Mike Tomlin is not worried about the future of the NFL

A handful of early retirements, including that of Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds, has not caused coach Mike Tomlin to question the future of football.

Far from it. Tomlin said the game has never been stronger, even though San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland walked away from football after just one season because of concerns about the long-term repercussions of concussions and repeated hits to the head.

“It’s a hot topic right now but I imagine it’s been going on since the beginning of time, guys choosing to walk away from the game seemingly at an inopportune time when they had youth and health,” Tomlin said last week at the NFL owners meetings. “It’s the flavor of the month. It is a hot topic. But those guys have a right to play and to not play. If it was a good decision for them then I respect it, and I champion that. I wish them nothing but the best.”

Tomlin has two young sons and has no reservations about either playing football despite the risks involved -- and the evolving study of concussions and their link to dementia later in life.

“I think youth football is an awesome thing. It’s a safe game,” Tomlin said. “I think it teaches awesome life lessons of unselfishness, perseverance and teamwork and I am excited about watching my boys have an opportunity to learn some of those life lessons through the game like I did.”

Tomlin played wide receiver for four seasons at William & Mary before embarking on a career in coaching. Since he has stopped playing, more has come to light about the link between concussions and long-term health consequences.

And as much as the NFL has tried to legislate hits above the neck out of the game, dangerous collisions in football are inevitable, especially at the highest level.

“I tend to focus more on those things than some of the potential negative things that may be associated with playing the game,” said Tomlin, who is on the NFL’s competition committee. “The reality is that we’ve gone to great lengths, particularly in recent years, to increase the safety of the game and safeguard the players in that way. And I am excited about where we are and where we are going.”

When asked what the NFL will look like in 20 years, Tomlin laughed.

“I don’t know what it looks like,” he said. “I’m probably not in it.”