Cook: Tomlin must fix Steelers' locker room
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin argues pass interference call during last night's 20-17 loss at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
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Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has a much bigger problem on his hands than anything that was created by a 20-17 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens last night. The team lost more than just its third consecutive game in a season that's rapidly headed toward mediocrity. Clearly, it has a schism in the locker room that needs to be repaired before it sabotages any chance the Steelers have of making the playoffs.
Shame on wide receiver Hines Ward for going on national television before the game and saying it's "almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room" about whether quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should or should not have played. Roethlisberger was benched by team neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon after experiencing concussion-related symptoms late last week after taking a knee to the head in Kansas City the previous Sunday. His replacement, Dennis Dixon, made his first NFL start and, after throwing for one touchdown and running for another, threw a killer interception in overtime that led to the winning field goal.
Shame on the 50 percent in the locker room who questioned Roethlisberger's toughness. This is fair to say: Virtually all of those who did will never be as tough as he is.
Ward, who is as tough as any player in the NFL, acknowledged during an interview with NBC that only Roethlisberger knows for sure how he felt in the days leading up to the game. But he didn't do his quarterback -- his teammate and supposed friend for the past six years -- any favors by pointing out that he and a lot of other guys would do just about anything to play in "almost a must-win" game, even if it means lying to team doctors.
"I've been out there dinged up. The following week, got right back out there," Ward told NBC.
"I don't think guys really worry about the future when they're playing currently in the NFL. Trust me, the players want to go out there because these games you don't get back. You're never going to get this Baltimore-Pittsburgh game back. This is a big game."
If I'm Roethlisberger, I'm furious.
If I'm Ward, I don't know how I look Roethlisberger in the eye.
If I'm Tomlin, I'm thinking I have to get the two in a room. Like first thing this morning.
Actually, it sounded after the game as if that's exactly what Tomlin will do. As expected, he downplayed any problem in the locker room and said, "In that instance, maybe Hines was uninformed. In response to that, I will give him that information [about Maroon having the final say]. I will give our football team that information."
For his part, Ward said his intent wasn't to call out Roethlisberger. He said he was "frustrated" after finding out Saturday that his quarterback wouldn't play. "I'm not going to get into a war of words with my quarterback," he said. "We needed him out there. We wanted him out there."
Apparently, tackle Willie Colon is among the 50 percent who didn't have a problem with Roethlisberger sitting out. "I believe in him. You can't sit back and start questioning him after he's been through so much and been in enough fires to be roasted many times over."
Now, that is well-said.
Ward was wrong on a number of fronts, none greater than the fact he put the Roethlisberger issue under the brightest of lights for public scrutiny. If he had a problem with Roethlisberger, he should have taken it directly to him. He never should have taken his thoughts out of the house. That does no one on the team any good.
Beyond that, how can Ward -- or anyone else, for that matter -- have a problem with Roethlisberger's toughness? A teammate who did much of the heavy lifting to put two Super Bowl rings on their fingers in the past four seasons despite being sacked like a zillion times? No one questioned safety Ryan Clark's toughness when he didn't play in Denver a few weeks ago because of a blood disorder. Nor should they have. Too bad that 50 percent didn't give Roethlisberger the same benefit of the doubt.
I know some will argue Roethlisberger brought some of this on himself by embellishing his injuries over the years. He has earned a reputation inside the locker room of being a drama queen.
But this is different. A head injury can impact the rest of a player's life. Tomlin said Roethlisberger had exercise-induced headaches last week. There's no way he should have played last night.
The NFL is taking head injuries more seriously than ever. It is scared to death that it's going to be besieged in the years ahead by former players with concussion-related problems.
I saw an example of this a few weeks ago with former Pitt star and Steelers safety Paul Martha, who estimated he had at least 10 concussions during his career. He's 67, has dementia issues and lives in an assisted care facility in St. Louis. He's one of more than 100 former players who receive up to $88,000 a year in assistance from the NFL for such problems.
Just yesterday, ESPN.com reported the league and the NFL Players Association are close to an agreement that will ban a player from re-entering a game after he experiences concussion-related symptoms. There's also discussion between the two sides to have such a player arbitrarily banned from playing the next week. They are doing their best to save tough-guy players such as Ward from themselves, players so macho that they're even willing to risk their long-term health by lying to team doctors in order to play.
Too bad that ban-from-the-next-game rule wasn't in effect last night.
It would have saved Roethlisberger and Tomlin from one giant headache.
Pardon the poor pun.
First Published November 30, 2009 12:30 am