Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, fielded questions from readers during an NFL.com chat Friday, responding to a wide range of queries about a season in which "helmet-to-helmet hit" has become a household term.
Anderson was asked how much forethought the league office gave to the "heavy-handed" fines dished out in the middle of the season, and if the scenario was playing out as he expected.
"We would take issue with the term 'heavy handed,'" Anderson said. "Rather we view it as holding players to a higher standard of accountability for complying with safety rules. This emphasis didn't begin midseason but was reiterated many times beginning last February -- particularly rules related to protecting against illegal helmet-to-helmet and other hits against defenseless players."
Anderson, whom readers peppered with questions about James Harrison, was asked why the Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowl linebacker was fined $75,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, while Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson was fined $25,000 for throwing multiple punches at Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
"Harrison's fine was a result in part of being a repeat offender," Anderson said. "Therefore, the $75,000 was an escalation due to prior violations. Regarding the fight fines, that's a separate and distinct category from illegal hits to defenseless players. They are simply treated differently, and the players involved in the fight were handled accordingly."
Harrison has been fined a total of $125,000 for four separate violations of the league's policy on illegal hits, fueling criticism from Steelers players that the league is targeting the team. Anderson bolstered his statements from earlier in the week, when he called the notion of targeting Pittsburgh "misguided" and "untrue."
"Neither the Steelers, nor any other team, is singled out for special treatment one way or the other," Anderson said. "In fact, through Week 12, the Steelers have averaged 6.5 penalties per game, including accepted penalties, declined penalties and offsetting fouls, which ties them with three other teams for 10th most in the NFL. (One-third) of the teams have been penalized as much or more than the Steelers."
With talk of the NFL expanding its regular season, Anderson was asked if there was a mixed message in trumpeting player safety while adding two games.
"We know few people like the preseason and we know the fans don't like it," Anderson said. "So, as we consider going to 18 regular-season games while maintaining the 20-game structure, we are undertaking a comprehensive review of all matters that impact player safety. This includes, for example, increased number of players on gameday and practice rosters; limiting the number of offseason and training camp days; establishing limits on the number of practices that can be held in helmets and with contact; and staggering reporting days based on NFL experience, so veterans and those with the most game experience would practice less than rookies and younger players.
"We have no higher priority than player safety," Anderson added. "That is why, for decades, we have made rule changes to advance player safety while maintaining the excitement and physicality of the game. Part of our emphasis is on players playing within the rules and coaches coaching to the rules, including returning to tackling fundamentals."
Anderson also discussed the performance of NFL officials when asked why they aren't fined for their mistakes in the same manner that players are -- or, if they are fined, why it's not publicly disclosed.
"Every single play of every single game is reviewed and graded by the officiating VP and his supervisors," Anderson said. "Every crew and every individual official are graded for every call they make and every call they miss. They are ultimately ranked by position and by crew, and those rankings determine postseason eligibility, postseason assignments, bonus pool eligibility and job retention. Just like the players, if the officials do not perform at the highest level, they will not be retained."