Kovacevic: Tomlin has tough tasks to tackle

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Monday, Dec. 30, 2013

Mike Tomlin kept a straight face, as always, when he sat down Monday for his final news conference of the year and told us assembled media types, “I'll be happy to address any questions you might have.”

At which point, of course, he proceeded to do nothing of the kind.

I asked if the Steelers will keep both coordinators, Todd Haley and Dick LeBeau.

“I'm not going to address any of that,” Tomlin quickly came back, even though in previous years he's used this exact forum to give votes of confidence. “Obviously, I acknowledge that change is a part of football in staff and in players. But other than that, I'm not getting into that today.”

Any plan for Keith Butler to succeed LeBeau?

“There is no plan in place specifically, and I won't be talking about any personnel or staffing issues.”

How long will the evaluating process be?

“Long and drawn out.”

Any timetable at all?


It kept on like this for a while, forehead meeting wall at every turn.

And you know what?

Good for Tomlin.

No, really. Imagine the alternative, had the head coach simply strutted into the room after a second consecutive 8-8 season, isolated his focus on the strong finish, bemoaned missing the playoffs by the breadth of a missed kick and some missed calls on the other coast and washed his hands of all else.

Don't misunderstand: I like a lot of what I saw of the Steelers down the stretch. The resolve was there. Some of the toughness began returning to the brand. Most important, younger talent rose up in the form of Le'Veon Bell, Cam Heyward and a handful of others. All of that will make a real impact in 2014 and beyond.

But Tomlin does have questions to address.

The top three, from this view:

• What about those coordinators?

Both will be back, I believe, but it's encouraging to hear Tomlin take a rare step back in this regard.

What's the rush?

He should examine all facets of Haley's performance, including whether the offense took off mostly because Ben Roethlisberger took over via the no-huddle. There's no longer any doubt in my mind Roethlisberger wants Haley back, but that doesn't mean the head coach doesn't need to figure out why it took them so long to click.

Tomlin also should think hard about LeBeau, who will turn 77 next fall, and the possibility of losing Butler, who'll be no babe himself at 58 and won't wait forever. If that means promoting LeBeau to some assistant head coach slot, it's worth a thought.

• What about defense?

Tomlin brushed off my question suggesting the Steelers have more work to do building up the defense than the offense — “The numbers don't support that” — but I'll stand by it.

Go across the Steelers' starting 11 on offense, and you're looking at the imminent loss of Emmanuel Sanders as the only gaping hole, especially after Tomlin threw support Monday behind Kelvin Beachum at left tackle. Add one impact receiver, and it's plenty enough to win.

As burgeoning guard David DeCastro told me Monday, “We're only just getting started with where this offense can go.”

But man, with the defense, it's hard to know where to start: If Ryan Clark goes, who will replace him? Shamarko Thomas? Is Ike Taylor's push for safety to be taken seriously or mostly dismissed, as Tomlin seemed to do Monday? Can Steve McLendon really play nose tackle in a 3-4? If not, how about end? Can Jason Worilds stay healthy long enough to make you forget LaMarr Woodley? Will anyone offer a little help for Lawrence Timmons? More Larry Foote at age 34? Let Ziggy Hood walk?

And, wow, what if Troy Polamalu passes on $10.9 million and retires?

Ask me, and all other factors being equal, I'm taking an inside linebacker or corner with that 15th pick in the draft.

• How to spend?

This will be toughest of all, and it will involve Kevin Colbert and the entire front office, but it's increasingly clear that Tomlin answers only to the Rooneys, a point he seemed to reiterate Monday. The coach will get the ultimate call.

Get this: The Steelers have five players with cap hits greater than $10 million in 2014: Roethlisberger, Woodley, Taylor, Timmons and Polamalu. The Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs each have four players in that category. No other team has more than three. It's unmanageable.

And that's to say nothing of the looming issue of Roethlisberger's extension. He's down to two years left.

Hard, sentiment-free decisions are a must, and that starts with Tomlin.

So far, sounds like he's up to it.