PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers won nine of their final 10 games, but that one loss -- from how it happened to the storylines surrounding it -- directed the flow of coach Mike Tomlin's final news conference of the 2016 season.
Fans and media questioned the Steelers' zone coverages in a 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots. More pointedly, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said on 93.7 The Fan that his Steelers were "outcoached," a sentiment rarely expressed from a franchise quarterback.
Tomlin, who's admittedly insensitive to critiques, took the bullets and opted for a measured approach. He even defended Roethlisberger's criticism, saying Big Ben's "just trying to be transparent and tell the truth."
He doesn't seem to mind getting blasted by a player, at least publicly. On the surface that seems far-fetched, but it is believable here.
Most coaches who go from a 4-5 start to the NFL's final four are ending on a high note. Not here, not with the expectations heaped on these Steelers, the players' explanations of the Patriots game and Roethlisberger's words in particular.
Tomlin likes to say he doesn't seek comfort, and he wasn't here. He was accepting the failure and seems open to ideas, which Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Kevin Gorman says should include taking more control of the locker room.
To get a feel for Tomlin's outlook to end the season, here are his full responses to several related topics from his news conference this week:
On second-guessing game plans: "I think we second-guess ourselves regardless of outcome. That's just part of trying to be as good as you can be, as competitive as you can be, to be as tough to beat as you can be. We don't wait for the result of performances to comb through it and to analyze it in that way."
On halftime adjustments: "I don't know if it was any more significant than what we do in just about any other halftime. We make the necessary adjustments that we believe that will increase our chances of winning and put us in better position to perform, relative to what transpired in the first half. From that standpoint, it was no different than any other halftime adjustment, not necessarily the results that we had hoped for, but the processes were very similar."
On Roethlisberger referring specifically to coaching mishaps, including coordinator Todd Haley in the red zone: "Ben has been doing it a long time. He doesn't do it to be mean-spirited. He is just trying to be transparent and tell the truth. I think any of us that were in that stadium and on that sideline understand that they performed at a higher level than we did. And it doesn't occur in a vacuum. It's not just playing. It's not just coaching. It's a combination of both. 'Together we eat' is a phrase that I often use in regards to the group. That applies to both players and coaches. That's life in this business. That's always the case. It always has been the case and always will be the case. When we perform well, it's because we planned well and guys have executed well. When we don't perform well, it's because we've lacked something in planning and performance."
On preparing for the Patriots next season: "We will cross that bridge when we come to it. A lot of the things that we do relative to any game plan is based on the people that we have at our disposal, and their potential strengths and weaknesses. So, to forecast what we are going to do when we play them next year is unrealistic as I sit here today because I don't know what the pieces are. When I am talking about the pieces, I am talking about our pieces."
On taking the criticism and players calling out coaches: "It doesn't [affect me], because I'm not overly guarded or highly sensitive. I just want to win. I want to do what's required to win. I don't care who gets the credit. I understand blame is sometimes associated with not being successful. I don't waste a lot of time thinking about that because I don't plan to be unsuccessful. Sometimes we are. And I absorb the negativity that comes with it. I think that's an element of the job."
On dialogue with frustrated players: "You know, these guys know I have an open-door policy, that opinions are good, that we don't care where good ideas come from and I lead the charge in that regard. I'll ask those guys to not be overly sensitive, to be thick-skinned in an effort to pursue what it is we're pursuing. I'm given an opportunity to display that at times, and I do. And that won't change."
On falling short and the heat associated with that: "My goal was to be world champs. And we weren't that. So you can describe it in whatever way you choose to. In that vein, I've only been successful one time in 10 years. And I'm OK with that. I'm not looking to feel good. I'm not. I'm not looking to pat myself on the back; I don't think any of us are. I think it's our desire to be world champs, and it's not us this year. There are consequences for not being that. There's an assessing that comes with not being that. No different than any other year when we haven't won it. All of that being said, because we want to increase our chances of being that group next year."