Tomlin's plan doesn't include self-doubt
Share with others:
About two hours after Ben Roethlisberger left on a motorized cart, flat on his back, totally immobilized except for a last-second raised thumb, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin walked into his postgame news conference missing not a single ounce of his typical self-assuredness.
The Steelers, apparently, had taken every precaution with their franchise quarterback in the 14 minutes he lay in the grass after Cleveland linebackers Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson came down on him like a Route 28 rock slide.
Unscrewed his face mask. Strapped him to a board. Asked him some relevant questions.
Oh yes, they had taken every conceivable precaution except, of course, the main one: not playing him.
In a game with all the practical import of the Hawaii Bowl, Tomlin elected to run the varsity out there yesterday against the Cleveland Browns, whose elapsed time without an offensive touchdown is now 399 minutes, 52 seconds and counting, or if you prefer, six games.
"All tests are negative, which is positive," Tomlin instructed, overlaying some reversible prose on Big Ben's concussion, which nearly vaporized all the constructive karma the head coach energized by taking the Browns seriously. "That's all the information that I have on his status at this point. It is encouraging."
From the moment his club's slapstick performance in Nashville, Tenn., surrendered the top seed in the AFC playoffs to the Titans last week, Tomlin refused to so much as consider a more cautious approach to this walk-through with Cleveland, a 31-0 joke of a football game in which the visitors passed for 26 yards. The whole damn-the-torpedoes game plan was holding up well enough until late in the second quarter, when Roethlisberger fled the pocket to his left and flipped a 4-yard pass to Heath Miller in the split second before McGinest and Jackson put him on his back and bounced his coconut off the Heinz Field turf.
"Any time you see that gurney come out, you're worried," said wideout Nate Washington, who had a touchdown nullified by a holding penalty. "To me though, I look to Ben as a warrior. I'm hopin' and prayin' he's all right."
No one better understood the risks involved in his approach to this largely ceremonial whipping than Tomlin, whose credentials to make such judgments are perfectly in order. No one has won more games in his first two years as coach around here, and no one won divisional titles in his first two years. His decision to play Roethlisberger and mostly every other major contributor deep into this dress rehearsal was essentially correct it says here, but I know he would have preferred the risks not get such a dramatic illustration.
"There are pros and cons to both sides," nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "You don't want to rest guys for two weeks [including a first-round playoff bye next week], but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we lost last week. We made a lot of mistakes in that game, and coach wanted us to have a good game going into the playoffs."
Generally, a good game in this town is not one that puts No. 7 in the hospital, but from every indication, Tomlin would do it all over again. As it played out, he got backup Byron Leftwich two quarters of valuable playing time on the verge of the playoffs, he rediscovered how the running game can be related to a fullback, he got his defense back to feeling like itself with its 11th performance this year in which it allowed one touchdown or none.
If all it costs the Steelers was a bill for a quick battery of CAT scans, it'll have been worth it.
"I was just hoping he was OK," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. "When we came in at halftime, coach said he was gonna be all right, and that's all I needed. Ben's a tough kid. With all the stuff he's been through the last three years, the [motorcycle] accident, I mean, it's hard to knock him out. It seems like all that stuff has only made him stronger."
Even with the quarterback on the way to the emergency room, Tomlin never came off the pedal. With 9:40 left to play and the Steelers about to go up by 31 on Ty Carter's interception return for a touchdown, Larry Foote was still in the vicious traffic along with Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and Taylor. Tomlin finally pulled Polamalu with 8:43 to play, but Hines Ward played until he made his 800th career catch, and Miller and Santonio Holmes were still on the field, too. That was with 6:40 to play.
In two weeks, Tomlin gets his second whack at the playoffs, or what he now refers to as "January football." Here's what I know will happen: He'll run that show his way. Self-doubt is nowhere on the horizon, and coaches who come upon it don't get very far in this game.
First Published December 29, 2008 12:00 am