NFL coaches can’t get physical with officials — and they shouldn’t be pushing around opposing players, either
If it had been an official that Kansas City Chiefs assistant coach Greg Lewis shoved to the side on Sunday, rather than Cleveland Browns safety Ronnie Harrison, his day would have been over.
That matters. And it’s precisely why the NFL has to do something about Sunday's sideline incident during Chiefs-Browns. The league protects officials from everyone. It protects coaches from players. It protects players from players. Now there’s a need for another step, making it crystal clear to every franchise that coaches can’t make the mistake of putting their hands on a player — even if they think they’re doing the right thing in a heated moment.
Now, two points up front that will collectively leave both fan bases unsatisfied. (Such is life.)
First, Harrison isn’t going to get the sharp end of the stick in this space. There is enough video detail to suggest (strongly) he wasn’t intentionally stepping on a Chiefs player. And it was absolutely Lewis who initiated the over-threshold contact by shoving Harrison and triggering a retaliation. This might make Chiefs fans angry, but there are two vantage points of this and neither is absolutely right. Harrison’s action was inadvertent if you view the video fairly, and Lewis reacted to what he believed he was seeing as intentional.
Now the second point: Lewis clearly believed he was doing the right thing by protecting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. In a snap decision and a heated moment, a running backs coach saw his running back being stepped on, and he reacted with force. His instinct to protect is understandable, even if it was wrong. Just as Harrison’s instinct to react to a blind shove was understandable, even if it was ill-advised.
If each fan base can take a breath at this moment, they might be able to conclude this was one mistake followed by another. But there’s also not an argument over who started it. It was Lewis. Regardless of his intention or what he believed he was seeing, he used force to remedy what appeared to be an unintentional act.
What matters is the consequences, which were not balanced in the moment. Harrison was tossed from the game after a booth review, while Lewis was allowed to remain. As of Monday night, there was no public word that Lewis would suffer any other consequence beyond an unsportsmanlike flag on the Chiefs’ bench.
That’s not a proportional response. And if it happened in a playoff game — or worse yet, a Super Bowl — this kind of outcome would be a terrible statement by the league office, one that puts players on the bottom rung when it comes to protection. It could have been a dumpster fire if Lewis had knocked Harrison off balance and ended up with a torn ACL or turned ankle. Or if Harrison had retaliated and caught Lewis square in the face with his open-hand shove and broken the coach’s nose. Imagine the fallout from either of those scenarios.
This is the kind of thing that Browns center and players union president J.C. Tretter was getting at on Monday, when he called for some additional punishment for Lewis.
“I expect that the coach gets held to the same standard, if not a higher standard than Ronnie,” Tretter said in a conference call with reporters. “Being the first one in there and being a coach, putting his hands on an opposing player — I don’t think there’s any room for that in this league.”
The NFL Players Association is standing behind Tretter on that statement, too. The union doesn’t want coaches getting physical with players. Period. If protecting officials is good enough for the league, then protecting players should be, too. That’s the bottom line.
So now it’s time for the NFL to step up and make this a teachable moment, either by putting some additional responsibility on Lewis for the exchange, or by mandating that any future incident like this one will result in the offending coach being ejected.
Ideally, the league will do both — for the sake of leveling the field of responsibility, and warding off a worst-case scenario at the worst possible moment.