SAN FRANCISCO -- The late, great Chuck Tanner, who almost certainly will be remembered as the last Pirates manager to win a World Series during our lifetime, always used to say he never made a bad decision. Some just didn't work out.
So it was Monday night with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
It absolutely was the right call to start quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against the San Francisco 49ers despite a left ankle injury that forced him to miss almost all of the practice time leading up to the game. The Steelers lost, 20-3, in large part because Roethlisberger threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. It was a hurtful defeat that could cost the team the AFC North Division title, the No. 1 seed for the conference playoffs and a trip to its fourth Super Bowl in seven years.
I will write it again:
It wasn't a bad decision to go with Roethlisberger. It just didn't work out.
You want to blame Tomlin for something? Blame him for not taking out Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter after the game had been decided. But don't blame him for starting Roethlisberger.
Tomlin has a philosophy that's a good one. If a player feels healthy enough to play and he's cleared by the team's medical staff, he plays. There's no saving him for next week. There's no saving him for the playoffs.
Tomlin is a wise coach.
You always play the guys who give you the best chance to win a particular game, especially when that game means so much for playoff seeding.
The Steelers had a clear path to the division title and the No. 1 seed after the Baltimore Ravens lost Sunday night in San Diego. Beat the 49ers and then beat the laughable St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns in the final two games and it all was theirs.
Of course, Roethlisberger had to play, bad ankle and all.
There was just one problem.
"I need to play a lot better than I did," Roethlisberger said after the game.
His bum ankle contributed to the loss. Absolutely, it did. But it wasn't the biggest story. He moved better than most people expected. He said he played on "adrenaline, two Tylenol and two Advil." Trainer John Norwig confirmed, rather angrily, that he received no shot of painkiller.
Roethlisberger's mistakes hurt the Steelers worse than his ankle problem did. Give a lot of credit to a very stout 49ers defense, which came in leading the NFL in fewest points allowed, rushing defense and turnovers. Not that Roethlisberger was in much of a mood to do that.
"I'm not going to make any excuses. I played a bad football game," he said. "I was probably the best 49er tonight."
That's being a little overdramatic, but this certainly wasn't Roethlisberger's best performance. He threw for 330 yards but had those four turnovers, four more than the Steelers defense was able to generate. He finished with a 52.3 passer rating, his worst of the season, worse even than that opening-day fiasco in Baltimore when the Steelers were beaten, 35-7. That was the fewest points they scored this season before Monday night.
Roethlisberger threw interceptions on the Steelers' first two possessions, leading to two San Francisco field goals. The first interception was especially costly on a second-and-7 play from the 49ers 19 when the Steelers were threatening to take an early lead. Cornerback Carlos Rogers stepped in front of a ball intended for wide receiver Mike Wallace.
A Roethlisberger turnover early in the fourth quarter also hurt the Steelers. They were still in the game -- trailing, 13-3 -- when he was sacked by linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Justin Smith at the Pittsburgh 17. This was one sack you could blame on Roethlisberger's ankle. Healthy, he might have avoided the rush on that play. As it was, he couldn't escape. The 49ers clinched the win moments later on a 5-yard touchdown run by running back Frank Gore with 9:06 left.
At that point, the fight was over.
That's when Tomlin needed to get Roethlisberger out of the game.
The Steelers play the Rams in just five days, on Christmas Eve. They're going to need Roethlisberger to win it. They also need to win at Cleveland on New Year's Day and hope that the Ravens lose one of their final two games against the Browns at home and at Cincinnati in order to win the division. They will need much more help to get the No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the playoffs.
But Tomlin allowed Roethlisberger to play the rest of the game -- three more series.
That was ridiculous.
"He tried to take me out," Roethlisberger said of Tomlin. "I told him I didn't want to come out. I didn't want to let my guys down. I didn't want to put [backup] Charlie [Batch] in that position. I started and I was going to finish."
It still was a mistake by Tomlin.
I mean, really, who's the boss?
On the first possession after Roethlisberger's fumble, he was sacked again by Aldon Smith and hit by Smith as he threw a pass. On the second series, he was sacked one more time by Smith, then was intercepted by cornerback Tarell Brown. Somehow, he survived the final series and limped to the locker room.
Clearly, this night didn't work out for Roethlisberger or the Steelers.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.