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Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin exits postgame news conference after question about contract status

Mike Tomlin is not a fan of queries over his Pittsburgh future.

Following the Steelers' 31-17 wild-card defeat to the Bills, Tomlin promptly exited stage left after a reporter in Pittsburgh's postgame news conference began a question with, "Mike, you have a year left on your contract." 

The 51-year-old initially began his time at the podium by complimenting his opponent for a hard-fought win, examining what led Pittsburgh to spot Buffalo 21 early points and giving injury updates before opening things up to reporters.

He fielded inquiries regarding Pittsburgh's turnovers, the team's inability to manufacture a run game, Buffalo's tight end usage, the absence of T.J. Watt and quarterback Mason Rudolph's performance.

The contract question, unfortunately, proved to be a bridge too far.

There have been recent rumblings that Tomlin, whose contract expires following the 2024 season, might step away from the team a year early. And while there was little doubt he'd take time to process another playoff loss before providing a crystal clear picture of the future, such a brash exit is certainly not a promise he'll return for an 18th year.

Thus far in his storied head-coaching career, Tomlin has a 173-100-2 record, two Super Bowl appearances (with one win) and 11 postseason trips.

Despite an at-times turbulent 2023 campaign, he also extended his NFL record for consecutive non-losing seasons to start a career, with 17.

Monday's defeat was a microcosm of the resilience Tomlin and his teams have displayed during his tenure with the Black and Gold.

The Steelers were missing their leader, Watt, and fell into a 21-0 hole that lasted through the two-minute warning of the first half.

They battled back, though, as Rudolph found Diontae Johnson for a 10-yard touchdown with 1:43 remaining to start a run where the Steelers outscored the Bills, 17-3, over the next 21 minutes to make it a one-score game at the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter.

Despite the fight-on display, Pittsburgh simply started the comeback a bit too late, and Buffalo pulled away again to knock them out.

The loss ended an uneven year for Pittsburgh that included firing offensive coordinator Matt Canada, opting to ride the hot hand of Rudolph over Kenny Pickett, a first-round pick in his second year, and a pair of consecutive late-season defeats to teams with two wins at the time -- the Cardinals and Patriots.

But the regular season also included a playoff berth and double-digit wins for the 10th time in Tomlin's career.

"Every player wouldn't be anything without Mike T," said Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, who, at 34, is facing uncertainty regarding his own future. "This group would not function to even get to a playoff berth without Mike T. He keeps us accountable from top to bottom. I don't want to play for any other coach."

Walking out of a news conference is by no means an undeniable indication that Tomlin will also walk away from the team.

However, if he does, it will be just the third disruption in Pittsburgh's unprecedented run of coaching consistency dating back to 1969.

The Steelers have had just three coaches in the past 54 years (Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin), with six Lombardi Trophies to show for it.

Such a decision, especially in a period where fellow Hall of Fame-caliber coaches like Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll have also seen long-term stays end, would send shockwaves through the current coaching cycle.

For what it's worth, Heyward was willing to field a question about both his and Tomlin's future, and he believes the only NFL head coach he's ever known will return.

"I'm a year older," Heyward said. "You look at this game, and the average is three years. I've beat it every time. But coming off some injuries during the season, it was a testament to even get to the playoffs. We battled all year long. I don't really pay attention to what the coaching thing is because I feel like Mike T. is gonna be back. But that's not my decision. I'm not going to speak for him. I just know the group here, collectively, is a strong group that can win the Super Bowl."

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