On Thanksgiving Day, I surveyed a group of people gathered around on this question: 'Who is the most interesting team in the NFL this season?" I heard Cowboys from one corner (too annually self-aggrandizing. And they try too hard.), Broncos (too perfect) and the Jets (observing their bipolar tendencies from offense to defense are like watching Gary Busey alternate between philosopher and unstable D-Lister, and they play to the National Enquirer tabloid fodder crowd).
My response at the time: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They’ve got a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who has lived life on the edge and still plays football the same way. He also experiences more ups and downs than an Olympic pole vaulter. The tense relationship between Roethlisberger and fiery offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been a sideline soap opera for two seasons.
Defensively, Dick Labeau is constantly tinkering and searching for the elixir for his aging group of defensive leaders.
The Steelers game room even pitted veteran against Steeler neophytes. Their paucity of a consistent power running game accentuated the rocky transition Pittsburgh was enduring as they crawled out to a 0-6 start. In comparison, the Giants locker room unit has remained cohesive throughout their disappointing season. Mike Tomlin's interest only raised their curiosity index in my book.
After Thursday night, the NFL’s league office is equally interested in Pittsburgh as well.
Months after competing on Season 16 of Dancing With the Stars, Jacoby Jones became an unwilling dance partner with Tomlin on the sidelines of NBC’s Turkey Day Thursday Night Football matchup sponsored by Tryptophan.
Their smooth head coach has suddenly inspired the trendiest gifs in social media and the hottest dance move in America. I’m talking about everyone doing “The Tomlin.” It hasn’t caught on yet, but it will once Mr. C The Slide Man gets his hands on it.
In real time, Tomlin's unintentional interference appeared to be an innocuous incident. However, like the eyes of Sauron, the NFL sees everything thanks to the abundance of cameras set up around NFL stadiums for primetime matchups and there is healthy skepticism in the league office as well as from NFL insiders.
Baltimore Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, who has been posting Tomlin memes on his Instagram page, might think Tomlin’s subtle attempt to trip Jones up on his way to the end zone was funny, but the NFL is serious like a ‘Bama fan canceling his Pasadena flight reservations on Sunday.
Bill Belichick and Tomlin are now both card-carrying members of the ignominious group of coaches who tried to surreptitiously alter the outcome of games in illegal ways.
Like a mosquito attracted to UV light, Belichick has immediately flown to Tomlin’s defense.
He may not be the most credible witness in a court of law, but he’s got clout. Spygate cost him $500,000 and a first-round pick. According to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora,Tomlin and the Steelers may incur a similar punishment pending the results of the NFL's investigation.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Jones also leapt to Tomlin’s defense.
Tomlin is a bit of a red herring. The officials who failed to penalize the Steelers for Tomlin's obstruction should be under fire as well.
Sideline official Clete Blakeman also had to answer questions as to why he failed to flag Tomlin initially during the game on Thursday.
However, it gets difficult on the league’s side to levy a hefty punishment on the same scale of Belichick's on Tomlin. Even upon instant replay, it’s impossible to determine intent on Tomlin’s behalf. Belichick systematically cheated during a period of time which he won three Super Bowls. Physical evidence did him in. The case against Tomlin is largely theoretical.
Ultimately, if the NFL follows through on fining Tomlin six-figures and taking a Steelers draft pick away, it would be a major overreaction.
But coming from a league that has made it a habit of making kneejerk reactions for PR purposes by fining defensive players for legal hits, and making impulsive decisions during BountyGate or destroying the SpyGate tapes, that wouldn’t be a surprise. Not even Tomlin can dodge whatever sanctions the NFL chooses to drop on his head.