Why Aren't NFL Coaches Flagged More Frequently for Penalties?

Andrew ProchnowAnalyst ISeptember 24, 2013

August 18, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh discusses a call with a referee during the first quarteragainst the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine if there were 32 Jim Harbaugh clones simultaneously serving as head coaches in the NFL.

A good question for the upcoming Halloween holiday, given how frightening that prospect might seem to many.  

Jim Harbaugh is known to be an extremely intense and effective head coach. He produced winning teams in the NCAA and has clearly translated that level of success to the professional game.

In the last two years alone, he led a previously punchless San Francisco 49ers team to the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.  

The man has a mind for football—there's simply no doubting that. And, with 32 Harbaugh clones leading each NFL franchise on Sunday, one could expect loads of intensity and competition.  

However, most of us aren't privy to the methodologies and coaching manner that Harbaugh exhibits on a daily basis. We haven't interacted with him on a one-to-one basis.  

Setting aside his clearly brilliant mind for organizing football players and devising strategy, let's consider for a moment only Harbaugh's professional conduct on the sideline. 

A portrait characterized by intense facial expressions, extreme body language and a propensity for screaming obscenities at anyone wearing a zebra-themed shirt that happens to pass through his immediate vicinity. Numerous video clips on the internet support just how often Harbaugh takes serious issue with the judgments of the referees.  

And Harbaugh is certainly not alone—many coaches in the past and present have crossed the line in communicating with officials. Harbaugh has simply carved a niche out for himself by doing it so frequently that he has become a poster child for this type of negative behavior.

In 2012, during the replacement referee debacle, the NFL actually issued a memo to coaches reminding them not to bully temporary officials. Marc Weinreich of Sports Illustrated Wire published a report that suggested Jim Harbaugh's behavior, in particular, prompted the NFL's action on the matter.  

In hindsight, one has to wonder why the NFL decided to issue only a memo regarding the replacement officials, as opposed to creating and enforcing a comprehensive system that punishes coaches who cross the line of reasonable behavior toward referees—replacement, regular or otherwise.  

Managers and coaches in other top American sports leagues, like the MLB and the NBA, are commonly disciplined for disrespectful behavior toward game officials. Baseball managers are routinely ejected and basketball coaches are called for technical fouls before ultimately being ejected as well. 

In fact, during the 2012 MLB season there were 84 unique instances in which an MLB manager was ejected from a game. During the 2012-13 NBA season there were 116 technical fouls assessed to coaches.

Those statistics are even more revealing when one considers that, according Mike Florio at NBC Sports, research done by The Dan Patrick Show indicates the NFL has no record of any head coach ever being ejected from a game. That’s right, not one—ever.   

Does that mean NFL head coaches are that much more saintly than their peers in the MLB and the NBA?  


It’s a lot more likely the NFL has simply been more lax in designing and enforcing rules against them.

This clear inconsistency makes one wonder why NFL coaches appear to have been designated a special bubble in which they are essentially given free reign to raise whatever hell they so desire.   

The pros and cons of that reality just don’t add up.  

Clearly, obscenity-laden rants set a bad example for viewers, many of which are minors. The sight of a head coach spraying verbal obscenities and spit across the faces of the game's designated authority figures just doesn't serve any discernible purpose.

The league has rules in place regarding the conduct of NFL coaches, but the better question relates to the lack of consistent enforcement.

Although Jim Harbaugh has been used as an example in proving a point, he's certainly not alone in displaying completely ridiculous and unprofessional behavior on the football fields across America.  

While the intensity level of professional football might dictate animated levels of communication toward players, staff and referees, it most certainly shouldn't translate to the unprofessional abuse many NFL referees appear to absorb on a fairly regular basis. 

It's unnecessary, it's embarrassing and it could actually be labeled as a form of bullying—something many NFL players have stated they are adamantly opposed to.  

It also exhibits extremely unsportsmanlike behavior.  

Considering the popularity of the NFL in the United States and abroad, it's easy to see how such a situation could send the wrong message regarding the minimum standard of acceptable behavior for football coaches—or for any person, for that matter.  

The league should act quickly to modify and/or clarify the rules governing coaches in the NFL and subsequently instruct the league's officials to enforce them regularly and consistently.

A possible sequence of penalties for coaches or staff that are guilty of misconduct during a game could be a three-stage progression: verbal warning, 15-yard penalty and a second 15-yard penalty combined with ejection of the guilty party.  

Accountability for a person's actions and conduct shouldn't be required for only those representatives of the NFL that assume the field. Nor should it be applicable to coaches in some sports leagues and not others.  

Intensity and positive energy are one thing—disrespectful and abusive behavior are quite another.

The NFL should define the boundary between the two before a situation arises that makes the league wish it had acted sooner.