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Is Tomlin a turkey, leg on field? Bench foul not called on Steelers coach

Week 13: Steelers at Ravens (video)

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was caught off guard watching the scoreboard, because in his attempt to get a good look at the play, he had one foot on the field and the other in the 6-foot white sideline border. The reason for the wide sideline border is to give a lane for officials and the chain crew to operate unimpeded. In this case, field judge Dave Meslow was able to get around Tomlin, so he likely issued a sideline warning to the entire Steelers bench. Had Meslow been interfered with, it would have certainly been a penalty.

The larger question is whether Tomlin interfered with the runback. I’m not convinced that there was an obstruction of the runback by Jacoby Jones. He might have stepped to his right a little bit at the most, but he was not interfered with, it didn’t alter his stride, and it did not put Jones in a position to be tackled. All outward appearances are that Jones would have been tackled or stepped out of bounds where the ball wound up being dead.

If in the official’s discretion there was sideline interference with the official or the runner, there first would have been an unsportsmanlike conduct foul (half-distance to the   goal). The officials have the discretion to invoke the palpably unfair act rule, but it would not be judicious use of that rule in this situation.

A palpably unfair act is, by definition in its highfalutin language, just something that seems so wrong, that there is no remedy available in the rulebook for an extraordinary act by a player or other person. Such an example would be a player leaving the bench to tackle an opponent headed for the end zone. Officials can award a touchdown if they feel that is the equitable resolution.

In this case, it is not clear that Jones would not have been caught, and Tomlin’s actions had no material affect on the play.

The only recorded use of the palpably unfair act is the 1954 Cotton Bowl, when Alabama’s Tommy Lewis left the bench to tackle Rice running back Dicky Moegle. The officials awarded the touchdown (video).

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Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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14 thoughts on “Is Tomlin a turkey, leg on field? Bench foul not called on Steelers coach

  1. I’m surprised that there was not a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for Tomlin being on the field during the play. It has been called this season and here’s a case where it may have had an influence on the play. Should they have awarded Jones a touchdown? I’m not sure, but it is apparent that he adjusted his movement because of Tomlin.

  2. I find the phrase “Tomlin was caught off guard watching the scoreboard…” to be odd and just a little misleading. You’re correct, he was watching the scoreboard, but he was doing it from the field of play about which 13.1.4 is pretty specific. Was there intent, we don’t know and Tomlin will never say, but I think we can read a little into his rather large smile afterward, however none of that really matters – The returner obviously changes direction at the point he reaches Tomlin, not to mention that the field judge had to go around him. This is not a warning, it’s a 15 yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

  3. Hi Ben,

    Your commentary on the Tomlin’s behavior was my first internet stop this morning. One thing you didn’t comment on and I am curious to hear your thoughts (and the Ref’s Union) is – why wasn’t a flag thrown? Whether or not Tomlin interfered with Jacoby, he was in the wrong about three different ways. The Refs have been flagging people for being in the white zone and I remember a warning at the start of the season saying that they were going to enforce this more strongly this year. The LJ had to see Tomlin when he ran past. Why do you think he let it go if the Refs are trying to send the overall message to the sidelines to get back and stay back?

    Always appreciate the website and the input you guys are able to get.


  4. The NFL is investigating, and according to ESPN (quoting NFL sources): 1) there should have been a penalty called; 2) Tomlin will probably be fined; and 3) the official will probably be downgraded.

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