rashard Mendenhall will miss significant time as he rehabs from a torn ACL in his right knee, and rookie Baron Batch impressed in training camp last summer before a knee injury ended his year.
Tomlin said the team will almost certainly bring in a back through free agency or the draft.
He's more optimistic about the way the defense will absorb the losses of Farrior, Smith and Hoke. Tomlin expects Lawrence Timmons to replace Farrior, with veteran Larry Foote and third-year man Stevenson Sylvester fighting for the other inside spot.
Ziggy Hood will likely start the season at nose tackle as Casey Hampton bounces back from a leg injury. The rest of the defense will look the same as the top-ranked unit of a year ago.
At a place where ''the standard is the standard'' regardless of the personnel, Tomlin is excited about leading the team forward.
''If you have a desire to be in this league for a length of time, you are going to roll with the punches and the ebb and flow, the evolution of the game,'' he said. ''Thankfully, I've been in the game long enough to see a little bit of that. Those who are able to sustain success are pliable and flexible.
''And I fashion myself as one of those guys.''