Judgements: Tomlin says Steelers will be fine, read-option won't

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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PHOENIX -- Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin has a message for anyone out there who thinks the Steelers are descending: See you in September.

So they lost five starters, including Mike Wallace and James Harrison. So they aren't expected to re-sign starters Max Starks and Casey Hampton, either. And so they seem to have lost their mojo, dropping as many games last season (8) as they did the previous two years.

So what? "That's March talk," Tomlin said at the annual league meetings. "I'm not going to try to combat March talk. It is what it is. I'll see you at stadiums in the fall."

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Good. Because it's there we find out if Tomlin is right ... and I'm not just talking about the resuscitation of the Steelers. I'm talking about the read-option offense, a scheme Tomlin believes isn't here for the long haul. In fact, he all but challenged opponents to run it against his Steelers -- or anyone for that matter -- while alerting them to beware the consequences.

"I think the read-option is the flavor of the month," he said, "and we'll see if it's the flavor of the year. You know what I mean? A few years ago people were talking wildly about the wildcat. There's less of a discussion now."

There's more of one involving the read-option and what it means for quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick. RG3 didn't make it through his rookie year without getting hurt, then suffered torn ligaments in the Redskins' playoff loss. Kaepernick wasn't sidelined but took numerous shots in Super Bowl XLVII, some of them after completing handoffs.

"You've got to believe these quarterbacks will get beaten up," said Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, who agreed with Tomlin.

One reason: Look what teams are paying defensive linemen and pass rushers whose jobs are to get to the quarterback. Another: See how much time defensive coordinators spend this offseason on shutting down read-option quarterbacks. So they were surprised last year. Now they have a chance to catch up, with Lewis saying he's already spent time quizzing college defensive coordinators on how to handle it.

"There are coaches in rooms preparing themselves to defend it," said Tomlin. "There are also coaches in rooms also preparing themselves to run it, and I think it's going to sort itself out on the grass. I look forward to it."

He should. His Steelers shut down Washington last season, with RG3 having his worst game of the season. Granted, the Redskins didn't run much read-option that game but there was a reason, Tomlin suggested. It's the same reason he believes it could be in for a short ride in the NFL.

"I always take a skeptical approach," said Tomlin. "We'll see. We'll see if guys are committed to getting their [quarterbacks] hit because when you run the read-option, obviously, [quarterbacks] are runners, and there's something associated with that."

Yeah, it's called big hits. See you in September.

2. People at this week's owners' meetings now tell me that Orioles' owner Peter Angelos is not the obstacle in the Sept. 5 conflict with the Ravens; that it's the Major League Baseball Players' Association, and until or unless it signs off on moving the Orioles' night game to an earlier time it won't happen.

3. The Ravens aren't interested in moving to, say, Sunday night because playing in the NFL Kickoff means gaining the following weekend off ... with 10 days to their next start. So just in case you're wondering: The Ravens would rather play on the road Thursday than at home on that Sunday.

4. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and James Harrison are two veteran free agents who are sitting out there, unsigned, and people want to know why. Obviously, age is an issue. Both turn 35 in May. So are diminished abilities, with each slowing down. But so are contractual demands. "These are not guys willing to play for the minimum," an AFC general manager said. "Nothing's going to happen until they lower their expectations."

5. One coach told me he doesn't see how Oakland keeps Carson Palmer at his $13 million salary, and neither do I. Nevertheless, the Raiders' Dennis Allen said he expects Palmer to be his starter ("nothing has changed with our quarterback situation") but added that he'll keep the position competitive -- which just opened the door for backup Terrelle Pryor ... or someone not currently on the roster. "When you say you're going to make the position competitive," said an AFC head coach, "it means you don't have a quarterback. Players need to know who is going to lead them, and when you can't do that you're in trouble."

6. If Palmer doesn't take the pay cut, the expectation is that the Raiders release him. If that happens, make Arizona the ideal landing spot.

7. Shortly before Jets' coach Rex Ryan sat down at a table jammed with reporters, he leaned over to someone sitting nearby and said, "I bet the first question is about Darrelle Revis." It wasn't. It was the third. "We said the over/under was 15 questions," Ryan laughed. "So that's number one right there."

8. When Ryan said, "I know for a fact that we're not actively trying to trade Darrelle Revis," it doesn't mean squat. At the February scouting combine, Minnesota GM Rick Spielman said the same thing about wide receiver Percy Harvin ... then traded him within three weeks. All I know is the Jets can never answer a simple yes/no question if they expect Revis to be with them this season, and that tells you what you should already know: The guy's on the market and almost surely will be dealt. "If someone calls you're going to listen -- no matter who the player is, whether it's Darrelle Revis or whoever ... Joe Montana." No, you're not. The 49ers dealt Montana only when it became clear they'd moved on to Steve Young, and I don't hear the Patriots entertaining offers for Tom Brady or Green Bay for Aaron Rodgers. That's because they're not on the market; Revis is.

9. You gotta feel for Cleveland's Rob Chudzinski. He takes over a perennial doormat with a quarterback he didn't draft and may not want. But look at his options at the position: Colt McCoy and Thaddeus Lewis. Now you know why the Browns will make a one-year commitment to Weeden. "I studied him on tape significantly for awhile, and I'm excited about the tools that he has," Chudzinksi said. "He can throw the ball and has a good feel and presence in the pocket. It really is just going to be about getting him into the system, into the meetings and getting a chance to coach him and see what he can do once we get out on the field." Just a hunch, but Weeden is not the Browns' starter in 2014.

10. When you're in the AFC East, you chase New England. So it figures that Dolphins' coach Joe Philbin was asked what he had to do to catch the Patriots. "We've got to produce more turnovers," he said, pointing to the team's 16 last year. That's a start. But here's another way of getting there: Have Tom Brady retire. Because until he does it doesn't matter how many takeaways you have; you play for second.

11. Phil Dawson is the perfect kicker for San Francisco, and I don't mean because he's accurate. The guy is used to kicking in ugly weather, and the winds at Candlestick Park are cruel to kickers. But my guess is that we learn something about Dawson here, and that's how he performs under pressure. "It's easy to make those kicks in Cleveland when games aren't on the line," said one special teams coach, "but let's see how he does when he gets into a game that matters." We won't have to wait long.

12. Please tell me Andy Reid didn't tell reporters Geno Smith is still an option with the first overall pick. Maybe for someone that trades with Kansas City for that choice, but not the Chiefs. They didn't give up two second-round picks to make Alex Smith -- who's 28, by the way -- a backup. Nice try, Andy.

13. Marshall Faulk said if runners can't lower their heads, then get rid of helmets. They already have, Marshall. It's called rugby.

14. This is how far the New York Jets have plunged: Two years ago, coach Rex Ryan proclaimed them the next NFL champions; now, he won't make a commitment to quarterback Mark Sanchez beyond the first snap of the offseason.

15. The Raiders' Allen talks about getting his system in place and "defining the culture inside the [Raiders'] building," which is great. But I wonder how long Raiders' fans accept that message. Sooner or later, the club must win, and it hasn't had a winning season since 2002. That means the clock is ticking on Allen, and, give the guy credit, he's remarkably unconcerned, even with a salary-cap mess that he's trying to get out from under. "I'm in this thing for the long run," he said. "I'm not in it for the microwave quick fix, one-year wonder. The Oakland Raiders have built this organization on sustained success, and that's what we're trying to do. I don't want to be one of those teams that jumps up and has one good year and the next year you don't hear from us. That's a process of making good decisions on top of good decisions." Somebody should remind Allen that he might not have as much time as he thinks. The Raiders have been through four head coaches the past five seasons.

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