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Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's near-interference with Ravens kick returner Jacoby Jones on Thursday night is the subject of “an aggressive review,” according to a league source and is likely to result in stiff financial penalties for the coach and the team, and perhaps the forfeiture of a draft pick.
Tomlin, as a head coach and as someone who was recently appointed to the NFL's powerful Competition Committee, erred in being that close to the field of play, no matter what, and while the NFL can't legislate his intent, the league's past handling of these issues speaks to the seriousness with which it takes the matter.
Tomlin was caught by cameras watching him on the jumbo scoreboard while Jones returned a kick into Pittsburgh territory on a potentially game-altering play that could have resulted in a score. Tomlin nearly made contact with Jones, and while the coach has claimed he was not trying to impact the play, the NFL will come down hard.
Internally, the Steelers are also concerned that their coach's action will cost them a draft pick, sources said, something they do not take lightly, even in the late rounds (where the loss of pick would come).
This was a game on national television, with massive playoff implications, and the review is expected to be completed on Monday. There has been no communication with Tomlin on the matter and none is expected. Players, for instance, are not asked for comment to discern intent or provide excuses prior to them receiving on-field discipline, though Tomlin would of course be eligible to appeal and make his voice heard at that time.
In the past, low-level Jets assistant coach Sal Alosi interfered with a player during a return and the team was fined $100,000 (Alosi was later fired, and, as a lower-waged employee, was not hit with a direct fine himself by the league but was fined $25,000 by the Jets and suspended for the remainder of the season). However, Tomlin is a well-tenured, highly compensated Super Bowl winning coach, and the standard he faces will be much more rigorous as someone who is the leader of that team and sets an example for other players and coaches alike.
Recently the NBA fined coach Jason Kidd $50,000 for appearing to intentionally drop a soda on the court to attempt to gain a competitive advantage. That ruling has not gone unnoticed in the NFL league office, and the penalty in Tomlin's case would likely be significantly more burdensome. The Steelers will also face discipline given the severity of the matter, and the Ravens organization has made it clear how angered they were by Tomlin's actions, even if Jones himself laughed it off in postgame comments.
Had the Steelers won the game -- it nearly went to overtime coming down to a two-point conversion -- the NFL fully realizes what a massive story it could have become and it wants to send a chilling signal to any other sidelines about attempting anything like this in the future. However, no suspensions are expected as, historically, the NFL generally only imposes them on coaches and front office personnel if there has been a repeated behavior that runs counter to the rules (i.e. Bountygate with the Saints and Spygate with the Patriots).
Given the league's internal reaction to this situation, a fine in the range of six figures would not be surprising. “It's very difficult to determine intent, but the circumstances do not bode well for Tomlin,” as one long-time NFL league office veteran put it.