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mesaSteeler
11-25-2011, 09:59 AM
Kovacevic: Tomlin making the tough calls

By Dejan Kovacevic
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, November 25, 2011

Mike Tomlin seldom refers to his Steelers as players. He calls them "men."

A championship coach is built on championship players, and the connection between the two must be at the same level. It isn't just blowing the whistle and barking orders. A bond, a trust must be forged.

Tomlin has looked into the eyes of some of his current men for years now. He knows their families, has shared in personal triumphs and tragedies. After practice Thursday on the South Side, he went around the locker room, stall by stall, to check that everyone had a place to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

And yet, in that season-opening fiasco at Baltimore, Tomlin didn't wait until halftime to pull ineffective linebacker James Farrior in favor of Larry Foote. The same Farrior who was the Steelers' unquestioned leader on the way to the Super Bowl just eight months earlier.

That was only the beginning.

Bryant McFadden, the starting cornerback and frequent burn victim in the Super Bowl, lost his job to William Gay.

Chris Hoke, the popular backup nose tackle for the past decade, dropped on the depth chart below young Steve McLendon. And this after Hoke had an outstanding start in September.

The great Hines Ward, future Hall of Famer, was next. He lost a starting job he'd held for 12 years to Antonio Brown before the most recent game in Cincinnati. He was on the field for nine snaps against the Bengals, and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians suggested yesterday he'll be relegated mostly to red-zone duty Sunday in Kansas City.

Just this week, guard Chris Kemoeatu, the offensive line's weak link of late, learned he will lose the starting job he'd held for three years to Doug Legursky.

Amazing, isn't it?

Farrior did regain his old role, but those other four players represent $10.5 million in combined cap hits, not to mention a wealth of championship experience, all relegated to the bench.

I asked Tomlin after practice yesterday how hard these decisions might have been.

"It comes with the territory," he said. "Everybody understands what we're trying to do here and that the moves we make are in the best interest of us moving in the direction we want to move. All of these guys are professionals. They understand that. There are no personal agendas."

When asked if reducing Ward's role might have been especially hard, Tomlin abruptly ended our interview.

I won't go overboard in praising Tomlin here, if only because it doesn't ring right that, according to Ward, he still hasn't been given an explanation by the coaching staff. Ward, the player and person, deserves much better than that.

Maybe the clearest answer Tomlin has given anyone on the topic came in his Tuesday news conference when asked specifically about Ward's role for the Kansas City game: "Obviously, Hines is a very capable man, as are some others. We will do what's best in terms of giving us an opportunity to win this game."

That's absolutely the right call, the right approach by Tomlin. But it could be that his reaction yesterday underscores the sensitivity of executing it.

Remember, this is the coach who held open a roster spot most of last season for injured Aaron Smith, right through the Super Bowl. That was done out of loyalty to a player and person who had done so much.

You can argue that this loyalty extended into this season, when Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert kept Smith on the roster at the fiscal expense of left tackle Max Starks. That move backfired badly. The leaky line allowed Ben Roethlisberger to get chased around like a wounded animal for a month until Starks was re-signed.

Maybe that was the final push for Tomlin. He'd shown unparalleled loyalty to this core group for years, even through the rare dry spells. But the Steelers had begun to validate all those old-and-slow criticisms on both sides of the ball. It looked like the end of a remarkable run.

Tomlin wasn't about to idly watch.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or .

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