NFL may send message with punishment

PITTSBURGH -- A fine, even if it is in the six-figure range, wouldn’t be nearly as costly to Mike Tomlin as a lost draft pick, something else that the NFL is considering as it weighs punishment for the Steelers coach for stepping on the field and impeding the path of return man Jacoby Jones during Thursday night's loss to the Ravens, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The Steelers are as committed to building through the draft as any team, and they will already be without their third-round pick in 2014 having traded it to the Cleveland Browns in April for an extra fourth-round selection that they used on safety Shamarko Thomas.

Losing another pick would be a significant setback for a team that has to replenish an aging defense among other things and needs the kind of cost-effective labor the draft provides given its salary-cap situation.

What would soften the blow if the Steelers are docked a pick is that they could receive as high as a third-round compensation selection for their 2013 free-agent losses, which include wide receiver Mike Wallace. Still, the Steelers need all of the picks they can get, especially since they are again unlikely to do much in the way of signing free agents after the new NFL calendar year starts in March.

The NFL has no choice but to come down hard on Tomlin after he nearly wandered onto the field during Jones’ 73-yard kickoff return in the third quarter of a 13-7 game. Jones may have scored had Tomlin’s right foot not caused a slight detour that allowed Cortez Allen to make a touchdown-saving tackle.

More significant is that a league committed to player safety may not be able to control helmet-to-helmet hits even with its unwavering approach to fining and even suspending players -- but it can prevent the kind of sideline incident that could have resulted in an injury had Jones stepped on or tripped over Tomlin's protruding foot.

Tomlin said he didn’t think he affected the play and that he simply lost track of where he was as he had his back toward the play as he watched it on the JumboTron. Even if that is the case, he clearly violated the rule that prohibits players and coaches from being in the white stripe that separates the sideline from the field of play. And Tomlin probably didn’t help himself after the Steelers’ 22-20 when he was asked if he was aware of the rule.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” he said. “I do it quite often like everybody else in the National Football League. I was wrong. I accept responsibility for it.”

The Steelers may also be held accountable for his actions -- if the NFL decides to send a message to the rest of the coaches in the league, as well as to Tomlin.