'Steelers Rule' will make NFL too soft
I must confess I grew up in western Pennsylvania. As a young reporter, the second NFL training camp I visited in the mid-1970s was the Steelers. The team put me up in a dormitory at St. Vincent’s College and I remember brushing my teeth next to a couple linebackers, a few hours before I spent time in Ernie “Fats” Holmes’ room as he tried to explain, Bible in hand, why he fired a high-powered rifle at a couple state policemen.
Mean Joe Greene was the toughest Steeler during that era, but Terry Bradshaw always tells me that even his teammates were afraid of Holmes. “You never knew what he might do,” Bradshaw said of Holmes.
Pretty much nothing has changed in Pittsburgh from the 1970s to today when it comes to appreciating the Steelers.
They were tough then, Steel Curtain mean, and they are physical now. Heck, historians will tell you that the even in the 1960s, when the Steelers didn’t win, they were generally the toughest team on the schedule. Being tough apparently remains a community trait.
The NFL has built a billion-dollar empire off of this Pittsburgh mystique of physical football. You can’t talk about the history of the NFL without mentioning the Steelers and then maybe the Packers, whose current coach was raised in Pittsburgh. There are a couple other worthy franchises, too, like the 49ers, whose best player may have been Ronnie Lott. And Lott played like a Steeler and fittingly he finished his career with the Raiders, Pittsburgh’s big rival back in the day.
This is why I think the NFL crossed the line last week. The league office, which has too many non-players in high positions, has now decided to fine teams for their players’ on-field conduct and transgressions. Bears owner George Halas, a founder of the league, must be rolling over in his grave. Before Pittsburgh, no team was tougher than the Chicago Bears. Just remember the likes of Doug Atkins or Dick Butkus. The Chief, the late Art Rooney, wouldn’t like it, either, especially with this team fine now being called the “Steelers Rule.”
James Harrison, the Steelers linebacker who was deserving of another Defensive Player of the Year award last season (he finished third behind teammate Troy Polamalu), has been right about one thing ever since this rule was adopted, one that hopes to curtail flagrant hits and late helmet-to-helmet hits. It will further confuse the officials. There are too many subjective calls already in the rule book and some of the biggest fines come from plays that are never flagged on the field.
Identifying a player’s intent remains the most impossible job for any journalist or official or league executive watching a defensive player tackle an opponent on slow-motion replay. I’m all for removing launching into defenseless receivers like what New England’s Brandon Meriweather did last season to Baltimore tight end Todd Heap. Meriweather lined Heap up and took off.
But I view it as harder to discipline when receivers are running against zone coverage, whether it is in Pittsburgh or Chicago. As long as they have been playing football, defenders have been whacking receivers off their routes in the five-yard area. Offensive players are taught to expect it. Even the famous Dunta Robinson hit on Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson last season seemed unintentional to me. The players are running so fast, intent on making a play that collisions like these are almost impossible to legislate against.
I can just see how Art Rooney II, who voted to accept this new "Steelers Rule", is going to react when he and the franchise are fined for excessive flagrant hits. What is Rooney going to do, dock coach Mike Tomlin a paycheck for having Harrison as a starting linebacker? I thoroughly doubt he’s going to chastise Tomlin for condoning dirty play in front of his players. Ditto for fining Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft in New England because of Meriweather or Al Davis in Oakland. Remember, it was the Raiders’ Richard Seymour who decked Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last season. Of course, who knows what motivated Seymour to punch Big Ben? But in this entire discussion, the only thing Steeler Nation remembers is that Seymour was flagged and fined, but that Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata wasn’t when he went high to the head and broke Roethlisberger’s nose last season.
Everyone associated with the NFL wants a clean game, but the ultimate attraction of football is the speed of the game and the obvious physicality of its players. Fans love it when Harrison and fellow linebacker Lamar Woodley forcefully put a running back on his back. It’s why hockey fans cheer when there’s a clean check along the boards. Like Harrison says, if you are expecting a love tap from him, you are better off playing two-handed touch in a community park.
Harrison has been saying a lot via Twitter and his blog. He really believed that the NFL was trying to take away his livelihood last season when it fined him $125,000 (reduced by $25,000) for what it deemed as several flagrant hits. Commissioner Roger Goodell has taken some verbal blasts from Harrison.
But I do think there is some legitimate thought in Harrison when he says, “I understand the intent behind making the rules, but in their attempt to make the game safer, they are actually clouding what is allowable. Even the referees are confused. A close look will show you that the (officials) were calling things that were not even supposed to be called, and NOT calling things that were actually illegal.”
There is no doubt that the league is worried about concussions, the unhealthy result of helmet-to-helmet hits. There is no room in the game for deliberate forearm shots to a defenseless player’s head. But we know that coaches and owners don’t teach that nor condone it. But by fining teams for their players' actions, the NFL is ultimately telling that team to put so-called guilty players on the unemployment line once we get back to playing the games again.