By BOB LABRIOLA
In the bureaucracy of the NFL, the situation was described in a rather cryptic manner:
"The Pittsburgh Steelers place the following player on reserve/injured: Warren, Greg, LS, North Carolina. The Pittsburgh Steelers sign the following free agent: Retkofsky, Jared, LS, Texas Christian. The Pittsburgh Steelers sign the following player to the practice squad: Schmitt, Ricky, P, Shepherd College."
This might be how it appeared in the official transaction report issued by the NFL, but those words only hinted at the story that unfolded at Heinz Field last Sunday in a game against the New York Giants.
To most NFL fans, long-snappers and holders are afterthoughts, anonymous players who hold down jobs that go unnoticed unless something bad happens.
Last Sunday, the Steelers were locked in a knock-down, drag-out with the defending champions, a game they were forced to play without four starters, to say nothing of the starting guard and the No. 1 draft pick already on the injured reserve list.
Since the first time he ever leaned forward to speak into a microphone as the Steelers coach, Mike Tomlin's view of injuries has been steadfast: one goes down, the next one steps up and the standard of expectation does not change.
If there ever is to be an exception to that rule, it might have come last Sunday, because in the NFL, when the long-snapper goes down, it's a big problem.
Steelers fans experienced that in the fourth quarter against the Giants when a 14-12 lead dissolved into a 14-14 tie when James Harrison's snap sailed over punter Mitch Berger's head and through the end zone for a safety. While this was going on, Darnell Stapleton was working on snapping for field goals and extra points, just in case he would happen to be needed to fill in there.
"Since I have been here really, James Harrison and James Farrior have been the backup (long-snapper) candidates," said Tomlin. "James Harrison snaps at least once a week, every week, since I have been here. Now doing it in practice and at training camp is one thing. Inside stadiums in the fourth quarter of football games vs. the defending world champions is another. I appreciate him. The comments that I made about his efforts after the game were sincere. He does a lot for this football team. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it the same way. I'd hope for a different outcome, but I'd do it again."
Tomlin would do it the same way, because he would have to do it the same way. There is no such thing as an NFL roster with two long-snappers on it, and so when disaster strikes emergency measures must be taken.
Speaking of disasters of the special teams variety, the Steelers avoided another against the Giants because Mitch Berger was able to continue despite having a hamstring strain in his non-kicking leg. The disaster wouldn't have been that Jeff Reed was forced to punt, but who would hold for Reed in the event of, say, a game-winning field goal attempt in overtime?
"Charlie Batch is the backup holder. When he went down, Hines Ward has done it every week, twice a week since Charlie Batch has been down," said Tomlin. "So if we get in a situation where we are looking at a new punter, and that is a big if, but if we are, who we replace him with will be a candidate, but also Hines Ward has a little comfort and continuity with Jeff Reed because he has done it every week since Charlie Batch went down."
Welcome to Mike Tomlin's world.
"Every day I walk through these doors, I expect the unexpected," said Tomlin. "It is one of the exciting things about this job at this level in this league. If you don't like it, you have a problem. I embrace it and I love it. We have to be alive this week. We have Monday Night Football in the nation's capital. All eyes on the nation's capital this week, and probably not because we are playing the Redskins, but it's exciting for us nonetheless. The things that go with it, dealing with situations and making adjustments and keeping the team focused, all of those things drive us and we are excited about it."