There has been a lot of talk this week. About fines, about officials "red-flagging" certain players. About whether there is a double-standard for the league's quarterbacks. About the "hypocrisy" of an initiative said to be about player safety at the same time plans continue to expand the regular season to 18 games.
A lot of talk, indeed, from locker rooms in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Talk that has been grist for the media all week. Talk that has made for many a juicy sound bite.
But there's something else about this week of the 2010 NFL season. At the end of it, there's going to be a very important football game played, and all of the talking will have nothing to do with which team wins.
The Steelers and Baltimore Ravens both bring 8-3 records into Sunday night's game at M&T Bank Stadium, and the stakes are considerable. The AFC North Division title figures to go to the winner, barring some unforeseen collapse, and with that should come a first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs and the right to host the rubber match if there is to be one between these teams in the postseason.
Steelers President Art Rooney II is aware of all that has been said this week, and he understands that frustration can bubble to the surface, and with frustration come the sound bites. But the Rooney Family always has seen itself as being in the football business, and in the football business it's the games that are most important.
"I understand our players' frustration, and I certainly share in some of their frustration," said Rooney. "We've expressed our concerns to the league office on some of these things. I think the bottom line at this point is we have to make sure this doesn't become a distraction to the team and to our season. I know that's easier said than done, but that's got to be the key to this at this point."
Red-flagged, yellow flags, whatever, the Steelers are a little more than halfway through what can be called a nice season to this stage, but it's also at a fork in the road where it could blossom into a special season or flame out. There are only three teams with records better than the ones the Steelers and Ravens take into Sunday night's game, and regardless of records Steelers-Ravens games usually are ones that can move the Richter scale.
Rooney believes the game and its significance should be the Steelers' focus, which is why he isn't particularly interested in measuring Coach Mike Tomlin's response to what has been said this week in Pittsburgh, Baltimore or even in New York City.
"I think Mike doesn't want to fall into the trap of having this become a distraction," said Rooney. "It's a tough line that he's got to walk, but I think he's walked the line the right way, and he understands that players are going to vent on occasion. That's fine, they can say what they want to say. But I think from Mike's point of view, he needs to make sure it doesn't become a distraction and I think he's got to be guarded in what he says because of that."
With the game to be televised nationally on Sunday night by NBC, there will be even more attention paid to it, but where will all of the attention be directed?
"It's a big game. It's two teams with a similar style of play, two great defenses, so I think it will be an exciting game," said Rooney. "I assume it'll be a fairly typical Steelers-Ravens game, and I think it's probably up for others to say what meaning that might have in the overall scheme of things in this league. But I'll say this much: I believe it's a brand of football people appreciate and Steelers-Ravens is usually a highly-rated game. And whether any of that is a referendum, probably somebody else has to make that call."
The Steelers are trying to direct their attention to the task at hand right now, but Rooney said there will come a time for the league's owners to express their opinions on a matter that has dominated discussion since the games of Oct. 17, after which the NFL issued $175,000 in fines to James Harrison, Brandon Meriweather and Dunta Robinson.
"This is something that really hasn't been put on the floor of a league meeting for everybody to discuss, to sort of talk about, and so it certainly looks (like the Steelers are alone on this issue)," said Rooney. "Not that we're expecting much sympathy from other teams, but I think some of this will part of the discussion after the season is over and hopefully we'll all have our chances to express our opinions and at that point have a better understanding of where the owners in the league stand on some of this."
For Rooney, the bottom line in this seems to be that there is a proper time and forum for this to be discussed. "I have some concerns about what happens to the way we play defense. I have some concerns about that. Again, it's something we've got to look at, and hopefully in the offseason, it's something we have chance to talk about a little more."
Talk is for the offseason. The here-and-now is about Steelers-Ravens II.
Other highlights from Art Rooney II:
Q. Did you vote against the rule that prohibits a player from hitting a defenseless player with his helmet or shoulder?
A. We have expressed how difficult it is to enforce some of these rules, to officiate some of the rules. In general I think we're sympathetic to the idea that we need to focus on player safety and particularly on helmet to helmet hits. The other side of it is it's still a football game, and I think we've got to be realistic about how the rules can be changed and what we expect of the defensive players in particular.
Q. What does it say to you that players from other teams seem to be in agreement on this issue?
A. It speaks to the fact that there is some frustration there. I think one of the difficulties with this whole season has been that this came up in the middle of the season, or part-way into the season. And the normal course for stuff like this to occur is the offseason and things get discussed, things get hashed out and you sort of come into the season with everybody sort of knowing where you stand. The rules haven't changed. It's the way the discipline is being applied. That has been changed. I don't think anyone is going to argue that hits to the head were something we needed to address. I think everyone's prepared to understand how we deal with that. The concern that I have is it seems like it's gone beyond that at this point in terms of how things are being looked at and what the points of emphasis are. That's where I think leads to some of the frustration and some of the concerns we have that we've expressed to the league.