PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin understands change is inevitable, though the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers head coach also knows his organization has avoided it more than most.
Probably not this time.
A blowout playoff loss at home to Cleveland still fresh, Tomlin allowed on Wednesday that the upheaval could be significant over the next few months. On the surface, an 11-0 start and an AFC North title looks like a wildly successful season. In most places it is.
It’s not in Pittsburgh. And four years removed from the team’s last postseason victory, Tomlin feels it more acutely than most. Given a looming salary-cap crunch and three straight December swoons, the team’s practice of perpetually kicking the can down the road in order to remain competitive may have to stop.
“It is challenging,” Tomlin said. “The depths of (our situation) is challenging, so there’s a lot of work ahead.”
Starting with whether Ben Roethlisberger returns in 2021. The 38-year-old quarterback played remarkably well at times a year removed from right-elbow surgery but was occasionally mistake-prone down the stretch, including a four-interception performance against Cleveland.
Roethlisberger is under contract for next season and indicated he hopes the Steelers bring him back. At the same time, he carries a $41 million salary cap hit, meaning general manager Kevin Colbert will have to get pretty creative to fill out the rest of the roster likely to be put together without looming free agents. Those include outside linebacker Bud Dupree, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Mike Hilton.
Asked if he anticipates having Roethlisberger under center in 2021, Tomlin said “we haven’t made any decisions about any of our personnel along those lines.”
“I think it’s reasonable to assume there is a chance he is going to be back, certainly,” Tomlin added.
That decision, whether it’s Roethlisberger’s or the team’s, will likely have to be made before Roethlisberger receives a $15 million roster bonus due in mid-March. It’s one of many forks in the road the Steelers will have to navigate, a list that includes whether to retain offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and defensive coordinator Keith Butler.