Mike Tomlin's Thanksgiving night dance step on the sideline created the ideal NFL non-troversy. The near-interference from the Pittsburgh Steelers coach with oncoming Baltimore Ravens return man Jacoby Jones was tailor-made for highlights on TV and social media GIFs. We've all had a good laugh seeing Tomlin photoshopped into a duo on "Dancing With the Stars." His swift move created swifter fodder for debate: Was it intentional? What should the punishment be? Is this better or worse than what Jason Kidd did with his spilled soda? Discussion of Tomlin's move is entertaining; it's fun.
The discussion of Tomlin's intentions, his potential punishment, and his Tuesday apology are trampling the far more important conversation though.
NFL fans and players got a horrific scare in that same game when Steelers rookie running back Le'Veon Bell ducked his head during a goal-line carry and got hit so hard by the Ravens' defense that his helmet flew off and his head whipped backward onto the turf. Tight end Heath Miller quickly pushed away a nearby TV camera as Bell lay motionless on the ground. NBC's Al Michaels said Bell was "in distress," and anyone watching at home (and surely some on the field) wondered if distress meant a broken neck or worse. The fear was palpable on the field on a holiday celebrated for NFL football.
Thank goodness Bell got up and left the field on his feet. But there was more troubling news to come. Bell sustained a concussion and he still doesn't remember the hit. He is hopeful to play Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
"I don't remember the exact play," Bell told the Steelers' website. "I didn't remember it when it first happened. Once I came off the field I didn't really know I had scored. Then they told me I did; then they told me it wasn't a touchdown. I wasn't aware of what was going on at the time because I got hit. I can't really remember what happened."
Frightening. But seemingly everyone is still on Tomlin, maybe because we've seen serious hits before and the coach's actions were new and different. No matter the reason, we missed something important as the dance move played on a loop. The Bell hit was secondary.
The hit should be a talking point for a nation that loves its football but is still learning how to make it safer. Bell's decision to lower his head was instinctual and understandable, but it's extremely dangerous. The clasp holding Bell's facemask was broken, and Pittsburgh's equipment manager said he had never seen that before. Last year, Tulane's Devon Walker was paralyzed and nearly died on the field when he lowered his head to make a tackle on a Tulsa player. Bell's arms raised awkwardly after he hit the ground, a sign of a "fencing effect" that can indicate brain injury. Walker remembered the sensation of his arms flying up in the air after he hit the ground as well.
This isn't to criticize Bell for a split-second reaction to lower his head; two Raven defenders did the same thing and nearly got hurt themselves. Rather, the highlight should be dissected in an effort to further educate players and coaches of all ages on what not to do at impact.
Bell's teammates praised his sacrifice. Jonathan Dwyer said his fellow running back "sold himself out to score and you have to respect that." Receiver Jerricho Cotchery said Bell "laid it on the line" and "We definitely have a lot of respect for that."
Again, those are understandable reactions to a brave play. But without the added caution about putting himself at risk, the salute sends the wrong (or at least incomplete) message. The "Bell earns respect of his peers" headline does the same thing. Selling out for six points is what players are paid to do, but it can be done more safely. It has to be done more safely.
The instant reaction to the hit on social media was telling. Of course there was worry for Bell, but then there was some outrage that he wasn't given a touchdown because his helmet came off. The league rule states that once a player's helmet is dislodged, the play is dead. This is to prevent head injury to moving players, and it's a rule that should be heeded even when it appears the player is being punished for lost yardage. The referee and the league got it right, but once again the reaction was more about winning and losing than it was about safety. Many fans are still upset that Bell got "hosed." Bell himself realizes he's "lucky."
Still, the talk is nearly all about Tomlin. It's the ultimate tempest in a teapot, something where sides can be taken and clear answers can be put forth. Either Tomlin did it on purpose or he didn't. Either he should be fined or he shouldn't. Simple stuff.
The more complex debate is the tougher one. How can football players of all ages be taught to keep their heads up even when pressure, instinct and will tell them otherwise? How can we use a scary incident to prevent our ultimate football fear from coming true?
This would have been a week to face that question head-on. Instead, Mike Tomlin helped us sidestep it.