This wasn't where Mike Tomlin wanted to be, and this wasn't what he wanted to be talking about. But because the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, and the game between Indianapolis and Tennessee didn't end in a tie, the Steelers didn't qualify for the playoffs.
And because the Steelers didn't qualify for the playoffs, Tomlin had his final weekly news conference of the season at noon today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, during which he addressed the potential for change on his staff and on the roster, and he also spoke in detail about the most recent issues involving Antonio Brown.
In terms of the Brown conversation, he began with the events of Wednesday, Dec. 26, four days before the regular season finale vs. the Cincinnati Bengals.
"(Brown) came in on Wednesday and expressed having soreness in his lower body – feet, ankles, knees specifically. It was no big deal from that perspective," said Tomlin. "It happens some with veteran players. I give them a day off, and I work younger guys. We came in on Thursday, and he expressed that he was continuing to feel that discomfort. Again, given the fact this was the Cincinnati Bengals – a second-time against a divisional opponent – in terms of the familiarity it wasn't anything to ring the alarm bells about.
"We worked younger people, and I listed him on the injury report that day with the knee injury that he described. Friday is kind of the witching hour – situational football and things of that nature – in terms of readiness for the game. When he came in and expressed discomfort in his knee on Friday, and the fact he wouldn't be able to participate (in practice) on Friday, we sent him to get an MRI. And I instructed him that after the MRI he was to go home and get off his feet and lay low and that I would communicate with him on Friday evening and we would plot out our course of action from there."
(NOTE: In response to a question later during the news conference, Tomlin said Brown never did show up to get that MRI on his knee.)
"I wanted to leave the light on for him, and that was the nature of our conversation (on Friday). That was why we listed him as questionable for the game. After Friday's business was done, it became difficult to communicate and catch up with him. I wasn't able to communicate with him on Friday evening or Saturday morning, so when we had our Saturday morning walk-through and he was unavailable, then it became something altogether different. We decided to focus our energies on the guys who were working and prepared to work and (were) present (on Saturday), and so those are the guys we prepared to play in the football game.
"I woke up Sunday morning and got a phone call from his agent – Drew Rosenhaus – and Drew expressed that (Brown) was feeling better and he would potentially be able to participate. I outlined to Drew that decisions weren't made like that, but I would be interested in visiting with (Brown) in person at the stadium prior to the game, but playing wasn't on the menu.
"Drew relayed that to him, and I met with AB prior to the game. He asked what he could do. I said the best thing he could do in terms of helping us win the game would be to be there and support his teammates. He agreed to do that. We had a general conversation about his overall health, and I sent him to the training staff, who were at the stadium readying people for play. And that was the last conversation he and I had. I saw him in the bowl during pregame warmups, but as the game began to unfold I got occupied with the things that are at hand. I heard he left the stadium, but I don't confirm that because I was centered around the guys who were performing in-stadium."
In the aftermath of the NFL's Week 17 schedule, which concluded with the Ravens winning the AFC North and the Los Angeles Chargers and Indianapolis Colts earning Wild Card spots in the AFC playoffs, there were reports that Brown had requested a trade. Tomlin said today that he knew nothing about such a request, and he also said that since there will be no playoff game for the Steelers this weekend there is no time element that would accelerate having to deal with this latest situation involving Brown.
"I'm going to address it. We're going to address him and the circumstance, but we're going to information-gather and utilize all the time that's at our disposal in which to do so," said Tomlin. "I was hoping we were going to be (playing) this week, but because we're not, we're going to information-gather and then deal with it. Like we do in all circumstances, we're going to deal with it appropriately, we're going to deal with it in-house, but because we're not playing a game this week it hasn't been addressed to this point.
"I'm not going to speculate where the discipline might go. He was absent (from the Bengals game) because of injury and lack of communication."
This isn't the first time the Steelers and Tomlin have found themselves in a difficult spot because of Brown's actions. "I'm not going to speculate on what life might be like moving forward," said Tomlin in response to a question. "What I am going to do is address the circumstances and go on from there."
But judging from his demeanor at the podium, Tomlin seemed to be at the end of his rope when it comes to dealing with these kinds of situations involving this particular individual.
"When we're talking about our darkest hour – playing to win a game and needing other dominoes to fall for us to be in the tournament, and a guy not communicating, that is a real element of the discussion," said Tomlin .
When a subsequent question asked whether he believed Brown "quit on the team," Tomlin said, "You can describe it any way you want to describe it, but there was a lack of communication there that can lead to thoughts and things of that nature that can go in many directions. The bottom line is we were playing a significant game, and he didn't do a good enough job of communicating or being available in the hours leading up to that (game), so we needed to make decisions pertinent to play in that game."
Tomlin added that the opinion of veteran leaders on the team would have some bearing, and Cam Heyward said during an appearance on WDVE that while there will have to be some serious mending of fences, those fences can be mended. "If (Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin) sign off, I always feel good about it. This happened at the end of the year, so you're not going to have a team meeting. There are some guys who need to work things out. Hopefully they work things out, and it dissipates."
As for his general assessment of the 2018 season, Tomlin said, "Extremely disappointed. I think that's a succinct assessment of it. The fact we're actually in this room says it all. It's not what we intended to do, it's not what we embrace, it's not what we accept. We better work our tails off to ensure we're not having this conversation (again next year). I know those are our intentions, but intentions are just part of it. Actions and planning and changes are all a part of addressing circumstances such as the circumstances that we are in. Being in this position affords us a lot of opportunity in terms of time to assess. Often times when you go deep into the playoffs, you're getting onto a moving train, whatever that may be in terms of 2019 – the acquisition of coaching talent, the looking at free agency and the draft and things of that nature. Well, we're out at the first exit, and so we have additional time and we better utilize that time.
"When you lack success, when you fail, change is a part of it. We talked about it as a staff, we talked about it with the players in exit meetings. Yes, change is going to be a part of it moving forward, and what those changes will be we're in the process of gathering information and plotting a course. We're not going to be resistant to change in any facet. We're not going to be resistant to accountability in any facet. We're not going to be resistant to taking ownership over what has transpired, because that's not conducive to us moving forward."