Here’s another adjective Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin can call his ill-timed two-step onto the field last week against Baltimore.
The NFL fined Tomlin $100,000 yesterday for interfering with Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones on a kickoff return in the third quarter of a 22-20 loss to the Ravens on Thanksgiving night.
The fine is the second-highest ever levied by the league on a head coach, behind only the $500,000 the NFL docked New England’s Bill Belichick in 2007 for spying on an opponent’s defensive signals.
There is also the chance the Steelers have a draft pick taken away “because the conduct affected a play on the field.” Though he was not penalized, the league said the Steelers should have been flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
All that from what Tomlin called an “embarrassing, inexcusable” case of being “mesmerized” while standing in a restricted area that separates the sideline from the playing field and staring at the video board during Jones’ 73-yard return.
Jones had to swerve to avoid running into the coach and was tackled during a return that might have gone for a touchdown if not for the obstruction. Tomlin briefly stepped onto the field before he jumped back.
Tomlin insists the “blunder” was not intentional but has no plans to appeal the ruling.
“I apologize for causing negative attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization,” Tomlin said in a statement yesterday. “I accept the penalty that I received. I will no longer address this issue as I am preparing for an important game this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.”
Jones didn’t blame Tomlin for his own inability to score on the return, but his teammates believe the move put the coach and the league in a difficult position.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough,” Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “I can’t say he did it on purpose because I don’t know what he was thinking. It definitely sends a message across the league. He stepped across the line, which definitely threw it off.”
Tomlin said he was following his normal routine on the play and said standing on the 6-foot wide strip is common practice.
New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin didn’t disagree. Coughlin drew a 15-yard flag during the preseason for stepping onto the field during a field goal attempt.
“You find yourself sometimes running down the sideline on the white, but nevertheless, you’re not even supposed to be even on the white because the officials have to have access there,” Coughlin said. “That is a most difficult thing to absorb.”
Tomlin’s players leapt to his defense in the immediate aftermath, and safety Ryan Clark allowed he is “always on the field.” The 12-year veteran, however, is hardly surprised the NFL is considering taking an extra step of stripping the Steelers of a draft pick.
“It’s not supposed to be fair,” Clark said. “It’s Roger Goodell, so when has he been fair?”
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t believe Tomlin’s near-trip will serve as a distraction for Pittsburgh (5-7), which remains in the playoff hunt as December begins despite an 0-4 start.
“If anything, guys joke about it more,” Roethlisberger said. “They’re the ones pulling up the pictures online and joking with coach about something. If anything maybe it’s a light-hearted fun thing.”
The league will not determine whether to take a pick away from Pittsburgh until after the draft order has been set. It would be an unprecedented move for a coach getting involved during a live play.
The NFL fined the New York Jets $100,000 in 2010 when cameras caught strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi tripping a Miami player on the sideline. Alosi was suspended by the Jets and eventually resigned after the season.
Tomlin is hardly in danger of losing his job, and said Tuesday he had not spoken to team owners Dan and Art Rooney II about the situation.
“I would imagine if the Rooneys thought that I was capable of that or they thought my intentions were that, I wouldn’t be sitting at this table talking to you guys,” he said.
Tomlin makes $5.25 million a season and the fine constitutes less than 2 percent of his annual salary. He can absorb the relatively small financial hit. He’s far more concerned about the uncomfortable position he put the league and the Steelers in after failing to get out of the way with any sense of urgency.
“I will take this as an opportunity to strenuously defend the game of football and the NFL. I won’t defend myself,” Tomlin said. “The people that know me, I don’t need to do that. The people that don’t know me, they are going to make their judgments any way.”
Tomlin’s predecessor, Bill Cowher, raised eyebrows but not the ire of the commissioner’s office in 1997 when he feigned tackling Jacksonville’s Chris Hudson as Hudson ran back a Pittsburgh field goal attempt for a touchdown on the final play of a 30-21 Jaguars victory.
While Tomlin has no plans to change the way he goes about his business, he plans to do a better job of policing himself. The 41-year-old understands this will stick with him once the furor dies down. His goal is to make sure it doesn’t stain the team as well.
“The only thing we can control is our preparation and ultimately our play this week,” he said. “That’s the now and what’s immediately ahead of us. I try to relay that sentiment and attitude to our team, and I think it’s something they embrace.”