Bruce Arians' tenure as Steelers offensive coordinator has come to a sudden if not strange end, with the team announcing his retirement in a one-paragraph statement that was as frosty as the final days of his sometimes stormy five-year career.
Less than a week after Arians told people he intended to return for the 2012 season, the Steelers said Friday that he has decided to retire -- a bizarre turn of events that began with the team's decision to not renew his contract, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has learned.
That decision appears to have come from team president Art Rooney II, even though coach Mike Tomlin told Arians several times since the playoff loss in Denver that he wanted him to return next season.
The Post-Gazette reported three days ago that Arians, 59, who was in the final year of his contract, might not return next season. But it was unclear at the time if he was going to retire or if the Steelers were not going to renew his contract.
Turns out, it was a little of both.
And now Tomlin, who inherited Arians and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau when he replaced Bill Cowher in 2007, will have to make his most significant coaching hire since becoming head coach.
According to sources inside and outside the organization, Tomlin had told Arians on several occasions since the end of the season that he wanted him to return in 2012 -- once even telling him in front of other coaches. And Arians had told other people, including his assistants, he intended to return in 2012.
But, earlier this week, after he returned to his offseason home in Greensboro, Ga., Arians was told his one-year contract would not be renewed -- a decision that appeared to come from someone higher than Tomlin, sources said.
"I appreciate his efforts over the past five years as the team's offensive coordinator and for helping lead our offense to new heights during his time with the Steelers," Tomlin said in a statement released Friday by the Steelers. "I am grateful to Bruce for contributing to our success and wish him nothing but the best in his retirement."
Arians did not make a statement in the release. He could not be reached for comment.
On Friday morning, before the team announced Arians' retirement, Rooney went on radio station WDVE and said that whatever happened with Arians is "really Mike's decision," referring to Tomlin.
"It's that time of year we do the coaches' contract for those who don't have a contract and sometimes we extend contracts," Rooney said. "Mike's involved in those conversations with all his coaches."
But was it Tomlin's decision?
It is not uncommon for owners to recommend to their head coach that changes are needed in their coaching staff, even suggesting that specific assistant coaches be fired. After the 1988 season in which the Steelers went 5-11, team president and owner Dan Rooney suggested to coach Chuck Noll that he needed to make changes on his staff, though he was not specific about which coaches.
Noll did, firing four assistant coaches and accepting the resignation of another, secondary coach Tony Dungy, who went on to become a successful head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts.
This, apparently, was different.
For starters, the Steelers were coming off their second 12-4 season in a row in which the offense had two 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown and a 4,000-yard quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. All three were selected to the Pro Bowl, in addition to center Maurkice Pouncey, the first time the Steelers have had four offensive players in the Pro Bowl since the 2004 season, when they went 15-1.
In addition, the running game -- an area that Arians' detractors said he didn't develop -- had its best per-carry average (4.4 yards) since the 2001 season. That is a better average than in '10 when Art Rooney II declared the Steelers needed to run the ball more effectively.
Tomlin will probably have to go outside the organization to hire a coordinator.
Since Noll became coach in 1969, the Steelers have gone outside their organization to hire an offensive coordinator only three times -- Joe Walton in 1990, Ray Sherman in '98 and Kevin Gilbride in '99. In each instance, the Steelers never made the playoffs with those coordinators running the offense.
Running backs coach Kirby Wilson would have been a likely candidate for the position, but his health, after suffering severe burns over 45 percent of his body in a fire at his home Jan. 6, precludes that possibility.
No matter which coordinator is hired, his most important job will be to work with -- and, perhaps more important, co-exist with -- Roethlisberger, who was very close to Arians and is said to be upset that he will not be back.
The two are frequent golf companions and own houses in the same offseason golf community in Greensboro, Ga. The Steelers quarterback is taking Arians and his wife to Hawaii with him next week as a reward for him making the Pro Bowl. Roethlisberger is also taking quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner and his wife.
Two years ago, when the Steelers were considering a change in offensive coordinators, it was Roethlisberger who went to Tomlin and Rooney to support Arians -- a move that eventually saved his job.
Arians was a favorite target of Steelers fans who complained about his play-calling -- a frequent lament directed at offensive coordinators -- and was often derided for throwing too much.
But he believed that his offense was built around Roethlisberger, a $100 million quarterback, and Arians was largely responsible for the drafting of Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, the team's top three receivers. Shortly after replacing Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator in 2007, Arians began using three tight ends in his offense -- a tactic now used by many NFL offenses.
Still, he could never escape the criticism of fans, even in games when the defense was largely to blame.
The most recent example was the overtime playoff loss in Denver when fans complained the Steelers did not run the ball enough against the Broncos, even though they had 111 of their 156 rushing yards in the second half. And even though the defense let quarterback Tim Tebow pass for a career-high 316 yards and complete five long passes they didn't think he was capable of completing, including the 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime.
Apparently, the Steelers hierarchy agreed with many of his detractors. And the team will search for a new offensive coordinator.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org ; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published January 21, 2012 5:00 AM