Steelers' Tomlin abruptly leaves press conference when asked about his contract

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Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin answers questions during a news conference after losing to the Buffalo Bills in an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Pittsburgh Steelers' latest one-and-done playoff appearance is raising questions about Mike Tomlin's future.

The NFL's longest tenured coach was in no mood to talk about it Monday night.

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Tomlin walked off the podium at his postgame news conference following a 31-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills when a reporter began with, “Mike, you have a year left on your contract."

The abrupt exit only heightened speculation about what's next for Tomlin and the Steelers. He's been in charge there for 17 seasons, making him the NFL's longest tenured head coach after Bill Belichick parted with New England last week. He’s never had a losing season — an NFL record run — but this year was close.

The Steelers were unable to overcome early mistakes and the absence of star pass rusher T.J. Watt against Buffalo, and now the franchise has gone seven years since last winning a playoff game.

The franchise played in its NFL-leading 63rd playoff game since 1970 and is accustomed to contending for Super Bowl championships. But the Steelers (10-8) finished one-and-done for a fourth consecutive postseason appearance.

The team went through turmoil this season unprecedented during Tomlin's reign, including the firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada and several key injuries, including to starting quarterback Kenny Pickett and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Pittsburgh responded from a three-game skid to win three in a row and sneak into the playoffs. But having finished a season behind AFC North rivals in Baltimore and Cleveland, and conference rivals such as Buffalo, the Steelers enter an offseason of uncertainty.

“Every player in there wouldn’t be anything without Mike T,” said Cameron Heyward, a defensive captain. “This group would not function to even get to a playoff berth without Mike T. ... I wouldn’t want to play for any other coach.”

Mason Rudolph’s efforts helped the Steelers win their final three regular-season games and claim the seventh seed in the AFC playoffs. But the backup quarterback struggled in his first postseason appearance in an outing during which the wintry elements hardly played a factor.

Rudolph, who didn't turn the ball over in the regular season, was intercepted in the end zone by Kaiir Elam early in the second quarter. That led to his Bills counterpart Josh Allen scoring on a 52-yard run that put the Steelers in a 21-0 hole.

And Buffalo’s second touchdown of the first quarter came one play after Steelers receiver George Pickens fumbled in Pittsburgh territory.

“We spotted them early in the football game via the turnovers,” Tomlin said. “Can’t come into an environment like this with a playoff-caliber team and turn the ball over like that and expect to be competitive.”

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s defense without Watt could not come up with any takeaways in dropping to 1-11 when the three-time All-Pro and the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year is sidelined. The Steelers also had uncharacteristic missed several tackles, including on Allen’s scoring run, and a touchdown pass to Khalil Shakir in the fourth quarter.

In their past five playoff losses, beginning with the 2016 AFC championship game, the Steelers have been outscored 202-134 and allowed 31 or more points in each loss.

Rudolph could not say whether he will be back with the Steelers after six seasons.

The 34-year-old Heyward said he needs to focus on getting healthy after battling groin injuries in his 13th season. He grew emotional when talking about restoring the Super Bowl standard the Steelers established when Heyward entered the NFL.

“That’s the thing that bugs me the most at night, not having an opportunity to have a Super Bowl,” Heyward said. “Seeing the culture and the tradition here. Every man should feel that way.

"It stings to be out of the playoffs, to not have a chance to continue to move on and I’m not ready to give that up.”



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