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Tomlin’s Tomfoolery: A coach’s legacy

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's legacy may take a bit of a hit, but he's still a highly successful coach. Those successes won't be erased by this incident.

Rob Carr

The ball is caught by the return man. He begins his run up the field, avoiding tackles and skimming the Steelers sideline. Up the field, a coach is watching the play. As Chris Hudson saunters by (eventually reaching the endzone), Bill Cowher feigns a tackle from the sidelines, garnering some discussion in postgame analyses. Sixteen years later, another Steelers coach made headlines for his activity on the sideline.

Before Mike Tomlin became $100,000 poorer, he was contrite. Apologetic. He realized he made a mistake. Fans are still unsure if that was a mistake in judgment, or a simple blunder. Going forward, that debate will include questions of how Tomlin’s act will affect his legacy with the Steelers, and as a coach.

After a mediocre season for the Steelers a year ago, and a very weak start to this season, Tomlin is under duress. Include his performance on Thanksgiving, and many fans are clamoring for undisciplined upheaval.

Whether Tomlin’s actions were intentional or an accident is still open for debate. In either instance, he did a disservice to the Steelers franchise and fans of the game. If it was intentional, even with Terrell Suggs’ glowing endorsement of "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying to win," the Steelers franchise took a blow in reputation. If Tomlin stood on the field accidentally, even if he was mesmerized by the Jumbotron, it highlights a lapse of awareness, and once again reflects poorly on the Steelers.

The NFL’s disciplinary action was a fine of $100,000, and the threat of altering Steelers draft picks. Cash fines levied by the NFL are difficult to relate to for most fans. The amounts are significant, but generally the response to a fine is "Ok, let’s move on," or "James Harrison’s hit was totally (il)legal!" (depending on which side of the ball the fan was on). A docked draft pick, however, may unify the Tomlin critics, and anger a large number of supporters.

In the absolute worst case scenario, the Ravens lose a playoff spot to the Steelers because of a tiebreaker utilizing total points scored, by the difference of 4 or fewer points (the difference of a field goal versus a touchdown + PAT). The NFL docks the Steelers a First Round draft pick for the following season, the Steelers go on to not be able to select a Left Tackle in the first round. Mike Adams, for whatever reason, starts the first game of the season next year at LT, and the story ends here because it would be far too scary to continue.

A more realistic (or potentially best case) scenario would be that an AFC team claims the Wildcard spot, and a tiebreaker utilizing points scored is never realized. The Steelers do not have their draft picks adjusted (or should not), because the play does not affect the playoff picture. Additionally, the NFL accomplished its goal in clearly stating that interfering with a play will be harshly punished.

Assuming the latter scenario, Mike Tomlin does not have much to worry about. Much like Cowher, he has brought success to the Steelers. He has given the critics more ammunition (and something for his sons to make fun of), but he is still a Super Bowl-winning coach, with four playoff appearances in his first six seasons. He was the coach of the first NFL team to obtain six Lombardi trophies, and has the opportunity for more in the coming years.

His reputation may have taken a blow, but this will be a blemish easily erased by time. And maybe another trip to the Super Bowl.

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