Did the Steelers lose a touchdown and perhaps a football game because their coaches did not bother to change channels on their television set Sunday night?
Homefield advantage can take different forms in the NFL. Sometimes, the field itself helps the home team, one reason the Steelers prefer to grow grass at Heinz Field.
Often, it is crowd noise, one reason some teams secretly continue to violate NFL rules by enhancing that noise in domed stadiums.
On other occasions, the home stadium workers can help the home team by something as simple as tuning a television in a private box to a certain channel and hope the visiting team does not notice or care. That, apparently, is what happened to the Steelers Sunday night in New Orleans. It might have cost them a touchdown in the second quarter of a scoreless game, when they had to settle for a field goal instead.
Would that extra four points have made a difference in their 20-10 loss? They will never know, but Tuesday, coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged the play was close enough to challenge using replay.
It occurred in the second quarter during the Steelers' infamous goal-line series. After New Orleans coach Sean Payton successfully challenged a touchdown ruling on a pass reception by Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, the officials placed the ball inches away from the goal line.
On first down, Isaac Redman, lining up as a fullback in the I-formation, lost more than a yard, back to the 2. On second down, Rashard Mendenhall ran off the right side and appeared to get the ball over the goal line. The officials ruled he came up just short.
Tomlin, who lost a challenge on a fumble earlier, did not challenge this one. The Steelers never got into the end zone, and Jeff Reed kicked a 19-yard field goal.
"Since the game, I found out it was a potentially challengeable play," Tomlin said Tuesday. "We didn't deem it to be one in the instance in which it occurred. There wasn't a bunch of video evidence available to us, and the guys on the field didn't seem to think it was a challengeable play, so we didn't."
The reason they had no video evidence is because there was no replay of Mendenhall's run on the coaches' box monitor. Under normal conditions, the coaches in the box would recommend to Tomlin whether to challenge or not after they saw the replay on network television.
Problem was, Sunday night in New Orleans, the Steelers' coaches weren't watching the NBC telecast in their box; the Saints' scoreboard video was shown on their television, as it was in many monitors around the stadium. In one auxiliary press box, a writer noticed this and asked it be changed to NBC and it was done.
There isn't a home scoreboard that will show a replay on a controversial play that officials on the field rule went the home team's way. It happened once in Heinz Field, Bill Cowher blew his top, and it never happened again.
So, if there was no replay of Mendenhall's run on the scoreboard, then there was no replay in the coaches' box because that is the feed they were watching. They could not advise Tomlin about it, and the head coach did not have a good enough view of it, so he passed on a challenge that everyone at home and in the Superdome press box could see was in question.
Tomlin said "it's possible" his coaches did not have the network feed on in the box and thus did not get a replay of the Mendenhall run. Sources confirmed they had the scoreboard feed on their TV.
"When you are on the road in different environments and different setups and different sources of information, it takes a period of time to get adjusted to that," Tomlin said.
"Of course, our familiar places that we travel to such as division games you are more familiar with the setup and how to combat it. But it is just a natural process that everyone in the league goes through and issues that everyone has."
Don't blame the Saints for any chicanery. All the Steelers' coaches had to do was request a channel change at any time, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.
"It should be the network feed," Aiello wrote in an e-mail to the Post-Gazette. "If coaches are not getting it, they should have it corrected immediately. The referee only uses the network feed."
A Saints spokesman told the Post-Gazette Tuesday that all private booths, including those of the visiting coaches, are provided with high-def TVs that can be tuned to any channel, including the network broadcast of the game. Some coaches, he said, switch channels to other games around the NFL. The preference is theirs, and, if they needed assistance, all they had to do was ask.
Payton used his coaches upstairs to help him decide to challenge Randle El's touchdown. Payton has been right in four of his five challenges this season.
"I lean heavily on the guys upstairs and try to be somewhat judicious," Payton said during his news conference Monday. "I tend to be more aggressive; I don't value those things like gold bullion or anything, we're going to challenge. I just don't want to miss one. I think the one yesterday was clear. A lot of times we can't see it on the field, but upstairs they give us the information. But yesterday's, you could see it on the scoreboards as well as upstairs, so that was a little bit easier."
Tomlin said he operates in a similar manner when deciding whether to challenge a call.
"If I see it on the field and I think it's a challengeable play, I'll challenge it. If I get information from upstairs, where we think it's a challengeable play, we will. If we don't, we generally rely on the players that are on the field. I've been here long enough where I know when I am going to get legitimate information or emotional information. That's our general process."
Tomlin, though, did not want to make a big or even small deal about the replay/challenge/television channel issue.
"We're not going to make that as an excuse. We had more than that opportunity to get that ball in the end zone down there. And we take responsibility for our inability to do that. And we're not going to let a judgment on the field be a crutch for us in that particular instance.
"We've got to score touchdowns when we have the ball down there. I'm less concerned about that element of the play or the fact that we challenged it or didn't challenge it. I just want to see a score when we're in those situations."
The Steelers signed linebacker Chris Ellis to their practice squad. Buffalo drafted him in the third round in 2008 and waived him Oct. 11. He played the same position, defensive end, at Virginia Tech before Jason Worilds played it there. He also hails from Tomlin's home area, Hampton, Va. Apparently, Ellis could not adjust to outside linebacker this year in Buffalo's new 3-4 defense. The Steelers will give him more time to do so.
They had an opening on their practice squad after signing defensive lineman Steve McLendon to their 53-man roster.
Tomlin is hopeful that defensive end Brett Keisel, who missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, will be healthy enough to play Monday night in Cincinnati. Tackle Flozell Adams and running back Isaac Redman also should play after both left the game Sunday night with sprained ankles but returned to finish the game.
Since the game, I found out it was a potentially challengeable play. We didn't deem it to be one in the instance in which it occurred. There wasn't a bunch of video evidence available to us ..."