PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin remains “on go” in Pittsburgh.
Both in 2024 and likely beyond.
The NFL's longest-tenured head coach said Thursday he plans on returning to the Steelers for an 18th season, brushing aside speculation that he was on the cusp of burning out and considering taking a step back.
Tomlin shook his head and chuckled “no” when asked if he told anyone he needed a break, saying his passion for his job has only intensified the deeper he gets into a career that includes a Super Bowl ring, but also a playoff-win drought that sits at seven years and counting following a 31-17 loss to Buffalo in the opening round on Monday.
The Steelers finished 10-8 in Tomlin's 17 seasons and have never finished below .500 since he took over for Bill Cowher in January 2007.
Yet Pittsburgh has also been stuck on a treadmill of sorts since reaching the AFC title game in 2016, a stretch that includes five seasons of somewhere between 8 to 10 wins and four quick playoff exits.
While Tomlin believes the Steelers have closed the gap on the teams playing in the divisional round this weekend, he also allowed it doesn't matter.
“It all sucks, it does,” Tomlin said. “It’s not degrees of suck. It all sucks. I’d rather be working.”
Instead, Tomlin will spend the coming weeks interviewing for an offensive coordinator — a candidate he said will come from outside the organization — and start prepping for the NFL draft and free agency.
Tomlin is entering the final year of a contract extension he signed in 2021. He stormed off rather than answer when asked about it moments after the Steelers fell to the Bills. Three days removed, Tomlin admitted “I could have handled the situation better than I did” but added he felt that wasn't the time or the place to discuss his future.
A future that will be in Pittsburgh. He declined to get into specifics on whether he will seek a multi-year deal from team president Art Rooney II, but also isn't concerned about the length (or lack thereof) of a new contract being any sort of sticking point.
“I imagine it is going to get done in a timely manner at the appropriate time,” Tomlin said. “But my mindset is to coach this football team, certainly.”
Tomlin's presence may be one of the few constants during an offseason for a team that has plenty of questions to answer in the coming months.
The biggest one is at quarterback, where Kenny Pickett sputtered as much as he shined during an uneven first full season as the starter. Pickett threw just six touchdowns in 12 games before needing surgery to repair his right ankle in early December. The 2022 first-round pick recovered but spent the final weeks watching former third-stringer Mason Rudolph lead a late push that propelled the Steelers into the playoffs.
Tomlin remains “extremely confident in Pickett” and praised the intangibles Pickett brings to the table. Still, entering his third season, Pickett needs to start providing tangible evidence of progress too.
“We acknowledge that it is a huge year for him,” Tomlin said, drawing out “huge” as he spoke. “But I’m also excited about just watching him wear that component of it, because I just I know how he’s wired and built. I’m excited about watching him attack it.”
Rudolph went 3-1 as a starter while passing for five touchdowns against just one interception. He is also scheduled to become a free agent in March, though Tomlin indicated the team is interested in bringing Rudolph back to compete with Pickett next summer.
“We’re less speculative about (Rudolph's) capabilities because there is evidence of it and evidence of it under (tough) circumstances,” Tomlin said.
It's unlikely that backup Mitch Trubisky, who struggled in relief of Pickett and is set to count $8.3 million against the salary cap, will be in the mix. While there’s a chance the Steelers could bring in a veteran quarterback from outside to join the fray, Pittsburgh has a lot invested in Pickett and needs to find out in 2024 if he's “the guy” or if it's time to move on.
Who calls the plays will have a significant impact on Pickett's future. After promoting from within for an offensive coordinator in 2018 and again in 2021, the Steelers will look elsewhere in search of someone to bring to life an offense that's finished in the bottom third of the NFL in points scored four of the past five years.
While there was an uptick in production over the final weeks a fter Matt Canada was fired in November, interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner and interim play-caller Mike Sullivan are not under consideration.
“I want us to be versatile and dynamic, ”Tomlin said. “Obviously, we got to score more points. I want to be able to keep defenses off balance. I want to utilize all the talent that we have at our disposal.”
Tomlin's goal remains to help the Steelers figure out a way to win another championship, an emotionally and physically draining task he believes he's still up for nearly two decades after Pittsburgh plucked him out of relative obscurity and handed him the keys to one of the NFL's marquee franchises.
There have been a few downs through the years, but not as many ups as he'd like. And the older he gets, the deeper the disappointment when the season doesn't end under a blizzard of confetti at the Super Bowl.
“Sometimes I don’t want to move past (the disappointment),” he said. “Sometimes I just want to be here for a minute, in an effort to improve. And so that’s probably where I’m at, honestly, as I stand here today.”
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