The NFL believes that the notion the league has targeted the Steelers in the ongoing crackdown against illegal hits is “misguided and, frankly, completely untrue.”
Steelers president Art Rooney believes otherwise.
“It certainly looks that way,” Rooney tells the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Not that we’re expecting much sympathy from other teams, but I think some of this will be part of the discussion after the season is over. Hopefully we’ll all have our chances to express our opinions and at that point have a better understanding of where the owners in the league stand on some of this.”
The Steelers have had plenty of chances to express their opinions, because they’ve been expressing their opinions constantly ever since October 17, when a rash of helmet-to-helmet hits spawned a flurry of big fines against players from three different teams, including Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Harrison has since been fined for a pair of roughing-the-passer penalties that entailed Harrison striking the quarterback with Harrison’s helmet, a clear violation of the rules in the eyes of everyone but Harrison, his teammates, the coaching staff, and Steelers fans.
“I think we’re sympathetic to the idea that we need to focus on player safety and particularly on helmet-to-helmet hits,” Rooney said. “The other side of it is it’s still a football game, and I think we’ve got to be realistic about how the rules can be changed and what we expect of the defensive players in particular.”
In our view, Rooney also should be realistic about — and sensitive to — the impact of his words on his players and his team’s fans. With the mob already predisposed to adopting a hostile stance against perceived heavy-handedness by a league office that, in prior years, had been perceived as residing in the Steelers’ back pockets, comments from folks like Rooney and coach Mike Tomlin will fan the flames, and Rooney surely is smart enough to know it.
The mere fact that the league has yet to fine Rooney or Tomlin for engaging in conduct detrimental to the long-term interests of the league via public comments undermining the NFL’s approach to safety proves that, to a certain extent, the NFL still tiptoes on eggshells when it comes to one of the league’s marquee franchises. Indeed, Art Rooney’s public criticism of the league includes an acknowledgment that these matters would be better handled directly and privately with the league office.
“I think he shares some of the concerns we have,” Art Rooney of his father, Dan Rooney. “I’m sure the conversation he’s having are between him and the league, and that’s the way they should be kept.”
So why are Art Rooney and Mike Tomlin grandstanding about the issue in the media? Because they’re focused not on the big picture but on winning enough games to set the table for a run to the Super Bowl. And they want to place maximum pressure on the game officials and the Commissioner to refrain from taking action that would give the opponents 15-yards of field position, make Harrison unavailable for a game or more, and/or ultimately neuter a hard-hitting defense that relies on the ability to physically intimidate.
And so they’ll continue to engage in tactics aimed directly or indirectly at verbally intimidating those who would threaten the franchise’s hammerlock on physical intimidation. It’ll continue as long as the league office allows it, and the league office already has allowed too much of it.