Jacoby Jones was in his third week with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015 when he walked into the team meeting Thanksgiving morning and couldn’t believe his eyes.
The screen showed the moment that links Jones and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in NFL lore. On Thanksgiving night 2013, Tomlin veered too far away from the sideline and slowed down Jones, who then played for Baltimore, to turn a would-be kickoff return for a touchdown into one of the league’s most controversial incidents.
“It’s our anniversary,” Tomlin told Jones.
From Jones’ viewpoint, this proved all of his suspicions were right.
“You sucker, you. You got me,” Jones replied. “You knew what you were doing.”
Thursday night marks the 54th meeting between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), and it’s their first on this holiday since Tomlin infamously interfered with Jones in a game the Ravens won 22-20.
Tomlin is enjoying the best regular season of his career, a favorite for NFL Coach of the Year who has led the Steelers to the first 10-0 start in the storied franchise’s 88-year history.
But Thursday will shine the spotlight on 10 seconds that cost him a $100,000 fine from the league as well as an immeasurable amount of grief.
“It’s just one of those unfortunate moments of life,” Tomlin said this week. “I was watching the JumboTron and lost track of where I was. Such is life. I really don’t think about it too often at this juncture because I have more pressing business.”
Even now, seven years removed, this near-trip inevitably stirs up a spirited debate: Did Tomlin intentionally do it?
In speaking to the coaches and players involved as well as the stadium’s video-board producer, it becomes apparent that everyone’s vantage point tells a different story.
With the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens ahead 13-7 on a freezing night in Baltimore, Jones believed he was going to immediately answer the Steelers’ touchdown in the third quarter with a score of his own.
Jones fielded the kickoff at the goal line, sprinted untouched along the sideline and had no one else between him and the end zone after running past diving Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham — or so he thought. Just 38 yards from the end zone, Tomlin stood in a restricted area that separates the sideline from the playing field, with his back turned to the action and his right foot squarely in the field of play.
“I’m running and I’m like, ‘Are you gonna move?'” Jones recalled recently. “I’m like, ‘He’s not moving.’ So I eased up and moved in.”
Tomlin hopped to his left at the last second, but Jones had to swerve to his right to avoid hitting him. That slight adjustment to his path allowed Jones to get caught from behind by Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen.
Mike Tomlin “trips” Jacoby Jones in 2013? pic.twitter.com/378uXuG
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) Nov. 23, 2020
With his jaw dropped and a stunned look on his face, Jones used the same hand that had the ball to point at Tomlin. The surprising subplot is how few people — from the sellout crowd at M&T Bank Stadium to the national television broadcast crew to even the players themselves — initially didn’t notice Tomlin’s score-saving sidestep.
Jones was greeted on the sideline by teammates heckling him for getting chased down and tackled at the Pittsburgh 27-yard line. He explained how Tomlin got in his way. He reenacted how Tomlin had his back to the kickoff return while watching the video board.
Quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Torrey Smith were unconvinced. They thought Jones was trying to avoid embarrassment, and they continued ribbing him for not outrunning Allen.
It wasn’t until the Ravens put the replay on the stadium’s video board and highlighted Tomlin’s illegal maneuvering that Jones felt vindicated.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Jones shouted as Smith apologized to him.
Jones wasn’t finished defending himself. He found himself in an unusual situation in the middle of the 2015 season, when he was claimed by the onetime hated rival Steelers. It didn’t take Jones long before he crashed Pittsburgh’s defensive-backs room and started trading barbs about that one Thanksgiving night.
“I ran you down,” Allen told Jones.
“No, Coach T was in my way!” Jones said for what he felt was the millionth — but not even close to the final — time.
When Harbaugh was in first grade, he read a book called “Football Stories,” which detailed memorable events of the sport including “the 12th man tackle.”
In the 1954 Cotton Bowl, Rice running back Dicky Moegle took a handoff at his own 5-yard line and was on his way to a long touchdown down the sideline. Suddenly, Alabama fullback Tommy Lewis leapt off the bench without his helmet and tackled Moegle at the Crimson Tide 40-yard line. The officials awarded Moegle a touchdown.
Nearly six decades later, Harbaugh, the Ravens’ coach, glanced across the field around the Steelers’ 40 and saw Tomlin was on the field before Jones had to avoid him. Harbaugh heard Jones screaming, “I would have scored!” as he came toward the Baltimore sideline, and he immediately had a flashback.
“I thought we should get a touchdown there based on that play I read about when I was 6 years old,” Harbaugh said. “I asked the official about it.”
How did the officials respond?
“They kind of just [said], ‘No, no, it wasn’t a factor,'” Harbaugh said.
Baltimore never did reach the end zone on that possession, kicking a field goal instead. While it’s never been about settling any score between two coaches who’ve faced each other 25 times (a Super Bowl era record), it’s something that’s never been forgotten, either.
Harbaugh and Tomlin aren’t close friends, but they share a mutual admiration for one another. They also will deliver playful jabs at one another when possible.
During a 2016 charity event at which they both spoke, Harbaugh commented to the crowd that Tomlin has a great postgame handshake before alluding to Tomlin’s most embarrassing moment.
“I suspect he’s a pretty good tackler, too,” Harbaugh said with a smile before turning his back on stage to imitate Tomlin. “We never exactly saw the tackle. But he thought about it.”
Jones wasn’t the only player on the field slowed by Tomlin straying onto the field.
Steelers defensive back Robert Golden was right behind Allen in pursuit of Jones until he briefly froze when he cringed at the thought that the Ravens returner was going to run right into the back of Tomlin.
“Coach T, you’re right in the middle of the way!” Golden shouted, to no avail.
Tomlin avoided any collision that night, but the hits quickly came one after another on social media.
Ravens say Jones should have run over Tomlinpic.twitter.com/376x5CU
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) Nov. 25, 2020
The freeze frame of Tomlin in mid-bunny hop with his right leg outstretched was soon placed alongside such dancing pop culture characters as Elaine from “Seinfeld,” Napoleon Dynamite and Michael Jackson in his “Thriller” video.
Ravens wide receiver Smith trolled Tomlin, photoshopping Tomlin’s image onto the set of “Soul Train.” “Do the stanky legggggg,” Smith wrote as the caption.
In one of the first practices after that Ravens game, Golden was among a group of players joking about what they had seen on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Overhearing the players, Tomlin approached them and pleaded his case one more time.
“Man, I really lost track where I was standing,” he told them.
Larry Rosen is an Emmy Award-winning producer who has headed game-day video operations for three NFL teams over 22 years.
To Ravens fans, Rosen goes by a different title: the man who caught Tomlin.
Rosen, the Ravens’ vice president of broadcasting and game presentation at the time, was in the stadium’s video control room when he saw Jones cross midfield on that kickoff. Rosen’s immediate reaction was to make sure the touchdown celebration package was ready for what were the biggest video boards in the league.
When Jones was brought down from behind, Rosen heard a yell from his replay operator, John Tillmann. All that could be seen from the first angle, which was from the end zone, was the back of an unidentified Steelers coach impeding Jones’ path. The next shot was from the opposite side and clearly showed who had stepped onto the field.
“I would assume that everybody in my head said their ears were bleeding when I screamed, ‘It’s Tomlin, it’s Tomlin. Oh my, it’s Tomlin,'” Rosen said.
Rosen wasn’t about to put this revelation on the video board yet because the Ravens were on offense and he didn’t want to create a noisy distraction. No one outside a handful of players and coaches were aware of what had transpired anyway.
After Justin Tucker hit a 38-yard field goal, Rosen unleashed what he knew to a sellout crowd of 71,005 during the television timeout.
“So it was a quiet murmur on the first angle,” Rosen said. “It was kind of a ‘down goes Frazier’ moment for the second angle, and by the third angle, I think the world was like, ‘Now what do we do? We just got cheated.'”
Rosen then called for a close-up of Tomlin.
“He started laughing. Like he’s Cheshire cat laughing,” Rosen said. “So that was as much of an acknowledgement that he got away with something as anything. Just the look on his face and you know.”
Was it accidental or intentional?
Tomlin has come to find levity in the moment, joking with Jones and reporters over the years about his football faux pas.
But the smile disappears when you ask Tomlin if it bothers him that some still question whether his misstep was accidental or premeditated.
“I do not care,” Tomlin said this week, enunciating each word.
Opinions elsewhere cover the entire spectrum.
There are some who believe it was a purely a slip-up.
“He would never do anything like that intentionally,” Harbaugh said. “I never thought that at the time.”
There are others who believe it wasn’t on purpose but understand if you’re skeptical.
“It’s a Ravens-Steelers rivalry game,” Golden said. “At the end of the day, I think if both teams are trying to get as much advantage as we possibly can. I can see the perception from other people on maybe he was trying to gain that advantage for the Steelers, but he honestly wasn’t.”
And there are those who believe Tomlin knew what he was doing all along.
“I don’t blame him. I still love him,” Jones said. “I’d do the same thing to me.”