Thursday, November 28, 2013

Close Call of the Week: Tomlin Steps Out (NFL)

Welcome to "Close Call of the Week," the CCS expansion of "Ask the UEFL" in which we analyze a significant play across the sports world and its resulting calls or no-calls. In this debut feature, we examine Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's sideline adventure during an NFL kickoff play on Thanksgiving Day.

The Play: With 6:26 remaining in the 3rd quarter of Thursday's Steelers-Ravens game, Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham kicked off to the opposing goal line, where Ravens return man Jacoby Jones caught the fly and returned the ball past midfield and into Steelers territory. As Jones approached the 40-yard line, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin appeared to be straddling the sideline at the 38-yard line with his back to the play, sidestepping onto the thick white stripe of the sideline as Jones approached. Jones appeared to have slightly altered his route, changing trajectory from running parallel to the sideline to a thirty degree angle in, his body position changed from being directly even with the sideline to clear of the two-foot long sideline hash mark before being tackled at the 27-yard line.

Question: Did Tomlin commit an infraction of the rules and if so, what is the appropriate penalty?

Short Answer: Yes, Tomlin's actions violated NFL rules. At minimum, Tomlin should have been penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. The 15-yard penalty ("half the distance") would place the ball at the 13.5-yard line. At most, Tomlin could have been disqualified (ejected) for a flagrant or palpably unfair act and a touchdown awarded to Baltimore. Intent is not relevant in determining that Tomlin's positioning violated zone restrictions, though intent may be relevant in determining whether or not Tomlin's actions were flagrant or palpably unfair. Rules 1-1, 13-4, 13-5, AR 13.7, AR 13.8.

Explanation and References: NFL Football contains a series of restricting zones on both sidelines of the field, prescribing where chain crew, officials, coaches, situation substitution players, bench personnel and the media may—and may not—position themselves during play. When the ball becomes live, the six-foot "white stripe" of sideline closest to live ball territory is reserved for the chain crew and officials only, the next six feet between the 32-yard lines for coaches and situation substitution players only, followed by bench personnel further back and the media no closer than 36-feet (12-yards) removed from the field of play between both halves' 32-yard lines. Rules for marking or lining a field are codified in Rule 1-1 (The Field) while rules restricting team personnel to their respective zones are codified in Rules 13-4 and 13-5.

Because Tomlin clearly violated zone integrity, he should have been penalized, at minimum, 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Enforcement action 13-1(b) specifies the Referee (white hat) may, after consulting with crew, award the 15-yard penalty from "whatever spot...[he] deems equitable, if the ball was in play." If Tomlin's violation was considered flagrant, the Referee may have excluded or ejected him from the game.

Approved Ruling 13.7 and A.R. 13.8 specifically address the case of "coach in six-foot border." The NFL's official case book concludes that if the officials encounter a coach within the six-foot border (white stripe) and interference, impedance or any effect on play results, the officials "may enforce whatever penalty they think is equitable under the circumstances," including the negation or award of a score.

OFFICIATING ANALYSIS: This is an incorrect no-call (NCI). The proper call would have either been a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty ("half the distance") for infraction of Rule 13-1 or the award of a touchdown for this same violation; the difference between a Quality of Correctness of "correct" and "incorrect" for this call is whether or not the officials (1) recognized the foul and (2) enforced the penalty, which video evidence conclusively shows did occur. For the safety of participants involved (the (1) offending team personnel and (2) flank official whether side judge, field judge, head linesman or line judge), this penalty must be called.


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