Mike Tomlin made a "blunder."
An "embarrassing, inexcusable, illegal" blunder, as the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach told reporters in a press conference.
After intruding on the field of play—and possibly interfering with Baltimore Ravens kickoff returner Jacoby Jones during a 73-yard return—Tomlin was sure to face stiff penalties. On Wednesday, it was announced Tomlin was facing a $100,000 fine.
Personally, Tomlin got off easy. $100,000 is less than 2 percent of his 2013 salary. According to Forbes, Tomlin's the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL at $5.5 million per year. It's the second-highest fine levied against a head coach in NFL history, but only one-fifth the $500,000 fine New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick paid in the wake of "Spygate."
There could be a much dearer price to pay, though. "Because the conduct affected a play on the field," the NFL said in a statement, "a modification or forfeiture of draft choices will be considered after the final order of the 2014 draft has been determined."
What does this mean? Will the league really take away draft picks from the Steelers because Mike Tomlin—inadvertently, he claimed—wandered on to the field of play at a particularly bad time?
If so, which pick (or picks!) will they take, and how will it affect Tomlin and the Steelers' ability to contend in 2014?
Though forfeited draft picks is rare, it's not unprecedented. Per ESPN.com, here are all of the instances the NFL has taken away draft picks since 1980:
- 2011 Lions forfeit seventh-round pick for tampering with Chiefs players
- 2008 Patriots forfeit first-round pick for Spygate scandal
- 2002-05 Broncos forfeit 2005 third-round pick, 2002 third-round pick for circumventing salary cap between 1996 and 1998
- 2001-02 49ers forfeit 2002 third-round pick, 2001 fifth-round pick for salary cap violations
- 2001 Steelers forfeit third-round pick for exceeding 1998 salary cap
- 1986 Patriots forfeit third-round pick for illegal use of injured reserve list
- 1981 Broncos forfeit third-round pick for contract violations involving Bill Thompson
- 1981 Raiders forfeit fifth-round pick for illegally sequestering two players in 1978
- 1980 Eagles forfeit third-round pick for holding illegal tryout
- 1980 Raiders forfeit fourth-round pick for evasion of player limit
Note that all of these violations directly impact competition or competitive balance: spying, tampering, circumventing the salary cap or roster limits.
In 2003, the Detroit Lions' then-CEO Matt Millen was fined $200,000 for violating the so-called Rooney Rule, hiring a head coach without granting any serious interviews to minority candidates. As this violation didn't give the Lions a competitive advantage, though, no draft picks were forfeited or modified.
What the NFL may be waiting to see, as NFL Media's Ian Rapoport speculates, is whether the difference in points between Jones' presumptive touchdown and the field goal the Ravens settled for on that drive will affect the Ravens' playoff chances.
At 6-6, the Ravens are very much in the AFC playoff hunt. If the regular season ended today, the Ravens would be the No. 6 seed. The Steelers aren't quite out of it at 5-7, and both teams are in the AFC North.
The Ravens are 3-2 within the division, and the Steelers are 2-2. It's possible that the two teams could end up with the same record, same head-to-head record, same record against common opponents, and same conference record (according to my tabulation).
Here's the doomsday scenario: The Ravens beat the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions, then lose to the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals; The Steelers beat the Miami Dolphins, lose to the Bengals, then win out over the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns.
If that happens—and 8-8 earns the No. 6 seed in the AFC—the next tiebreaker is strength of head-to-head victory, and... uh-oh.
It's a long shot, but it's possible that Mike Tomlin's "blunder" would put the Steelers in the playoffs directly ahead of the Ravens.
In case the unlikely becomes reality, which pick would the league take?
Since the punishment appears to be "none" if there are no playoff ramifications, it seems unlikely that a high pick would be on the radar. Yet, if a head coach's on-field interference directly puts them in the playoffs over the team he interfered with, how could the team penalty not be severe?
The Steelers already traded their third-round pick during the 2013 draft to move up and select safety Shamarko Thomas, so their first-, second-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round choices are the only ones up for grabs.
The only forfeited first-round pick was the Patriots' 2008 top choice, for deliberately cheating, so the Steelers' punishment will likely be less than that.
Yet, mid-round picks were mostly forfeited for playing coy with injured-reserve rules or other roster fudges, not direct on-field interference. If the Steelers had a third-rounder to give, it'd likely be that one. Given the significance of the outcome, though, the league would likely err on the high side (second-round pick) rather than the low side (fourth-round pick).
With the losses of tackle Willie Colon to the New York Jets, cornerback Keenan Lewis to the New Orleans Saints, and, especially, wide receiver Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers will likely be in line for at least one compensatory draft pick, and more likely two high ones—say, a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick.
So, even in the unlikely scenario the league takes a draft pick away from the Steelers, it will likely be a second- or fourth-round pick—and even then, they'll likely be handing two mid-round picks right back.
Besides, if the worst-case scenario should happen, it means the Steelers made the playoffs after starting 0-4—in what was supposed to be a transition year.
They and their fans will likely be too busy celebrating to mourn the lost pick.
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