Steelers linebacker James Farrior said he isn't concerned about where the NFL is headed with its crackdown on the violence in professional football.
He said it's too late for that.
"The game has already gone to where we don't want it to go," Farrior said. "The sad thing is it's not going to change."
Farrior is one of the more intelligent players in the NFL. When he speaks, I listen because I know he thinks everything through. If a player of his stature -- a decorated 14-year veteran in the league -- is disgusted by the state of the game, commissioner Roger Goodell should be alarmed.
"You know what it's come to? They're penalizing us for hitting too hard," Farrior said. "It's sad."
I didn't want to believe it until I watched the Steelers-Oakland Raiders game Sunday. There were three personal-foul penalties against the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley, Ryan Clark and James Harrison that almost defied belief. Each was a legitimate football play. Each resulted in a 15-yard penalty.
It's one thing to try to eliminate the helmet-to-helmet hits and make the game safer. No one wants to see the players suffer head injuries, which, the research is showing with increasing regularity, lead to brain disease, dementia and Lou Gehrig's disease, among other problems. I know former Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk died too young with brain disease, apparently from repeated head hits. I visited former Pitt All-American, Steelers No. 1 pick and Penguins executive Paul Martha in an assisted-living facility in St. Louis last year and saw the confusion in the eyes of one of the smartest people I've met in sports, the result, he said, of too many concussions. No one should have to see players in that misery. And, if you're the NFL, you don't want to have to pay for their medical costs, which figure to be astronomical one day soon.
But, in trying to eliminate the head shots, the NFL is starting down a path toward making this country's most popular sport hard to watch. You might have liked the outcome of the Steelers' 35-3 win Sunday. But you couldn't have enjoyed seeing the Steelers penalized 14 times for a franchise-record 163 yards and the Raiders penalized seven times for 55 yards. There was no flow to the game. It was tedious, actually. It was so bad that a "Referees [stink]!" chant broke out in the second half and fairly throbbed throughout Heinz Field.
It's easy to blame the officials, of course. But the problem goes a lot higher. There is tremendous pressure on those men from the NFL office. People think their work isn't reviewed. It is with serious consequences for poor grades. I think back to Harrison's hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, which resulted in a $75,000 fine from the league. NFL discipline czar Ray Anderson said the officiating crew would be "disciplined" for failing to throw a flag on the play.
"I understand the climate that we're in from that standpoint," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, rather cryptically.
Clark, a Steelers safety, explained.
"The way the game is now, the refs have to be on edge. They're making the calls now and reviewing it later."
That's especially true on the hard hits that Farrior mentioned. Woodley was penalized Sunday for pushing down Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell in the chest with two hands. Clark was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on wide receiver Jacoby Ford even though he hit Ford in the upper back. Harrison was called for hitting Campbell just as he released the ball and landing -- these are referee Tony Corrente's words -- "with full body weight on top of him."
The call on Harrison was especially egregious. Not because it wiped out an interception and 16-yard return for a touchdown by Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. Because it was textbook tackling by Harrison. He put his left shoulder into Campbell's chest and drove through him.
"Someone is going to have to explain that one to me," Farrior said. "They don't say anything to you on the field. They can't explain what they call."
Said Clark, "It is what it is. We've just got to keep playing through it. But it's tough playing the style of defense we play."
Physical, he meant.
I don't buy Farrior's claim that the NFL is targeting the Steelers. "They're scrutinizing everything we do," he said. What? The league office has developed a hatred for the Steelers since Super Bowl XL when a number of calls went their way? Since Goodell was named commissioner in August 2006, thanks to a hard push from Steelers owner Dan Rooney?
But I'm with Farrior when he says the league is watching Harrison closely. "He's the poster boy for this stuff," he said. "I know he's sick about it." Harrison brought a lot of that on himself after his hit on Massaquoi when he said he doesn't try to seriously injure anyone, "but I try to hurt people."
Of course, Anderson is going to be watching Harrison.
I talked to Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham about all of this the other day. He said something that really stuck with me.
"It should come down to common sense. The officials should know what's a dirty hit and what's not."
That's the real problem with the NFL today.
Too many flags.
Not enough common sense.
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.