NFL rule could be costly to Steelers

May 25, 2011

A top NFL executive wouldn’t say whether a new player safety initiative was inspired by one specific franchise.

There was no need.

The league’s pending “club accountability” statute is inexorably linked to the Pittsburgh Steelers and controversial linebacker James Harrison.

Intending to further discourage illegal hits, the NFL will adopt a system similar to the one used in its personal conduct policy that stresses accountability from teams as well as the players they employ. Clubs are fined when there are multiple player suspensions in a year for failed drug tests and/or personal conduct policy violations.

Depending on what the “club accountability” rule will specifically entail once finalized, Steelers president and co-owner Art Rooney II may want to follow Harrison’s lead and keep his proverbial checkbook handy.

No player was fined more — $100,000 — for his on-field actions last season. Harrison was zapped $75,000 (later reduced to $50,000) for a crushing helmet-to-helmet blow on Cleveland wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Subsequent fines of $20,000 and $25,000 followed for respective hits on quarterbacks Drew Brees and Ryan Fitzpatrick that involved either illegal helmet use or contact. There also was an early-season fine of $5,000 for Harrison slamming Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young to the ground.

NFL senior vice president Adolpho Birch said Tuesday that the new initiative is designed to “really encourage clubs and coaches to teach the proper techniques and correct dangerous play on the field . . . The basic point of it would be to check the number and level of fines going out for infractions that relate specifically to various safety violations — whether it be spearing, late hits or things that we think particularly relate to the head and helmet issues. As a club’s total gets higher to a certain threshold, we will enforce some penalty and payback to help encourage them to stay below that threshold.”

Asked whether this was inspired by the 2010 Steelers, Birch said, “I don’t want to get into the specifics about particular teams. If we used the appropriate thresholds and look at it, there were three or four teams that would have been subject to the policy.”

Rooney admitted the Steelers “may have qualified last year” when asked about the subject at an NFL owners meeting in Indianapolis.

“I think they’re trying to get at a particular issue,” Rooney said. “I’m not going to say I’m opposed at this point. We'll wait to see how it goes.”

That’s a politically correct answer from a team whose players are anything but on this topic.

Harrison wasted little time bemoaning the new safety initiatives announced Tuesday by the league. In addition to the “club accountability” policy, further restrictions were placed on “launching” (i.e. leaving both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into an opponent or using any part of the helmet) and blows levied against what are now eight different classifications of “defenseless players.”

“I’m absolutely sure now after this last rules change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots,” Harrison wrote Tuesday night on his Twitter account.

Harrison was especially critical of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at Super Bowl XLV. Harrison sarcastically claimed that he would tackle players “softly.”

“We’ll lay a pillow down so they don’t hit the ground too hard . . . Mr. Goodell,” Harrison said.

Such mocking clearly hasn’t changed Goodell’s approach.

Birch said Goodell has spearheaded the “club accountability” statute and is insistent upon its implementation for the 2011 season (provided it’s played). Birch also reiterated that Goodell has the “ability to go further” than financial penalties and could potentially strip draft choices if the former doesn’t prove a deterrent.

Because of player outspokenness and a history of controversial hits — including those levied by Harrison and wide receiver Hines Ward — it’s easy to overlook that Pittsburgh wasn’t even close to being the most penalized team in 2010. The Steelers were tied for 11th overall with 100 infractions. That number ranks far behind NFL leaders Oakland (148), Detroit (136) and Philadelphia (129). Pittsburgh’s season totals for major infractions like roughing the passer (six), unnecessary roughness (five), face masking (one) and personal fouls (one) also weren’t out of line compared to other squads.

"The reason we got six Lombardis in our trophy case is because we play hard-nosed football. We didn’t get six Lombardis by playing soft football," Woodley said on Sirius Radio on Wednesday. "We got them by playing aggressive football, hitting teams hard, and I don’t think that’ll ever change."

According to the website, the NFL also fined Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan four times last season, albeit for a more modest $45,000. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s roughing penalty on New England quarterback Tom Brady was the only other play by a Steelers defender to draw a fine ($12,500). In comparison, five Eagles defensive players accumulated $125,000 in fines for illegal hits that included two blows to the head area.

No matter. It’s the Harrison-led Steelers who have replaced the Raiders as the NFL’s poster children for dirty play.

That’s a potentially harmful image if such an impression works its way into the subconscious of officiating crews who may then be quicker to throw a flag in a borderline situation. Conspiracy theorists would already claim that happened last November when Pittsburgh was 14 times for a franchise-record 163 yards in a 35-3 rout of Oakland.

“There are a lot of penalties that you just have to shake your head,” Woodley said afterward.

There are two ways the Steelers can respond to Tuesday’s announcement. Harrison — one of the NFL’s best players regardless of this controversy — can adjust his tackling technique and Pittsburgh players can bite their tongues after controversial calls to stop drawing so much attention to the situation. Or the Steelers can further embrace the bad-boy persona and continue to snub their noses at Goodell and Co.

If it’s the latter, Pittsburgh may very well stake claim to another listing in the NFL’s lexicon.

The franchise was lauded for pushing what is called the “Rooney Rule” to help increase interview opportunities for minority head coaching candidates. Conversely, the “club accountability” policy could quickly become known as the “Steelers Statute.”

That wouldn’t be something one of the league’s most storied franchises should take pride in.