Labriola On

Labriola on NFL royalty, fans, 'unabated'

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • The immediate significance for this particular group of Steelers was that it clinched the AFC North Division title, and it also snapped a losing streak to their bitterest rival. In addition to the hats and T-shirts handed out in the locker room after the victory last Sunday, the division title also comes with a home game in the first round of the upcoming playoffs.
  • But there was something else earned by the Steelers via that 31-27 victory over the Ravens on Christmas Day at Heinz Field. It was inclusion in a very exclusive club, a club only three other NFL franchises have been able to join.
  • The victory over the Ravens was the 600th in the regular season for the Steelers, and if the number itself doesn't immediately connote exclusivity, the other franchises to have attained that number of victories should.
  • The Chicago Bears. The Green Bay Packers. The New York Football Giants. And now you can add the Pittsburgh Steelers. NFL royalty, for sure.
  • It's NFL royalty, because these teams and the men who owned them shaped the foundation of the league. And more importantly, the men who owned those teams built the model that has grown the NFL into the billion-dollar industry it is today.
  • George Halas was one of the guys in that Canton, Ohio, Hupmobile showroom on Sept. 17, 1920 when the idea for this whole professional football thing initially came together, and his Decatur Staleys were 10-1-2 in 1920, moved to Chicago in 1921 and finished 9-1-1, and then were renamed the Chicago Bears in 1922 and finished that season 9-3-0.
  • The Green Bay Packers were "organized" in 1919 in the second-floor editorial rooms of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, and after spending a couple of years playing teams that mostly represented taverns in neighboring towns, they joined the NFL for the 1921 season, when they finished 3-2-1.
  • Tim Mara plunked down $500 in 1925 for the NFL rights to New York City, and before the end of its inaugural season Mara's team hired and fired Jim Thorpe, hosted Red Grange in front of 70,000 at the Polo Grounds, and finished 8-4-1. By the end of the following season, Mara already had lost $40,000 on this venture, but he was not deterred.

The Steelers prepare for the Week 17 matchup against the Cleveland Browns.

  • By the time Art Rooney paid his franchise fee of $2,500 and joined the party in 1933, the National Football League had morphed from the random mess it had been – 20 teams one year, 22 teams the next year, 12 teams the year after that, and with no set number of games per team per year – into a two-division, 10-team league that settled its championship on the field instead of by decree.
  • Back in those days, a lot of franchises folded, or moved, or were sold and then later folded or moved, but Halas, Mara, and Rooney never wavered, and the league they ended up helping to create was structured in a way that allowed Green Bay, Wisconsin, to have a team and compete and win in the same league that had teams in New York City and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit. And then in the 1960s, that franchise in Green Bay hired Vince Lombardi, and over the course of the 10 seasons in that decade his Packers teams played in six championship games and won five (including the first two Super Bowls).
  • Going into the final weekend of the 2016 NFL season, the Bears had an all-time record of 744-609 (.550), the Packers were 729-690 (.553), the Giants were 683-605 (.530), and the Steelers were 600-555 (.519). Additionally, the Packers, still the only community-owned franchise in the league, had won more championships than any other NFL franchise; Tim Mara's team and George Halas' team both were still in the family, and were tied for having played for the championship the most times; and Rooney's team was being run by his son and grandson and had won the most Super Bowls.
  • Quite the exclusive club, is it not?
  • There are thousands of examples and anecdotes of the rabid devotion of Steelers fans, and the Christmas Day crowd at Heinz Field deserves to be included in the lore. Playing on Christmas Day never had happened to the Steelers before, and while being the home team on Christmas Day allowed them to avoid having to travel on Christmas Eve, being the home team on Christmas Day created a separate and unique set of unknowns.
  • Would the fans even show up for a 4:30 p.m. game on Christmas Day? And in what numbers? Would they be into the game? And if they weren't, what effect would a docile crowd have on a game against the Ravens for the AFC North Division title?
  • I will admit to wondering about all of those things in the days leading up to the game, as well as what the ramifications might be if the Ravens got to play a road game against the Steelers with the crowd not being a factor. Would a dead crowd in Pittsburgh actually provide a boost to the visiting Ravens?
  • Hours before kickoff all of that already had been turned into a moot point. There were 66,276 in the stands – and the attendance the Steelers announce is the actual turnstile count, and it always has been, per Dan Rooney's dictum from the days at Three Rivers Stadium. That's an impressive number for Christmas Day, and those people were into it. They were loud. They provided energy. In my mind, easily the best home crowd of the season.
  • Steelers-Ravens did boffo ratings for NFL Network, too. According to SportsBusiness Daily, 14.8 million viewers watched the game on NFL Network, easily the biggest audience ever for a game on NFL Network. The prior record was 10.7 million for a 49ers-Ravens game on Thanksgiving night in 2011.
  • And for people wondering why the league would televise Steelers-Ravens only on NFL Network – with the exception of one local station in each of the team's primary markets of Pittsburgh and Baltimore getting the broadcast – let those numbers be your answer. The league put the game on NFL Network to create demand for it on the various cable platforms.
  • It's called "unabated to the quarterback," and it refers to those occasions when a defensive player jumps offside and gets through the line of scrimmage so cleanly as to pose a danger to the quarterback if he were granted a free shot in exchange for the 5-yard penalty. In those circumstances, the referee typically blows the whistle to stop the play immediately and then assesses the yardage against the defense.
  • The NFL needs to expand that to include "unabated to the kicker." After Antonio Brown's touchdown gave the Steelers a 30-27 lead with nine seconds left last Sunday, they lined up for the extra point. On back-to-back attempts, Ravens cornerback Tavon Young jumped the snap count and came in clean off the corner. The first time Young blocked the kick but he also delivered a hit on Chris Boswell. On the second one, Young again was unabated to the kicker, but Boswell got the ball through the uprights.
  • In addition to that being a dangerous situation – the holder can have his back to the on-rushing player and be the definition of a "defenseless player" in addition to the kicker – but the current rules allow for free hits on a player who is critical to each team's in-game operation and is the only one at his position on the roster. Beyond the safety issues, this also is a potential competitive issue.
  • It's an easy fix, and one that should be made during the upcoming offseason. Kickers deserve protection, too.
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