Is Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin too deceptive over team injuries?

Dec 8, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin reacts against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 8, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin reacts against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers open their season this week. Yet what steals the headline? Whether or not Mike Tomlin is deliberately deceptive over injuries to his players.

The uproar started a few days ago when after playing in his only preseason game, Najee Harris said it was good to shake off the rust and then proceeded to give reporters an update on his foot. He admitted he had suffered a Lisfranc sprain, and no one stepped on his foot despite Mike Tomlin vehemently telling reporters something else occurred. To some degree, downplaying injuries is a disservice to some players, as Post-Gazette reporter Gerry Dulac explained.

It’s understandable if a coach does not want to discuss injury specifics for any reason other than not providing too much information to their opponents. There are ways to do that without sounding cryptic. For example, ‘Player A’ injured his foot, and at this time, we are waiting for a full diagnosis and will release more information when it becomes available. That would be a reasonable approach in the regular season.

When Tomlin addressed the media, the Steelers were still a month and a half away from the start of the season. However, In this case, that’s not what Tomlin did in his training camp press conference; he said, “Not a lot of significant news regarding health-related things. Najee [Harris] wasn’t able to finish; somebody stepped on his foot, but it shouldn’t be a major deal.” Someone tried to follow up to get additional injury information and he abruptly replied, “somebody stepped on him.”

Some have interpreted his response as just another way to say ‘that’s everything I am telling you, don’t ask me again.’ His response seemed very odd for the preseason, especially when there was no need for cloak and dagger antics.

Is Mike Tomlin putting the Steelers at risk by breaking NFL Rules?

In fairness in regards to this incident, the answer is ‘no.’ During the preseason, the NFL has a different set of rules. The NFL has no league-mandated injury report in the preseason. Once the season starts, it’s a different matter; teams must disclose all injuries. So in this specific case, he broke no rule in that the team had no requirement to report the injury.

However, he did report it, which begs the question, what is the rationale for being so covert when the regular season is a month away? Whatever the reason, Tomlin has a history of trying to skirt the injury report.

Tomlin’s history with Steelers injury report

What is troubling with this scenario is that it occurred multiple times during Mike Tomlin’s reign as head coach. In 2019 The Steelers were fined $75,000 and Mike Tomlin $25,000 for not accurately listing Ben Roethlisberger’s injury before the week two game with Seattle.

In 2016 the Steelers did the same thing, though they avoided a fine by the NFL. In the 2016 AFC championship game, Le’Veon Bell left the game after six carries to a groin injury. It came out after the game that Bell had suffered the injury earlier in the season and had played through it, yet at no time did the Steelers ever list him on the injury report throughout the season.

In 2021 after his retirement David DeCastro needed ankle surgery. He admitted after his retirement that his ankle had bothered him most in most of his final season, yet at no point had he ever appeared on the injury report. There had been some talk that the Steelers could lose a draft pick over the incident, although that never occurred.

In fairness, sometimes players never report the injuries to the team that practice has occurred frequently for decades. However, the Steelers are not the only franchise that sometimes tries to skirt the injury reporting.

Should the Steelers reign in Tomlin over injuries?

Since the Steelers have a suspect history regarding injuries throughout Tomlin’s tenure, perhaps the Steelers or Tomlin himself should consider taking a new approach. Tomlin is the type of coach that does not like talking about a lot of stuff; we get that. Perhaps when it comes to injuries, though, he should simply take the approach of reporting an injury occurred and advise that when additional details are available, the Steelers will share them.

In the Harris scenario, it appears Tomlin told a giant whopper to the media at the beginning of August when no need existed. Now you have to give Tomlin some latitude here because his statements to the Media came only an hour after practice ended. Possibly he didn’t have all the details, yet one might surmise he should have been aware of the circumstances in this case.

So why in a determined fashion, say someone stepped on his foot, he could have just as easily stated Harris might have suffered sprained ankle; we are having it evaluated, that’s all I know at the moment. At least then, there is no perceived deception, whereas, in Najee’s case, there is in some way an appearance of deceit.

Those actions lead to a more troubling question: Is Tomlin then sugar-coating Diontae Johnson’s injury or T.J. Watts? Well as we have learned in Watt’s situation, no. Johnson could be another question entirely. A related question is if he did lie about Najee’s injury in August, what would he do when the season starts or what has he gotten away with in past seasons the NFL has no knowledge of?

Please do not take this as an indictment of Tomlin’s behaviors; no one here is saying he told a bald-faced lie, or that Tomlin deliberately tried to be deceptive in past incidents. Yet, the Steelers track record under Tomlin’s tenure regarding injuries speaks for itself, and the latest situation with Harris sure creates the perception he openly lied, which is the troubling part.

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Tomlin is the guy that always likes to keep things close to his vest and not disclose much info to his opponents. That part is fine, but injuries are not a national security matter, either. So in his post-game interview after the Bengals game, perhaps he should just heed Sgt. Joe Friday’s character on the old show Dragnet by replying, “Just the facts, ma’am.”