FOXBOROUGH — No, Mike Tomlin insisted Wednesday, there has not been an unusual amount of drama for the Steelers this year.
“Not from my perspective,” said the coach.
The star running back holding out all season, and his teammates raiding his locker for booty? The franchise quarterback blaming a faulty X-ray machine for delaying his return to the game? The kicker slipping and falling on a game-tying 40-yard field goal attempt? Tying the Browns?!
That’s just the normal course of business, apparently.
“It is in our market, and for us,” Tomlin said.
It may seem normal for Tomlin, but for us outsiders, the Steelers sure do seem like a dysfunctional mess this season.
The Steelers are limping into Sunday’s showdown with the Patriots, riding a three-game losing streak that has dropped their record to 7-5-1. A month ago, they were dreaming about home-field advantage in the playoffs. Now they’re worried about fending off the 7-6 Ravens for the AFC North division title.
Count Rocky Bleier, a star running back from the Pittsburgh dynasty teams of the 1970s, among those fed up with the losing and the negative attention that seems to flow out of the Steelers locker room each week.
“I’m done,” the normally upbeat and pro-Steelers Bleier said on Facebook following the team’s 24-21 loss to the lowly Raiders last Sunday. “I mean, they’ve ripped my heart out. With the talent that they have, how can they lose three out of their last four games, and in the manner that they did?”
The Steelers have been the kings of drama, always in the news for the wrong reasons.
The soap opera began in training camp and carried into the regular season when star running back Le’Veon Bell surprisingly refused to sign his $14.5 million franchise tag. Bell played a weekly game of “will he or won’t he show up?” until the deadline finally passed in November, ruling him out for the season. The sides will part ways after this season, and not amicably.
On Sunday, Bell “liked” an Instagram post noting the Steelers’ loss to the Raiders. And when Tomlin was asked Wednesday if the team misses Bell, he responded with one word: “No.”
Bell’s teammates publicly expressed their dismay at his holdout, then raided Bell’s locker for cleats and gear when the deadline passed for him to report. Tomlin said Bell’s absence didn’t tear the team apart, and James Conner has done a great job filling in, compiling 1,376 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in 12 games.
“From OTA 1, [Bell] wasn’t a part of us, so it’s not something that this group of men has missed,” Tomlin said. “We’ve been focusing on the people that are here and working.”
Receiver Antonio Brown brought the drama in September, not showing up for work on the Monday following a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs, and daring the Steelers to “trade me” in a Twitter post.
A six-game win streak in the middle of the season put everyone in a better mood, but the last month has been a disaster.
“It’s been a frustrating past month,” guard David DeCastro said this week on his regular radio segment. “I think everyone’s been a little tired, a little ornery, not having the energy. We’ve been sleepwalking a little bit.”
Following a 24-17 loss at Denver in Week 12, Ben Roethlisberger called out rookie receiver James Washington for diving for a pass instead of running under it.
“I’m not really sure what he was doing,” Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show. “We look at it [on film], and Coach got on him pretty good.”
Rarely do you hear a team leader call out a young player in public, especially when that team leader also threw an interception in the end zone in the final seconds of the game.
But the next day, Roethlisberger didn’t back down. Instead, he defended his right to criticize.
“I think I have earned the right to do that with as long as I have been here,” he said.
The drama hasn’t stopped in the two weeks since. The Steelers blew a 23-7 halftime lead in a home loss to the Chargers, then lost to the Raiders last week.
This latest game featured Roethlisberger sitting on the sideline for almost the entire second half with bruised ribs, until the Steelers needed last-minute heroics and Roethlisberger re-entered. Afterward, he blamed a faulty X-ray machine and poor facilities in Oakland for his delay.
Tomlin said Sunday that he didn’t want to interrupt the “rhythm and flow” of the game by putting Roethlisberger back in. The more cynical among us wondered whether Roethlisberger didn’t feel like toughing it out until his team needed him at the end of the game.
But Tomlin got on the same page as his quarterback Tuesday. The X-ray machine did slow things down, Tomlin said, and the team felt comfortable putting Roethlisberger back in the game only when the pain medication set in.
“Because of a lack of [medical] information and the situation not being a comfortable or ideal one, we said we would only reinsert him into the game if we felt it was necessary,” Tomlin said. “As the game unfolded, it became necessary.”
The Steelers might still be able to put it all together and make a Super Bowl run. But barring such a turnaround, this season will be remembered more for the drama than the football.
It’s enough to make Bleier wonder whether there should be coaching changes.
“Something has to be done, and if you’re pointing fingers, well maybe [defensive coordinator] Keith Butler has to go,” Bleier said. “The Steelers’ destiny lies in their hands, but it is shaky with the Patriots, Saints and Bengals on the horizon. How they fare will dictate the team’s future, and it may be without Tomlin.”