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The Fallout from Mike Tomlin’s Sideline Interference

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has already been slapped with a major fine for allegedly interfering (intentionally or unintentionally) with a kickoff return during the Nov. 28 Steelers-Ravens game, and further punishments may still be in order.

Ravens player Jacoby Jones’ return appeared on track to reach the end zone until he had to swerve to avoid Tomlin. Tomlin says the interference was unintentional – that he simply lost track of where he was on the field and that he never meant to be in the way. Some analysts agree with his version of the story, while others believe he stood in the wrong place on purpose. Proving the coach’s intentions and motivations, of course, is impossible; what cannot be denied, however, is that his actions illegally benefited the Steelers.

At the end of the day, Tomlin illegally crossed the sideline, potentially taking points off the board for Baltimore. The Ravens did not score a touchdown on that drive, settling for a field goal instead. The situation also took away from Jones’ stats. He earns his money by being an explosive kick returner, as well as a solid wide receiver. Tomlin’s interference could be particularly significant for Jones when he negotiates his next contract and needs statistics to justify his salary.

For these reasons and many others, the NFL has already taken some action to respond to the violation. First, they fined Tomlin $100,000. This was a fairly steep fine, to be sure, but its purpose was to send a clear message that a coach physically interfering with a play on the field – whether on purpose or by accident – will not be tolerated. Coaches cannot directly interfere with the outcome of a game, and should be aware of this expectation throughout a game. Although Tomlin’s intention may not have been to interfere with the play, letting him off without a penalty would have given other coaches an opportunity to exploit NFL guidelines.

That is not to say, however, that the NFL has been entirely decisive regarding the incident. They have hinted that, in addition to the fine on Tomlin, the Steelers organization as a whole might be penalized, perhaps by losing a draft pick or experiencing an alteration in the draft order. No official announcements, however, have been made. NFL officials appear to be waiting for the end of the season before they make their final decision.

Analysts have pointed out several potential problems with this approach. For one, this delayed penalty drags the situation out, raising more attention the issue than is necessary. A more significant problem, however, is the motivation behind the delay, and the possible interpretations of that motivation. Simply put, there is no reason to delay the process until the season’s end. If Tomlin’s actions merit the loss of a draft pick or a similar team penalty, the decision should be made swiftly. Otherwise, the NFL risks giving the impression of trying to penalize or reward the Steelers based on their record at the end of the season instead of whether they follow the rules to which every team is held.

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