Harris: Rooney ruling the Steelers' roost

Tuesday, January 19, 2010
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Who has the juice, the real power, on the Steelers?

If you thought it was coach Mike Tomlin, think again.

A year after winning Super Bowl XLIII, Tomlin is back where he started when he was hired three years ago: proving himself to team president Art Rooney II.

I naively believed Tomlin's Super Bowl ring in his second season would buy him time if he experienced a campaign such as this one, when the Steelers missed the playoffs -- courtesy of a five-game losing streak during which Tomlin threatened to bench starters and questioned the mental toughness of his players.

Rooney disproved that theory in a revealing interview with the Tribune-Review's Scott Brown. While pleased the Steelers rallied to win their final three games, Rooney II all but ordered Tomlin to change his offensive philosophy and get back to the ground game next season.

"We need to run the ball to be successful," Rooney II said. "Some of our troubles in the red zone can be traced to that, and some of our troubles holding leads can be traced to that."

Is a public reprimand any way to treat the coach who won the franchise's sixth Super Bowl?

It is as if Rooney II believes Tomlin's coaching performance was as ineffective in 2009 as it was outstanding in 2008.

Still, it seems that Tomlin should have built up some coaching equity based on winning the Super Bowl. It isn't like the Steelers decision to switch to a passing game was a failure. After all, the NFL has become a passing league.

However, being able to dial up a dependable running game on demand -- which the Steelers failed to do on a consistent basis -- is a key trait in three of the four remaining playoff teams.

A big reason for the San Diego Chargers' meltdown against the New York Jets in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game was San Diego's inability to run out the clock while holding a lead. By the same token, the Jets beat San Diego with a strong ground attack despite rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez passing for only 100 yards.

Rooney II said he never asked Tomlin to fire offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, whose pass-first mentality led to Ben Roethlisberger becoming the first 4,000-yard quarterback in franchise history.

Encouraged him, maybe. Suggested it, perhaps.

The Steelers' boss put the spotlight on Tomlin and his franchise quarterback for his team's struggles.

Rooney II was so impressed with Roethlisberger's big season that he promptly called for more running plays in 2010. In fact, Rooney II had some candid comments about Roethlisberger, his $102-million man.

"He's someone I know wants to continue to improve and wants to get better and be considered one of the top quarterbacks in the league," Rooney II said.

I'm sure that quote went over real big in the Roethlisberger household.

If Rooney II is desirous of the offense becoming more run-oriented next season -- he also told the Tribune-Review he wants Roethlisberger to help reduce the Steelers' sack total by getting rid of the ball faster -- why stick with an assistant coach whose teams averaged more passing attempts than carries in five of his six seasons as an NFL coordinator?

Instead of bringing in a new offensive coordinator, Tomlin settled for a new offensive line coach.

Who specializes in running the football.

Agreeing to run the ball more in 2010 adds to Tomlin's legacy as a coach who's reluctant to take charge.

A familiar pattern has emerged with Tomlin, who still hasn't established his own coaching identity with the Steelers.

He arrived as a coach immersed in the 4-3, but the Steelers remain a 3-4 team under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Tomlin spoke this season about beefing up the passing game, only to have his boss instruct him to run the ball more.

I'm still waiting for the Steelers to announce they've signed Tomlin to a contract extension.

The Steelers traditionally re-sign their coach with two years remaining on his contract. Tomlin has a year left on his original four-year deal and the Steelers hold an option for an additional year.

Surprised the Steelers didn't re-sign Tomlin last offseason following the Super Bowl win?

Me too.

Rooney said the Steelers have every intention of re-signing Tomlin. Let's see if they sign him before the 2010 opener.

Based on how this season ended, I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers took a wait-and-see approach with Tomlin.

They didn't lock him up this time a year ago when he was the hottest thing going, so why rush now?