Mike Tomlin spent his first 15 seasons in the NFL knowing he had Ben Roethlisberger as his franchise quarterback. But if you think coaching the Steelers for the first time without Roethlisberger on the roster scares Tomlin, you don’t know the man.
Tomlin appeared on the Pivot Podcast Tuesday in a discussion with Ryan Clark, Fred Taylor and Channing Crowder. When the discussion turned to life after Roethlisberger, Tomlin seemed more excited than worried.
“I just view the challenges of what lies ahead win that way,” Tomlin said. “I’m looking forward to the anxiety associated with that uncertainty, with having to stand and deliver to live out what we believe in: the standard is the standard.”
That anxiety is part of the balance created from having Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett as your quarterback options instead of Roethlisberger. Trubisky brings 50 starts of experience but didn’t throw a single pass during the regular season last year while Rudolph only has ten starts and Pickett is a rookie.
The other side of the balance is that the Steelers’ salary cap opened up without the expense of a big-money quarterback like Roethlisberger. Tomlin also commented about how valued Roethlisberger’s contributions and that there would have to be a redistribution of the Steelers’ playmaking.
But it still comes down to the mantra he’s professed for years: the standard is the standard.
“It’s like McDonalds, you know what a number one is,” Tomlin analogized. “No matter where you go or what corner of the globe, a number one is a number one. That’s what I want the Pittsburgh Steelers to be, so it doesn’t matter who’s putting their hands underneath the center as far as I’m concerned. But, all that cool stuff being said, it is scary, but exciting.”
Tomlin’s vision for the Steelers most likely isn’t one that has Trubisky, Pickett or Rudolph becoming superstar quarterbacks overnight. He knows just how much Roethlisberger meant to the Steelers over the past 18 seasons and the things he did to cover up other weaknesses on those teams.
A unit that already has three players with multiple All-Pro honors in T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cam Heyward, would have been enough for the mid-2010s Steelers. Those teams focused their salary cap mostly on the offense with big contracts for Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro among others.
But on those teams there were also major weaknesses that the Steelers didn’t address. Players like Antwon Blake, Robert Golden, Will Allen, Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns had to start in key roles. Even the best of those players were better suited as rotational backups instead of starters.
In 2022, that’s not something the Steelers expect to suffer. The cornerback room is full with veterans with years of starting experience like Ahkello Witherspoon, Cameron Sutton and Levi Wallace while the safety room boasts Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee. Each of those players brings NFL-tested talent, and that still doesn’t include a promising second-year player like Tre Norwood.
Tomlin expects to deal with the anxiety of not having his proven quarterback by having several other holes on the roster filled. That’s why Kevin Colbert could be aggressive to get sought-after veterans like James Daniels and Myles Jack in free agency and Omar Khan could get Ogunjobi. Were this the Steelers of even last year, there most likely wouldn’t have been enough salary cap space to make those kinds of moves.
Still, Tomlin’s excitement to face such a challenge is an example of his optimistic realism about the Steelers’ 2022 obstacles and beyond. The loss of a franchise quarterback could mean the retirement or resignation of some coaches, like Sean Payton from the Saints shortly after Drew Brees’ retirement. Other coaches might acknowledge the team needs rebuilding years with losing seasons to replenish the roster.
But that’s not Tomlin’s approach to this season. He’s not naïve enough to believe life without Roethlisberger will be easy without adjustments. But he’s also not daunted by the challenge. If anything, it’s opened him up to the work of replacing Roethlisberger’s leadership on the team.
“Right now, a little side project that I’m on is I’m fostering the growth and development of leadership,” Tomlin said. “I’m bridging the transitional leadership relationship between Cam Heyward and Najee (Harris). Like, Najee is a leader. He was a born leader. He’s got good football morals. He sees the game the way we see the game. He wants to be a part of what’s right. So, that needs to be cultivated. That needs to be trained.”
Replacing Roethlisberger won’t be just about the on-field play. It will also be about leadership and who can step up to be the new face of the franchise. Heyward holds that mantel for now with Watt and Fitzpatrick behind him. But there needs to be a new face for the Steelers offense as Tomlin looks to face that challenge.
Harris will get the first crack at being that face.