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Tomczak Can Also Put Up Strong Defense

November 22, 1996

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ With five weeks left in the NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers still haven’t answered the question that has puzzled them nearly all season.

Is Mike Tomczak the answer _ or he is the problem?

The Steelers (8-3) are well on their way to their fourth AFC Central Division championship in five years, yet they are repeatedly questioned how far they can travel in the playoffs with a longtime backup at quarterback.

For 12 years, Tomczak has waited for the chance to be the starting quarterback on a team that plays deep into the playoffs. Yet, for the last two weeks, he has played like a man determined to slide back into the role of anonymous backup.

Tomczak committed four turnovers in a 34-24 upset loss at Cincinnati on Nov. 10, then was a dreadful 7-for-24 for 109 yards despite throwing two TD passes Sunday as Pittsburgh beat Jacksonville.

Those aren’t championship numbers, and he knows it.

``When you set expectations to be a championship team and you don’t play up to par, each individual takes that personally,″ Tomczak said. ``Our goal is to win the Super Bowl, and anything short of that is not successful. But I know what it takes to get to a Super Bowl.″

He did that in Chicago in 1985, as a rookie who had yet to be subjected to Bears coach Mike Ditka’s almost weekly fits of sideline wrath. Even after Ditka became an NBC-TV analyst, he often was critical of Tomczak until doing a mostly flattering piece on him a few weeks back.

But, even as recently as September, the Tomczak doubters once again included his own coach.

Tomczak was the Steelers’ only experienced quarterback after Neil O’Donnell left, yet did not win the job until they self-destructed in a season-opening loss at Jacksonville started by Jim Miller.

When he finally got into the lineup, Tomczak was more than an adequate replacement for O’Donnell; several receivers said he has been more consistent than O’Donnell ever was.

``A lot of times with Neil you had to wait for the ball or come back to it,″ receiver Charles Johnson said. ``Mike always puts it right there so you can catch it in stride.″

But Tomczak does not take in stride a slump that has caused his critics to resurface as predictably as snow flurries in November. He again appears to be seriously overmatched Sunday against NFL career passing yardage leader Dan Marino of Miami, yet Tomczak played his best in Monday night wins earlier over the Chiefs and Bills.

``I’m not the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, but I’m not the worst quarterback,″ Tomczak said. ``There’s a happy medium there in doing what I do.″

At 34, Tomczak seems more upbeat and less prone to moody bouts of worry since he and his wife, Michelle, a Pittsburgh teacher, were married last summer. He often deflects negative questions with humor or by changing the subject.

Asked about coach Bill Cowher’s comments that he was working on the quarterback’s mechanics, Tomczak said, ``Yeah, and I’ve got them changing the oil in my truck right now.″

``I don’t think you have to defend yourself,″ Tomczak said. ``You shouldn’t take it personally, like when people are taking jabs at you. ... The bottom line is winning football games and, in defense of that, I think my record speaks for itself.″

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