By Dejan Kovacevic,
Silent, stone-faced and almost motionless, Mike Tomlin stood inside the double-doors of the Steelers’ locker room to shake hands with every player, as he always does.
And once the last of them crossed — it was Mike Wallace, fittingly, given his late arrival to the game itself — Tomlin pulled those doors shut and began barking, loud enough to be heard from here to San Diego.
I don’t know what all he wound up saying and, in all honesty, couldn’t care less.
Not after the Steelers had just been … not beaten, but smoked by a 5-8 San Diego outfit, 34-24, on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Smoked a week after that buoyant victory in Baltimore.
Smoked by Norv Turner, who earlier in the week was reading reports that the Chargers will fire him at season’s end.
Smoked by Philip Rivers, who was petulantly gabbing all day as if he weren’t, you know, Philip Rivers.
Smoked by a team missing three, often four, offensive linemen.
And most shamefully, smoked in the same season as similar losses to Oakland, Tennessee and Cleveland.
Sorry, Coach, but tearing ’em up after the game is too little, too late.
And besides, this is far too many lousy losses to think it could be anyone else’s fault but the man in charge.
Oh, sure, Tomlin opened his postgame news conference with the standard, “We accept responsibility for it. We move on.” But that really shouldn’t cut it this time. This shouldn’t be about moving on. This should be about figuring out why the Steelers can’t move on every time it seems like they will, why they’re 7-6 when they oh-so-easily could sit atop the AFC.
They could start by simply acknowledging the trend.
When I asked Tomlin if he saw connections between this loss and those other three, he replied, “I hadn’t thought about it in that way. All I focused on was our poor performance today.”
Really, no thought?
Can anyone else explain why it keeps happening?
Ben Roethlisberger: “I have no clue. If I knew, I don’t think we’d do it anymore.”
Isaac Redman: “Can’t say.”
Even Ryan Clark, always the most candid and colorful of the room, was reduced to this: “The team with the lesser record has played better than we have.”
Look, I could throw darts blindfolded and find targets for blame Sunday.
Todd Haley’s head-scratching playcalling included a fourth-and-1 in which Redman took a deep handoff with no fullback, a last-minute drive in the first half in which Plaxico Burress wore a tousle cap in standing next to Haley and, by far most inexplicable, a generally bad time to revisit the very Ben-being-Ben strategy he’d been hired to ditch, given Roethlisberger returning from a serious injury.
The players deserve it, too, from Doug Legursky being blown off the line on that fourth-and-1 to Curtis Brown playing matador on every San Diego third down to Mike Wallace’s early drops that earned him 61,359 seriously bitter boos.
But let’s not kid anyone: This is on Tomlin, front to finish.
It starts with preparation, always the coach’s domain. Sure, as I’d heard, Brett Keisel gave a rousing pregame speech in which he warned teammates, “If we don’t come out to play, this team can beat us!” But when a green player such as Curtis Brown confesses afterward that he “probably drunk the wine a little bit” after Baltimore and “didn’t prepare well enough,” the coaching staff must see it and act on it.
That’s not something you find out Sunday.
What happened to Tomlin being the “players’ coach?”
It’s about discipline, too. There were eight penalties in this game, even back-to-back offsides for veterans Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. We’ve seen it far too often.
What happened to Tomlin’s demanding ways?
For that matter, what happened to his ability to manage a game?
Although others might, I won’t take issue with keeping Roethlisberger in once San Diego pulled away. He’d been cleared to play, showed no ill signs and the Steelers proved with a couple quick strikes — just as the Chargers proved with a 24-point collapse earlier this season — that a comeback was realistic.
But I absolutely will blame Tomlin for being maddeningly inconsistent about that.
Catch his explanation for not going for two points once the Steelers pulled within 34-16?
Better sit down.
“Until we stopped them, it was going to be insignificant,” Tomlin said. “I was holding the two-point plays for that reason and that reason only. Now, we still have them in our hip pocket. Those specialty plays, we didn’t want to put on tape unless we had an opportunity to close the gap. As you can see, we didn’t.”
Well, either you’re in the game or not.
Which was it?
A two-point conversion there puts the Steelers within two TDs and two more conversions of tying the score with 6:07 to play.
Unrealistic, sure, but Tomlin apparently saw it as realistic enough to keep the franchise quarterback on the field, right?
On the bright side, they can take all those wicky-wacky, two-point plays next week to Dallas, right there in the hip pocket.
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