- Previously covered the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star and Oklahoma University for the Oklahoman.
PITTSBURGH — For the first time in his 15-year head coaching career, Mike Tomlin is entering an offseason without Ben Roethlisberger as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ franchise quarterback for the upcoming season.
While Roethlisberger, 39, has yet to make the official announcement, Tomlin said he’s “proceeding with the assumption” that the longtime quarterback won’t be playing next year. Earlier this season, Roethlisberger said “all signs” pointed to the Week 17 win against the Cleveland Browns being his final home game at Heinz Field. After the Steelers’ playoff exit against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Roethlisberger didn’t use the word retirement but called his 18-year career with the franchise “an honor” and said he is “looking forward” to the next chapter.
That means Tomlin is tasked with finding the Steelers’ next franchise quarterback.
“I’m excited about that — that challenge,” he said in his annual season wrap-up Tuesday. “Those of us that are competitors are. It’s a challenge, man. It kind of makes you uneasy. But I’ve learned to run to those challenges. I’ve learned to appreciate those challenges. The uncertainty surrounding them is inspiring to me in terms of producing work.”
The Steelers will undoubtedly bring in new arms to compete for the starting job, and Tomlin said he doesn’t care if the fresh faces come from free agency, a trade or the 2022 NFL draft.
“All options are on the table,” Tomlin said. “I enjoy working with Kevin (Colbert) this time of year because we speak plain English. We have to improve our football team. There’s two major ways you do it. You do it to free agency, and you do it through the draft. We have to look at what’s available to us in the draft positionally. And we have to look at what’s available to us, potentially, in free agency, positionally, and then we kind of bring those two discussions together. And it kind of gives us a path in which to go about addressing our needs.”
With more cap flexibility than in previous seasons, the team could explore adding a quarterback via trade, like Russell Wilson, or sign a mid-level veteran, such as a free-agent quarterback like Jameis Winston, to either be a bridge or the next franchise quarterback.
The Steelers are slated to pick No. 20 overall in the upcoming draft, and with a weaker quarterback class, a player like Pitt’s Kenny Pickett or North Carolina’s Sam Howell could be available at the Steelers’ selection.
Tomlin also said he hasn’t expressed a preference between bringing in a veteran over a rookie to avoid a rebuilding process.
In looking for a quarterback, Tomlin acknowledged that mobility is an important positional trait.
“Man, quarterback mobility is valued not only by me, but everyone,” he said. “It’s just a component of today’s game and increasingly so.”
The Steelers enter the 2022 season with only one quarterback under contract in Mason Rudolph, though Dwayne Haskins also spent the 2021 season on the Steelers’ roster. Tomlin said both will have the opportunity to compete for the starting job.
“Mason and Dwayne have had their moments, but they’ll have to prove that,” Tomlin said when asked if either could be an everyday starter. “And not only in the team development process, but through playing itself. They’re guys that start that I wouldn’t characterize as everyday starters. And so they’ll be given an opportunity to establish themselves, and there’s going to be competition. There always is.
“I think that both guys have positioned themselves to fight that fight with what they’ve done from a work standpoint and a professionalism standpoint in 2021.”
Rudolph started one game this season — a tie in Week 10 against the then-winless Detroit Lions — and completed 30 of 50 attempts for 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also started eight games in 2019, taking over the job after Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury. But he split time with Devlin “Duck” Hodges.
Haskins, meanwhile, was only active for one game during the 2021 season after signing with the Steelers in the offseason. He competed with Rudolph for the backup spot during training camp, but ultimately landed as the No. 3. The former first-rounder started 13 games with the Washington Football Team before being released late in the 2020 season.
In addition to addressing the future of the team’s quarterback position, Tomlin also touched on the future of other key members of his staff and the Steelers’ organization.
• Tomlin expressed confidence in first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada, seemingly a sign that Canada will return for at least one more season.
“I’m optimistic about Matt and what he’s capable of doing,” he said. “I acknowledge that we took a step back. There are some obvious tangible reasons why that occurred. … We’ve got to be better. We intend to be. And that’s going to require a lot of planning and work. Players and coaches.”
Tomlin also acknowledged frustration with the lack of offensive success. The Steelers averaged 4.8 yards per play in 2021 after averaging 5.2 in 2020.
“I’m not expressing satisfaction with any component of it,” he said. “I’m just acknowledging that he brings things to the table that are attractive, and we need to be better and we will be and that, you know, that’s a component of it as well. But I’m not acknowledging satisfaction with of any component of what it is that we’ve done as I sit here today.”
• Tomlin said he and defensive coordinator Keith Butler, 65, have previously had conversations about 2021 being Butler’s last season. Butler’s one-year extension ends after the 2021 season.
“Butz has had conversations about this being potentially his last year,” Tomlin said. “He and I have not had an opportunity to sit down. I’m doing player interviews. He’s doing player interviews, and so we haven’t had a detailed conversation in that regard. But defensively, you know, we didn’t play as well as we’d like either. We’ve got to get better in that area.”
• While general manager Kevin Colbert’s contract expires after the 2022 NFL draft, Tomlin is still working closely with Colbert to come up with a plan for this offseason. The two have also talked about Colbert’s future with the team.
“He and I have had discussions about it,” Tomlin said. “But I’ll leave it to Kevin to address any issues regarding him on his future. My plan and our plan is to proceed in the short term and like we always do.”
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