What was once a whisper of a conspiracy theory around the league last season, but screamed aloud across Steelers Nation, the NFL is targeting the Steelers unabashedly. In fact, you might say that the NFL hates the Steelers – from the top down.
The Steelers organization has had amazing success over it’s existence. In the more recent history of the NFL (1990 and onward) the Steelers have been in the playoffs 13 times, won their division 11 times, appeared in the Super Bowl 4 times, and won the Super Bowl twice. Keep one interception and one fumble from happening and the Steelers could have been 4 for 4 in Super Bowls. For the past 21 years, the Steelers have been nothing shy of dominating in their division over rival teams. All the while, they play with a physical intensity that has gone unmatched – the Ravens come close. The Steelers take on the persona of their town and fans – blue collar, hard working yinzers. They have one of the largest fan bases over any other sport across the country. Everywhere you go, you see Steelers attire and paraphernalia. Any away game they play there are thousands upon thousands of Steelers Nation waving those Terrible Towels. And the NFL HATES them for it. Hates them for it ALL.
The NFL’s hatred has been brooding for a long time, waiting until the right moment, the right turning point in the game itself so that it can remove the vail masking that hatred. The 2009 season began the huge push for player ‘safety.’ The league changed rules for hitting defenseless players – receivers, quarterbacks and even blockers. This became the first shot heard ’round the world against the war on the Steelers. Targeting mainly Hines Ward, the league outlawed hitting defenseless players who were either catching the ball or making a play on the ball. Next league officials (outside of the zebras) began dishing out fines to players for dangerous and ‘illegal’ hits. Now, the moment became ripe for the legue to take aim at one of the hardest hitting teams in the NFL – the Steelers. And boy, did they ever take advantage. James Harrison became the poster child for the ever subjectively defined ‘illegal’ hit. When all was said and done, Harrison accumulated $100,000 in fines. Harrison threatened to retire, and I’m sure the league was drooling over the prospect of that happening.
But Craig, if Harrison was indeed hitting illegally, isn’t the league in the right by fining him? Though some of his ‘illegal’ hits were a bit questionable, I would have to agree with that observation. However, the league was very inconsistent with identifying illegal hits and dishing out appropriate fines. Steelers like Ward, Clark and Polamalu spoke out against this inconsistency and were punished for it. That punishment – the December 5th Sunday night game against the Baltimore Ravens. The punishment came in the form of no call after no call against the Ravens. Exhibit A: Ben Roethlisberger’s broken nose from a shot to the face by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. No penalty and no fine. Exhibit B: linebacker Jameel McClain’s hit on a defenseless Heath Miller. Direct helmet to helmet, concussion sustained. No penalty and the fine was reduced from 40k to 20k. There were some other sketchy calls from the officials against the Steelers that game, but I don’t want to jump down the rabbit hole of suggesting that the league would directly influence officiating on the field during a game. The two examples used here are ones that are plays reviewed and ruled on by league officials after the game. The message sent to the Steelers from the league after week 13 – shut up. I think the NFL even took pleasure in that beating. The lead headline on NFL.com the following Monday was not – Heath Miller Sustained Concussion From Illegal Helmet to Helmet Hit. It was, “Roethlisberger Bloodied.” But thankfully, that didn’t stop the Steelers from using the week of the Super Bowl to continue to speak out on the league’s new beat down.