INDIANAPOLIS – Give the NFL a lot of credit for devising a new Rooney Rule.
It's just not the type of legislation in which Pittsburgh Steelers co-owner Dan Rooney would want to be associated.
The NFL took a significant step toward corralling vicious hits penalties by announcing during its spring meeting here that it will create a fine system for teams that are docked multiple times for devastating blows. NFL senior vice president for Law and Labor Policy Adolpho Birch said Tuesday that he wouldn’t rule out commissioner Roger Goodell applying further sanctions such as stripping clubs of NFL draft choices.
Still, expect the Steelers and their hard-hitting defense, led by finetastic linebacker James Harrison(notes), to get docked some serious coin if things don't change this year. Clearly, Pittsburgh is the team the NFL is trying to deter most at the moment. The Steelers became the collective poster child for brutal hits during the 2010 season as Harrison was fined a total of four times for a combined $100,000.
"The Steelers change? …" an AFC head coach asked rhetorically, laughing after getting word of the new system. "It's a nice try, but Mr. Rooney might as well just write out the check right now. Whatever they charge, the Steelers are going to pay."
You can also be sure Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin will use the new rules as fodder for his players, feeding their perception that the NFL is after them and the only way to prove their greatness is to hammer everyone in their path.
In other words, the NFL just fired up the league's defending runners-up. Everyone enjoy.
Birch declined to name any teams that would have been fined last year under the system the league is implementing. However, he said "three or four teams" would have qualified for such fines, which focus on hits to the head and neck area. Steelers co-owner Art Rooney said, "yes, we would've qualified."
At the root of what the NFL did Tuesday was to make the game safer. From that perspective, the move was a positive and was met with approval from team owners and executives.
"With the greater emphasis on concussions and the damage that comes with the big hits, the league is trying to do everything it can to get these hits out of the game," Green Bay Packers president and former NFL safety Mark Murphy said. "There's just a greater recognition of what's going on and that's important."
Birch said the exact system for fines had yet to be worked out, but would be adopted for this season.
Of course, whether there will be football played in which to fine teams or players is another question, but that will be decided later. For now, the league took an impressive step toward trying to control illegal hits by making it more expensive for teams with repeat behavior and not just hitting players in the pocketbook.
"I think it's a positive step, something that all teams will pay attention to," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "If you're taking money out of the team's pocket, that will make everybody think."
But it may not be enough to make teams and players change their approach.
In the 1980s, when former coach Joe Gibbs(notes) was leading the Washington Redskins and doing questionable things like "stashing" players on injured reserve that were fined by the league, owner Jack Kent Cooke asked Gibbs how much the fine would cost. When Gibbs answered and Cooke found the number acceptably low, he simply told Gibbs to keep doing whatever he was doing, fines be damned.
Steelers fans began to raise funds in Harrison's behalf last season.
The reaction by teams such as the Steelers will likely be the same. Do whatever it takes to win and deal with the consequences later. While Steelers fans felt their team was persecuted last season by the league – from the Harrison fines to the suspension of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) – the fact is that the Steelers still made the Super Bowl for the third time in the past decade.
"The Steelers play a certain type of football and they've done it for a long time. They're not going to change," the opposing AFC coach said. "I don't think it's dirty. Yeah, they get penalized, but it's about playing hard, not about taking out somebody's knees."
Maybe, but this is further emphasis on the fines the league imposed last season to deal with vicious, illegal hits. After a trio of hits featuring Harrison, Brandon Meriweather(notes) of the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) in Week 6 games last season, Goodell fined all three and issued a strong warning to all players to play under more control.
In addition to the plan laid out by Birch, the league upgraded the rule on hits on defenseless players, making it so that receivers would have a chance to gather themselves and make a move before the defender could hit them, Atlanta president and NFL Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay explained.
Finally, the league refined its rule on hits to the helmet of a quarterback, adding that such hits had to include "force" in order to receive a 15-yard penalty. McKay said refining the rule would eliminate roughly seven or eight questionable calls.