Bob Smizik: Intrigue on Tomlin’s staff

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It’s been quite the offseason for the Steelers, and that’s with the draft still more than two months away.

Fans who love to obsess about the importance of assistant coaches should be in a fully enthralled mode by the moves the Steelers have made since the end of their second consecutive 8-8 season. Not since Bruce Arians "retired" has there been so much coaching staff intrigue.

The players had barely cleaned out their lockers when word came that Jack Bicknell, just one year on the job as offensive line coach, had been fired. It was a shocking development, even if the Steelers had finished 27th in the NFL in rushing yards. Any time an assistant coach is fired after one year it reflects less on that coach than it does on the man who hired and fired him -- Mike Tomlin.

The story took on an even juicier tone when the Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac reported the following:

''...the move is not surprising because Bicknell’s role slowly diminished after the Steelers had problems protecting Ben Roethlisberger and running the football in the first half of the season. In fact, for most of the second half of the season, offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett was doing a lot of the instruction and daily handling of the offensive line – duties normally performed by the offensive line coach."

Sarrett was interviewed as a possible replacement to Bicknell but soon became a distinct afterthought. Tomlin hired Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak, a decorated offensive line coach, who had been fired earlier this month as head coach of the Tennessee Titans. Before that three-year stint, Munchak had carved a outstanding reputation as offensive line coach with the Titans for 14 seasons.

The hiring of Munchak, Tomlin’s fourth offensive line coach since he succeeded Bill Cowher in 2007, was considered a major coup, particularly for a team thick with underproducing high draft choices on the offensive line.

But the drama didn’t end with the hiring of Munchak. He was barely on the staff when running backs coach Kirby Wilson, an original hire by Tomlin, asked for and received permission to interview for the same position with the Minnesota Vikings. It is unusual for an NFL team to give permission to a coach to interview for a lateral position.

But Wilson was granted that permission and quickly was hired by the Vikings. Within 24 hours, Wilson was replaced by James Saxon, the man he had replaced with the Vikings.

With the departures of Wilson and Bicknell, that brings to four the number of offensive assistants who have left the Steelers since offensive coordinator Todd Haley -- widely regarded as difficult to work with -- was hired. Only Bicknell was forced to leave. Last year, offensive line coach Sean Kugler left to become head coach at Texas/El Paso (UTEP), his alma mater, and wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery, left to become offensive coordinator at Duke, his alma mater.

Both jobs had their upsides but were not considered to be particularly better than the ones they had with the Steelers. It might be that Kugler and Montgomery truly were excited about new opportunities with more responsibilities. Or they could have been unhappy working with Haley.

Now comes this speculative piece from Dulac about the future of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Dulac wondered why linebackers coach Keith Butler, widely believed to be the heir apparent to LeBeau, decided to stay with the Steelers, as opposed to joining the Titans, where his friend, Ken Whisenhunt had been named as the replacement to Munchak.

He wrote, ''It is unclear if Butler decided to stay because he was encouraged to do so or if his attempt to leave was blocked by Coach Mike Tomlin. In any event, the Titans never formally asked the Steelers for permission to speak with Butler because the decision apparently had already been made that he wasn’t going to leave."

And that opens speculation on the future of LeBeau, who is 76 and always a candidate to retire. Did Butler stay because he knew he’d soon get a promotion with the Steelers?

Stay tuned. There could be additional episodes in the Steelers coaching staff drama.


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