Steelers 'brushfire' contract situation with T.J. Watt could turn into 'Towering Inferno'

TIM BENZ
The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
T.J. Watt

For the time being, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says he'd be wise to avoid fanning the flames surrounding T.J. Watt's in-person holdout.

On Tuesday, Tomlin was asked how the decision was made to get the star outside linebacker to attend training camp practices but only to do individual drills with no full-contact sessions.

"I'm not going to peel back the curtain in regards to that," Tomlin said. "It's unnecessary and all it does is add to the brushfire. We are just going to focus on the ball."

For now, Tomlin's description of Watt's quasi work stoppage as a "brushfire" is accurate. It's been a storyline at Steelers training camp. But not a major one.

Watt's meager peripheral presence has gotten a few national headlines. But not a ton.

There have been no shots fired from Watt's agent. Steelers coaches and management haven't called him out for sidelining himself. And, to the best of our knowledge, none of his fellow players have raided Watt's locker for cleats like they did Le'Veon Bell's.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler even went so far as to defend Watt's stance and endorse his strategy.

The criticism Watt has received has been isolated — and ferociously countered by his tenacious fanbase on Twitter.

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt reacts after forcing an incomplete pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

"Brushfire" could become "Towering Inferno" quickly: Although, it won't take much for this "brushfire" to turn into "The Towering Inferno."

Watt wants a long-term contract. He's slated to make $10 million in 2021 on the fifth year of his first-round entry-level deal. Beyond that, the expectation is that Watt will make somewhere in the neighborhood of Joey Bosa's $27 million annual salary with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Unless Watt gets hit with the franchise tag just like Bell and Bud Dupree did.

Are you starting to feel flames on the 81st floor yet, Mr. Roberts?

Even before then it might start to get warm.

Lots of questions loom: For instance, if Watt and the Steelers don't come to terms by the end of the preseason, what becomes of Watt's strategy then? Does he take the holdout right up to — or through — the Buffalo Bills game to open the regular season? Does he avoid practices altogether throughout the preseason?

Some of you may say, "Yeah. Maybe. So what? He's T.J. Watt. He doesn't need practice."

Really? Because I always hear from coaches and management—and even sometimes players—that months of offseason workouts and weeks of training camp are essential to get players properly conditioned.

After all, wasn't that the excuse last year for all the injuries we saw in the first half of the NFL season? Weren't we blaming jagged offseason workouts and the lack of preseason games for poor conditioning and a rise in injury rates?

As I said at the time, that was a dumb argument. I just want to know whether we're being consistent about applying it.

Or if we were going to change our collective tune just because we don't want to ruffle Watt's feathers. The goalposts tend to move on this kind of stuff when it comes to opinion-making about the Steelers in Pittsburgh, you know?

We tend to advance whatever opinion makes us feel better about the hometown team's current situation when it comes to these "either side of the coin" kind of conversations.

When talking about Watt, it's a practical discussion to have, though, since strategically deciding when—and how often—Watt should rest has become an increasing point of debate in Pittsburgh.

A marathon, not a sprint? In that context, does practice conditioning matter? If it doesn't, why should Watt bother to participate next August either even if he does have a contract done by then?

"It's a long process," Watt said July 22. "I am just trying to progress the proper way. ... It's a marathon, not a sprint."

It better not be a sprint. Because I'd hate to have to see Watt take himself out for Cassius Marsh or Quincy Roche in the fourth quarter of a big game against the Cleveland Browns this year.

Spinning it as a positive: At this point, Tomlin is downplaying any off-field distractions or on-field negatives about Watt missing out on preseason games or full-contact team competitions thus far. In fact, Tomlin attempted to spin Watt's non-participation as positive.

"(Watt) is highly conditioned," Tomlin said. "The strength staff is working with him. He's getting in good workdays. The process is running its course."

With Watt's absence, that's given more chances for Tomlin to evaluate newly signed Melvin Ingram and bottom-of-the-roster players who may not need to stick around much longer.

"I'm all eyes on the guys that are working ... Oftentimes you are thinning the herd and getting exposure to others," Tomlin said. "I'm excited about the exposure I've been able to get with Melvin Ingram, for instance, because (Watt) has not been participating. And Melvin has had an opportunity to work with the first group and gain cohesion with those guys."

So, no. There's no reason to break glass in case of emergency regarding the Watt situation yet. Just have a bucket of water ready in case the brushfire continues to burn for the foreseeable future.