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Plan to fine teams targets Steelers for good reason

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Six months ago, the NFL insisted it wasn't targeting the Pittsburgh Steelers and/or linebacker James Harrison with stiff fines and warnings about flagrant hits. Now, the league doesn't say anything about the Steelers and fines -- nor should it -- because we're not stupid.

We all know what's going on with a new proposal that would fine teams as well as players, and what's going on is that the Steelers have been identified as Public Enemy Numero Uno.

Will the intimidation factor be lost from the Steelers defense? (US Presswire)  
Will the intimidation factor be lost from the Steelers defense? (US Presswire)  
Of course, they're not alone in the penalty box. Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of labor policy and player development, said there are "three to four teams" the league had in mind when it produced a plan to fine teams -- not just individuals -- whose players are fined repeatedly.

Birch declined to be specific, but it doesn't take a genius to name the first suspect. Will the Steelers please step forward?

"You think they had you in mind?" team president Art Rooney was asked.

"Well, I don't know," Rooney said at this week's owners meetings. "I can't say that for sure, but from what I understand I think we may have qualified last year. I think they're trying to get at a particular issue, and we'll see how it works."

He's right about the league getting at a "particular issue," and it's head injuries. And when you think of head injuries you think of ... uh-huh, James Harrison and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was Harrison who was fined so often and for so much last season that the Steelers complained they were targeted. Harrison was fined four times for $100,000, including a $50,000 penalty for a hit that originally was set at $75,000.

Everywhere you look, the NFL is trying to reduce head injuries, and let's be honest, people -- that's a good thing. We saw it with the league's rule change at the March meetings, where kickoffs were moved five yards forward to reduce the number of returns and, ultimately, the injuries that result during them. We saw it in rules changes announced Tuesday, with the league expanding its protection for defenseless players as well as outlawing illegal "launching" by defenders. And now we see it in the league's interest in penalizing teams -- not just players -- for not grasping its message.

OK, I get that. In fact, I'm in favor of it. But I know a lot of people in the 412 area code who aren't. They were outspoken last season in their support of Harrison and the Steelers, firm in their belief that the league would change the personality of their star player and its defense, and, ultimately, compromise the Steelers' chances for success. But it didn't, as the Steelers ended up ranked second in defense, first in run defense, first in points allowed and in their third Super Bowl in six years.

What the NFL is trying to gain here, Birch said, is "accountability" from clubs that, basically, have little or none when it comes to flagrant hits -- and, yeah, I'd say that conversation starts with the Steelers. The New England Patriots are probably in there too, and I'd add Tennessee to the discussion. Essentially, what the NFL is saying is that it doesn't trust clubs to police themselves, so the league will do it for them -- with warnings of "significant and reasonable" fines for those teams that don't knuckle under.

Only it's more than a warning; it's a threat, with Pittsburgh the provocateur.

"I’m absolutely sure now," Harrison wrote on Twitter, "after this rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots."

Nevertheless, Rooney rolled with the punch, saying, "I'm not going to say I'm opposed" to the idea and that he would "see how it goes." Good for him. Because, guaranteed, he showed more restraint than some of his players and legions of Pittsburgh fans will when they hear about this.

"Initially, I'm not in favor of it, either," said Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay. "It's something where you teach the right techniques and just do the right thing. I know that in our organization our coaches are expected to teach the standards that are legal. I've listened to the discussion about it, but my initial thought is that I'm not in favor of it."

Too bad. The NFL is. Which means the Steelers just got put on double-secret probation.

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