I get that as a Ravens fan I’m supposed to hate all things Pittsburgh. I get that I’m supposed to see the black and yellow as something sinister, and that I am supposed to celebrate any hardship that should fall the Steelers way. That said, the talk of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin as a diabolical genius whose actions should merit a suspension or loss of draft picks is kind of lost on me.
Maybe it’s because the Ravens won the game, but I have a hard time feeling like what happened between Mike Tomlin and Jacoby Jones on Thursday night is anything more than a humorous aside and an interesting chapter in what was otherwise a classic renewal of the NFL’s best rivalry.
Yes Tomlin deserves to be punished…and certainly he will be. But this isn’t Spy-gate or Bounty-gate or any other gate for that matter. At worst – at absolute worst – it was an ill-conceived, spur of the moment reaction worthy of punishment. At best (and more likely in my opinion) it’s a strange, unusual, and rather fortunate happenstance for the Steelers, still worthy of punishment, in a game that they ultimately lost anyway.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions on what they saw on Thursday, but if this was the diabolical scheme that many have made it out to be, Tomlin is as prescient and calculated as his team was out of sorts and bumbling on that play. It’s impossible for me to believe that Tomlin intentionally turned his back to the field for when (or if just in case) his team let Jones slip past their kick coverage, yet somehow funneled him precisely to the coach’s location. It’s impossible to fathom, in real time, that Tomlin spotted a spontaneous opportunity unfolding right behind him and cooked up a scheme, not to stop or run into Jones, but to slow him up just enough to be caught by the tackler in pursuit. It sure looks dubious in slow motion, but the play didn’t happen in slow motion, it happened in the blink of an eye.
Intent should have no bearing on punishment, and there will be punishment. But suspensions and losses of draft picks have been reserved for those teams and coaches that intentionally and premeditatedly tried to cheat the system. They have also been levied in cases where there was no precedent, or specific line of punishment prescribed beforehand. What happened on Thursday was neither of those things.
While there may be no better (or more effective) example of interference coming from the sideline in an NFL game, there have been similar incidents; and there are rules to govern these incidents. As Ravens fans we all learned these rules when Joe Flacco made the suggestion during the Super Bowl that if Ted Ginn were to break free on the game’s final kickoff that someone come off the sideline and make the tackle. In such situations, an official can award the touchdown if he feels it’s merited.
Whether or not Jones could have scored if not for Tomlin’s interference isn’t even clear in this situation, but should have been left up to the discretion of the officials. Of course in order to make such a decision, an official would have actually had to throw a flag, and on Thursday none did. That’s the bigger problem as far as the NFL is concerned, that an official was in position not only to make the call, but to have to make the call (Tomlin at one point was directly between Jones and the official) and he didn’t.
Unless the NFL somehow comes up with evidence that Tomlin masterminded the whole thing, either before the play or while the play was in progress, it’s impossible to say definitively what the coach was thinking, or whether or not Jones would have scored anyway. Many have claimed to “know” the answers to those questions, but they’re simply guessing, they can’t know for sure. So a fine is in order and forthcoming, and the greatest rivalry in the NFL has another strange and sordid chapter.