On Thursday night, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin should be thankful that he didn't directly cost his team a football game. He should, however, be forced to pay some of those hard-earned blessings back to the league.
With about six-and-a-half minutes left in the third quarter, the Steelers found the end zone on their first touchdown of the game. Down 13-7, they kicked off to dangerous Baltimore Ravens returner Jacoby Jones, who burst through a hole in the coverage unit and made his way up the sideline.
Tomlin stood motionless on the sidelines, watching the return on the video screen and failed to get out of the way of either Jones or the referee until the last moment. Jones was then tackled by Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen.
In an interview with NBC's Michelle Tafoya after the game, Jones admitted that he was cognizant of Tomlin as he was running up the sideline and weaved into the tackle from Allen because of it. While Jones said he had no ill will because the Ravens still got the win, it's an awfully bad look for Tomlin.
As any New York Jets fan can tell you, player interference is a big no-no.
In 2010, then-Jets strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi was caught sticking his knee out and interfering with a return. Later, it was revealed that he had instructed Jets players to form a wall along the sideline—institutionalizing that kind of interference. In the end, Alosi was out of a job and the Jets were heavily fined.
Was Tomlin's act as egregious as Alosi's? Probably not, but it was a potentially game-changing act that has no place in the game of football. For his part, Tomlin is playing coy:
Tomlin on Jones' return: "I always watch the returns on the Jumbotron to provide a better perspective, and I obviously lost my placement."— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) November 29, 2013
NON-PLAYER ON FIELD
Article 1 If any non-player, including photographers, reporters, employees, police or spectators, enters the field of play or end zones, and in the judgment of an official said party or parties interfere with the play, the Referee, after consulting his crew (13-1-7 and 15-1-6), shall enforce any such penalty or score as the interference warrants.
Hypothetically speaking, the referee could've awarded a touchdown to the Ravens because of Tomlin's actions. At the very least, it should've been a 15-yard personal foul penalty and potentially an ejection of Tomlin from the field of play.
John Harbaugh on Tomlin: "Did they credit him with a tackle on that?"— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) November 29, 2013
It's not about what happened or what probably would have happened even if Tomlin didn't interfere. Allen was tracking Jones down. Although Jones probably has more pure speed, it looked as if Allen had the edge at that moment and Tomlin's interference was negligible.
What's really at stake here is what could happen if Tomlin's actions are reinforced by a lack of action from the league offices. If a coach (or coaches, or players) feel like it is just another layer of gamesmanship to interfere with returners in this way, it could lead to injuries and more Alosi-like fouls from people who are just trying to win football games.
The NFL needs to come down hard on Tomlin. If the league is so willing to fine players to kingdom come, they need to be willing to force coaches to open up their checkbooks as well. Furthermore, while a suspension might be overboard, the league could force him to coach from up in a box next week just to remind him (and his peers) to keep better watch over their position as it relates to the field of play.
Tomlin knew what he was doing. Now, the NFL needs to make sure he knows it can't happen again.