PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward lashed out Wednesday at the NFL for what he calls its hypocritical stance on player safety, arguing the league recently toughened its stance only because it wants to expand to an 18-game season.
Ward said there is considerable confusion among players about which hits are legal and which aren't since the league stepped up its policing of dangerous hits. Steelers linebacker James Harrison has been fined $125,000 for four separate hits since mid-October, two of which weren't penalized.
"The league doesn't care about us anyway," said Ward, a 13-year veteran and the leading receiver in Steelers history. "They don't care about the safety of the game. If the league was so concerned about the safety, why are you adding two more games on? You talk about you don't want players to drink ... and all you see is beer commercials. You don't want us to gamble, but then there are [NFL-endorsed lottery scratch-off games]."
The NFL is currently pushing for an expanded season during ongoing labor negotiations with the players union.
"It almost seems like the more flags we throw, the more fines we dish out, we can say we're protecting the game," safety Ryan Clark said, reflecting his opinion of the league's stance. "Now, we can have 18 games because look how we're protecting [the players]."
Ward also predicted a team will lose a game -- possibly in the playoffs -- because an official makes an incorrect call out of fear of being disciplined by the league for not adhering to its new policy.
"It's going to change the outcome; somebody's going to lose a game because of it," Ward said. "It's going to be a huge play in a playoff game, somebody's going to hit a quarterback or do something and the referee is going to be too scared to call it. So he's going to call it anyway so he can save his tail. [The player] may not even get fined or not, but it will come down to the outcome of a ballgame.
Ward's comments reflect the growing anger among the players on one of the NFL's showcase franchises. The Steelers are becoming increasingly upset over the near-weekly fines levied Harrison, a perceived lack of protection for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and hits that are fined and penalized one week, but aren't subject to any penalty a week later.
"We don't know what the league wants," Ward said.
Steelers linebacker James Farrior said the league has quickly become "the wild, wild west. We're on our own right now. There's no type of [predictable] regulation going on."
Farrior also said NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith hasn't properly supported NFL players on the issue.
Ward and several other Steelers players argued the NFL wouldn't hesitate to fine a player who injured the Colts' Peyton Manning or the Patriots' Tom Brady, yet did nothing when Roethlisberger appeared to be roughed up by Buffalo's Arthur Moats and Marcus Stroud after being sacked Sunday. Replays of the hit appear to show Moats twisting Roethlisberger's right leg while he is on the ground.
Neither player drew a penalty or fine. Roethlisberger, who injured his right knee and foot, wore a walking boot on Wednesday, although he said he expects to play Sunday in Baltimore.
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs took the unusual stance of agreeing with the rival Steelers during a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters.
"The league has their favorites," Suggs said Wednesday. "One being in Indy [Manning] and one being with that team up north [Brady]. Besides those two, everybody is fair game. Like I always said, [the Bengals'] Carson Palmer got his knee hurt in 2005, but there was no rule made. Then Tom Brady got hit in the knee and all of a sudden there is rule and possible suspensions, excessive fines. It's just getting ridiculous."
Roethlisberger, asked about Suggs' comments, said, "He seems to know some things about the game of football."
Despite the weekly confusion they're expressing, the Steelers won't change their playing style to adopt to the ever-shifting rules, according to Ward.
"We're going to keep playing the way we always have been playing," Ward said. "If they fine us, they fine us. It's football. I don't care what type of rules you do, you can't protect [against] the physicality of this game. It's always going to be a physical ballgame."