Players shouldn't be only fall guys

If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to speed up the cultural change he's pushing on the league, he doesn't need to make only players feel the pain of his on-field policies.

He needs coaches squirming. He needs owners fuming. He needs everybody fully grasping the reality that if the league actually has become too brutal, then it will take everybody involved to temper its violence.

Goodell already has sent a powerful message through his personal conduct policy, as owners, executives, coaches and players all have been punished by the strictest commissioner in league history. What Goodell hasn't been able to do is create the same sense of evenhandedness when it comes to player safety on the field.

The players alone still pay heavily for vicious hits that the league ultimately deems inappropriate. As for the people those players play for, it's still not that clear whether they're all spreading the same message the league office is selling.

Consider the New Orleans Saints. The most startling aspect of their bounty program wasn't that so many of the people involved -- from general manager Mickey Loomis to head coach Sean Payton to players like linebacker Jonathan Vilma -- paid such heavy prices for their roles in it. It's that the team's leadership was so clearly committed to dismissing Goodell's new vision for the league.

The minute we heard audiotape of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams imploring his players to injure key San Francisco 49ers, we should've all understood the commissioner's deepest fears. Player safety suddenly wasn't just about the player. It also was about how they're expected to play at the highest level of the sport.

There may be only one NFL coaching staff dumb enough to create such a heinous program, but you can bet there are plenty of others who understood why the Saints went too far. Intimidation always has been at the heart of football. This is why Goodell just can't browbeat players into a new way of approaching the game by deflating their bank accounts. If that's the idea -- and league vice president of football operations Merton Hanks acknowledges that "the fines are harsh because they're meant to deter behavior" -- then the men who are encouraging that same violent environment also need to be on alert. Not just in the Saints' bounty case, but leaguewide.

That could mean stripping teams of low-round draft choices if they have too many repeat offenders of the player-safety policies. It could mean fining teams substantially if too many players wind up with fines of their own. If Ndamukong Suh, Detroit's notoriously nasty defensive tackle, draws another fine or suspension from the league, then maybe Lions vice president Bill Ford Jr. should feel some pain, as well.

If Pittsburgh's James Harrison can't alter the same tenacity that has cost him more than $100,000 in fines, then maybe Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has to face his own financial punishment.

That might sound extreme -- and certainly unlikely to ever happen -- but you can bet that the culture change would move along much faster. Such an approach also would be fairer to the players. At this stage, they're routinely getting banged for playing the game aggressively, but rarely do we ask why that aggressiveness exists in the first place. It's because it's a valuable commodity. For some, it's the difference between living a lifelong dream and earning a paycheck in the Arena League.

We might never have heard of Harrison -- an undrafted free agent who was released three times before growing into a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker -- if he didn't compete with the same edge the Steelers love in their defenders. There also are plenty of defensive backs who will acknowledge that if they can't separate receivers from the football, their teams surely will find players ready and willing to do just that.

Just think of how many midlevel and low-level players in the Saints' locker room might have been too concerned for their job security to openly oppose Williams' bounty program. Even more difficult to embrace is the notion that players can buy into Goodell's new vision for the league if they sense their superiors aren't being held to the same high standards.

The NFL will tell you there is no need to be that harsh in its quest for a safer game. The league says its way is working so far, and Goodell said a player recently told him that he'd "learned a new way to play the game and that it can be done." That kind of news certainly sounds reassuring in the early spring. It's also much harder to come by in October and November, when men are fighting for bigger prizes than helping the league tame its sport.

It is worth noting that there have been plenty of attempts made to help players understand the game they're playing these days. Some have learned plenty by watching film in the league office and being shown, in complete detail, the errors of their on-field ways. All surely have had coaches explain to them the new "strike zone," the area where defenders legally can attack an offensive player.

But those moves can create only so much change. They don't get an entire league moving in the same direction, even though, as league vice president of player engagement Troy Vincent said, "If you want to play in this league, these are the rules you live by. You can do that or find other options."

If Goodell's office isn't going to calm down on the fines it issues for on-field behavior, then getting everybody on the same page has to be the next most reasonable goal. That can happen only if players aren't the only ones paying such exorbitant costs for their transgressions.

The current fine system makes it seem as if the players are the only ones responsible for the league being as brutal as it now seems. From what we've seen in New Orleans -- and with more than 1,500 former players now suing the league for allegedly neglecting player safety in their days -- there is more than enough blame to go around on this one.