Mike Tomlin 'hacked off' at ESPN's portrayal of Mason Rudolph-Myles Garrett situation

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Mike Tomlin

If you thought Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s statement Saturday morning was stern, his appearance Monday on the same network that he criticized was much stronger.

Tomlin rarely does interviews this time of year, but he appeared on ESPN’s “First Take” to slam the network’s recent coverage of Myles Garrett, the Cleveland Browns star defensive end who was reinstated by the NFL last week and then again reiterated his claim that Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph called him a racial slur during the incident that earned Garrett his suspension.

“Even to this day, it was presented as a he-said/he-said situation, and I think the National Football League office was very clear that they launched an investigation. … They found no evidence of Myles’ allegations, and I think that should be stated,” Tomlin said, referring to a sitdown Garrett did with ESPN reporter Mina Kimes a few days ago.

Tomlin felt compelled to issue a defense of Rudolph via Twitter over the weekend and reiterated Monday that while he and the Steelers hoped to move on from the November brawl in Cleveland, other parties continue to dwell on it. And, in the case of Garrett’s latest accusation that Rudolph called him ‘a stupid N-word’ before Garrett swung Rudolph’s helmet and hit Rudolph’s head, Tomlin “took offense” to the claim and the one-sided presentation of it.

Monday was about providing his perspective, Tomlin insisted, one he believes hasn't been provided as Garrett “opens up” about an altercation that will go down in history as a black eye for the NFL.

“These accusations are serious, not only in terms of Mason Rudolph’s character, but his professional pursuits,” said Tomlin, one of three black head coaches in the NFL. “Nobody on that field, as a member of the Cleveland Browns or the Pittsburgh Steelers, corroborated what was said by Myles Garrett. … At no point during that piece this weekend [on ESPN] was that stated.”

Stephen A. Smith, who at this point in his career toes the line between venerable sports reporter and boisterous blow-hard character, peppered Tomlin with questions from all angles of the incident. The coach entering his 14th season in Pittsburgh wore a black shirt and black hat, sitting stoically with a Steelers helmet and American flag displayed behind him.

When this powder keg first exploded after a Week 11 Steelers-Browns game on a Thursday night, Tomlin “didn't have a lot of time to pause and fight battles of that nature.” But he was on the field immediately after the incident, he reminded viewers. He has personal relationships with players and coaches on both sides, Cleveland included, he noted, “and at no point did anyone in that organization come forward and say, ‘Mike, heads-up, we’ve got a situation.’

“I fully support Mason Rudolph, we as an organization fully support Mason Rudolph and to be quite honest with you, we were hacked off with what we saw this weekend.”

Once it was over, at the top of the screen, ESPN ran a graphic zoomed in on Tomlin’s eyes with the words “STEEL RESOLVE” in bold. It’s being played as entertainment, to a degree, a sizzling story line during a quiet period of the NFL offseason. But a “reputation has been tarnished” is how Tomlin referred to the effect the newest news cycle is having on Rudolph’s life and career.

Tomlin also addressed some other conspiracies that have surfaced, be it at the suggestion of Garrett or the media. First of all, that the Steelers or the NFL are intentionally withholding anything that could back Garrett’s side of the story.

“I represent the leadership of the Pittsburgh Steeler organization, and that also was implied during that interview this weekend that somehow we suppressed evidence or were participants in some lack of thoroughness. … That's laughable,” Tomlin said. “We would not participate in the covering up of such issues, and we would obviously do what was appropriate in terms of dealing with those circumstances.”

One distinction Tomlin made multiple times is that he’s not out to “attack” Garrett, though he acknowledged that he may do so “indirectly.” He made a comment that Garrett has “been in the lane he’s in” — maintaining that Rudolph hurled a racial slur — since a few days after the fight, but the context of it as it pertains to Rudolph has become the issue.

Tomlin was asked how much culpability should be on Rudolph’s shoulders for his role in the entire ordeal, and responded that other than Rudolph’s “active participation in the altercation,” to portray anything beyond that is unfair.

“I struggle with that, to be honest with you,” Tomlin said. “There’s been a lot of negativity around Mason Rudolph. He got fined $50,000 for essentially getting beat up.”

He declined to go any further into pushing back against the league’s discipline in the aftermath, which included fines and suspensions for both teams, and steered clear of opining on what the NFL — or the Browns, for that matter — should do next.

“That ball’s in their court,” Tomlin said. “I know our position is we had a desire to move on from it the moment it happened, and that’s what we attempted to do, but when this interview came back up this weekend, we thought Mason needed to be defended. We were placed in these circumstances. That’s not something we desire, to be quite honest with you.”

Indeed, Tomlin steadfastly redirected the conversation at every turn, always keeping the focus on trying to clear Rudolph’s name, more than anything. Rudolph never did file criminal charges against Garrett for his infamous helmet swing, but Rudolph’s agent on Saturday left open the possibility of Garrett exposing himself “to legal liability.”

“I’m not going to speak for Mason or his representation. … I think it’s probably best that we all shut up and move on,” Tomlin said. “But I had that attitude months ago, and it hasn't transpired. I would expect him to do what’s appropriate in terms of protecting his name and his reputation. I would do so aggressively, and I don't blame him.”

After all the Rudolph-Garrett discussion, Tomlin paid little mind to the Antonio Brown saga, mustering a smile and a laugh when it was brought up to him.

“I’ll say this — once a Steeler, always a Steeler. We had great success over the course of nine-plus years with Antonio. We’re always going to be interested in his growth and development as a man. … But we have no current business interest at this time,” Tomlin said.

He also added that he has “no hesitation” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be ready for the start of the 2020 season, and that “he looks awesome” at this early stage of his recovery.

“This guy’s the ultimate competitor,” Tomlin said. “He’s dropped the gauntlet down, he’s made a statement that he’s coming back, and I look forward to watching him answer that challenge.”