For the first time since his season-ending press conference in January, Coach Mike Tomlin spoke to the media, taking time out during the NFL Owners Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona to hit on a variety of topics, with nothing off limits.
There were no surprises, with many of the topics the same team President Art Rooney II and General Manager Kevin Colbert have addressed as well over the last few months.
And one of those topics Tomlin was asked about was Antonio Brown, who was traded to the Oakland Raiders, and what happened to make things turn the way they did at the end of the season.
“I don’t have a lot of the intimate details about his wants and desires,” said Tomlin. “Probably not fair for me to express that. I know he has expressed that. I have just taken the position that we have from an organizational standpoint. I have been really consistent with it. I was consistent with it addressing it at the end of the year. We can’t do this with hostages. We need volunteers. And we need players, good guys who want to be here. If guys can’t check those boxes, it’s probably best for all parties involved that we go our separate ways.
“That is the only thing appropriate to be said about that circumstance and Le’Veon Bell’s circumstances. I think it’s been highly chronicled and too chronicled. I think some things have been said that may or may not be true. All I know is neither one of those guys are members of our team anymore, so I understand that. I understand what that means. We focus our energy on those who are and their readiness and preparation.
“I think that relationships run their course and the fact that neither one of them are here speaks to that. But I’ll also say we’ve got good players on our team, and no disrespect to those guys or what they’ve been able to do over the course of their careers, particularly in Pittsburgh, but we had a Pro Bowl wideout on our team who’s still on our team from last year. We had a Pro Bowl running back last year who was on our team who’s still on our team. So we’ve got good players, we’ve got good quality players specifically at those positions. Will we need additional plays from other people, certainly, but you have that discussion and make those statements year-in and year-out, and we do.”
Tomlin’s main focus was talking about the players on the current Steelers roster, as he is already excited for the 2019 campaign to get going.
“I am excited about readying our 2019 group,” said Tomlin. “I acknowledge that there are some significant changes, but talking about it is not going to dictate the outcome. I think working, preparing, and acquiring talent both in free agency and the draft and the preparation of that talent, are the things that go into team building and that’s what I am excited about.
“I am really excited to get started. We’ve already kind of gotten started through some of this with free agency. I had breakfast with Steven Nelson this morning. He lives out here and trains and he called me and wanted to have breakfast. I thought that was cool, we had the opportunity to sit down and break bread and continue to get to know one another on a level that is necessary for us to be successful. We are just in building mode right now. There is excitement associated with that, but you won’t hear a lot of bold predictions from us. That is not our style, that is not appropriate. We know that we are judged based on performance anyway.”
One player who is coming off one of his best performances of his career is Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 5,129 yards last season, the first time he ever eclipsed 5,000 yards. Roethlisberger’s leadership qualities have been questioned by some recently, but Tomlin doesn’t question his veteran quarterback’s ability to lead at all.
“I don’t think he was void of leadership skills or talents,” said Tomlin. “I think he’s more than capable as a quarterback. I think he’s more than capable as a leader. But do I expect growth and development? Certainly. I expect growth and development from all of us based on the experiences that we’re a part of. And I expect growth and development from myself from a leadership standpoint based on the experiences that we have, so that’s not unreasonable.”
Roethlisberger, who will be entering his 16th season, definitely has the experience edge over many on offense and the age gap can make relating to each other difficult. But Tomlin doesn’t see that as being a problem.
“There are difficulties, but it’s not something that defines relationships,” said Tomlin. “I think what defines relationships is everybody working toward a common goal and understanding that everyone comes from different backgrounds and different places in life. I think that’s common on teams. There are some guys in their early 20s who are single and some guys who are married and have three kids and are in their mid-30s and have been doing it awhile. Those are some of the variables that go into a team, and it’s one of the most exciting things about the game. I don’t believe that’s a unique story.”
Tomlin also was asked about other players, from James Washington, to JuJu Smith-Schuster and more:
On the importance of James Washington’s development from year one to year two:*
“He had some good positive moments as we pushed forward toward the end of the year. It’s reasonable to expect him to utilize that as a catalyst for a big jump. We expect a big jump. We expect it to be revealed to us initially just in the level of conditioning that he shows up in as he starts the offseason. I thought that was a really good indicator of where James Conner was, for example, a year ago when he showed up for the offseason program, his level of conditioning was an indication of where he eventually was able to go. And I’ve been very transparent with James (Washington) in my exit interviews in terms of challenging him and the checkpoints, if you will, the level of conditioning is a significant checkpoint for him as we start the offseason. So, I expect him to display that.”
You see it with James Washington in practice. You see it in camp with his ability. Is it as simple as translating it to the field?
“I think we all, those of you that are afforded the opportunity to watch us work, you can say that about a lot of young guys. And sometimes for whatever reason it doesn’t come together inside stadiums to the degree in which we would like, and they would like, in their rookie year. If their talents are real, if it’s what you and I see in those practice settings then more times than not it comes to fruition in year two. I think we all saw things from James Conner on the practice field in year one. There was not a lot of tangible evidence that would give us an indication that he would be a Pro Bowler in 2018, but he was. So, he will be given that opportunity, he being James Washington, along with the others in his class. It’s not only exclusively James. We’re excited about what Jaylen [Samuels] is able to build upon in terms of the things he was able to contribute. Chuks (Chukwuma Okorafor), and really all of them. We’re excited about a young man like Ola [Adeniyi] who made the difficult adjustment of getting on a moving train and so he’s going to be better from that experience. We expect a lot of growth and development out of those guys. And I think history tells us that it’s reasonable to expect that.”
On if he just met Steven Nelson when they had breakfast:
“No, no, we brought him in prior to the draft. When he came out in the draft he was one of our 30 visits. We spent a day with him. I think we interviewed him in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. He’s one of those guys who really kind of had our attention in draft prep and we kind of met with him at every step along the way – Mobile, Indy, brought him in for a pre-draft visit. So he’s a guy you feel like you have a decent understanding, at least from a background standpoint, on him and where he is. So free agency is just about what’s been going on in your life the last four or five years in terms of off the field.”
On how he would like to see JuJu Smith-Schuster’s role evolve:
“I just want to see him grow and mature as a player, as a person. He’s done a good job of that between year one and year two. He was more highly conditioned, more ready for the fight. I thought it revealed itself through more consistency of play. I thought it revealed itself in a higher level of play. He went into the offseason healthy, so that’s a good thing. And I think that’s a recipe for him continuing to move along that path. I think we have that same desire for all our guys. We talk continually and openly about the growth and development of guys from year one to year two. JuJu made a significant step. James Conner made a significant step. T.J. Watt made a significant step. I think it’s reasonable to additionally talk about those guys becoming perennial all-star contributors. I think that’s a realistic discussion. I know that those are some of the ways that we intend to challenge those guys.”
On one of the things that was a little bit disappointing in terms of Artie [Burns] that you see it in practice and it just doesn’t…
“Not a little bit disappointed. Disappointed. Certainly. Having the ability to carry those talents into a stadium kind of defines us, or inability the do so, so certainly.”
On if right tackle is an open spot or if it belongs to Matt Feiler:
"It’s an open spot. Obviously, we were pleased with what Matt was able to do last year in a limited capacity. We were pleased with what Chuks was able to give when he had an opportunity on a smaller sample size. Two talented young guys who are ascending. You have to acknowledge that and give them an opportunity to establish roles and that’s what the process is about. But you don’t exclude guys like Jerald Hawkins. Hawk has had some misfortune in terms of injury the last several years, but that’s a guy when healthy has been a positive contributor and a guy who has shown upside, and still a relatively young guy."
On if he would like to give Artie Burns another chance:
“You know, that’s what this process is about. It’s not about giving him another chance. It’s about putting together the very best group that we can put out there, and if that includes giving him another chance, then certainly, but it’s not per se specifically about giving him quote-unquote another chance.”
On Ryan Shazier’s contract counting against your cap and why is it still so important to make that sacrifice financially:
“Because it’s Ryan Shazier. Those of you who have been around us and know us, you know what that means.”
TOMORROW: More from Tomlin on the NFL Owners Meeting.