NFL Must Lead Charge Against Dirty Hits

With Junior Seau's death, the NFL's lawsuit over its failure to address concussions draws a little nearer. Before then, the NFL should finally and publicly acknowledge the scope of the problem. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The San Diego County medical officer ruled Junior Seau’s death a suicide Thursday. Though many questions surrounding his death remain, Seau’s gunshot wound to the chest bears ominous similarity to that of former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest in 2011 so that his brain might be preserved for scientific study.

As if the drug addiction, dementia, mental illness and violent behavioral changes common to people suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy weren’t enough, Seau’s and Duerson’s decisions add another layer of horror to the reality of former football players. They don’t just suffer through CTE’s degeneration – they’re completely aware of it as it happens.

It seems NFL players know full well that something’s gone wrong, and that they can’t do anything about it. No person deserves that fate.

It’s only a matter of time before scientists conclusively link CTE with playing in the NFL. With every new former NFL player’s brain studied, the inevitable lawsuit against the NFL looms a little closer. Lawyers don’t want to blow an opportunity to take a bite out of the NFL’s $9 billion revenue machine, so they’ll hold off the lawsuit until the verdict becomes all-but-guaranteed.

When that day comes, the NFL will change drastically. Diminished salaries, smaller rosters, league-wide contractions – anything’s possible depending on the scope of the verdict.

For the NFL to survive, Roger Goodell needs to take charge of this problem now. The penalties instituted for dirty hits last year were a start, but they need to be ramped up a step further, and they should be cumulative: every helmet-to-helmet hit, every hit on a defenseless receiver or hands to the face needs to be tallied, and each subsequent violation must result in a harsher penalty.

NBA players can only receive 15 technical fouls in a season before they start receiving automatic suspensions. The NFL should institute a similar policy, but the accumulation should cover a player’s career, as is the case with positive steroid tests in baseball. After all, dirty hits are a form of cheating, just like steroids.

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Saints’ Payton Violated NFL’s Image, Gets One-Year Ban

Because Sean Payton and Gregg Williams' "bounty program" with the Saints damaged the image off of which the NFL makes billions, the league had to come down hard against them. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

As punishment for his complicity in the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty program,” Saints coach Sean Payton received a one-year ban from the NFL Wednesday. Roger Goodell also banned St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams – the Saints’ defensive coordinator from 2009-2011 – indefinitely, Saints GM Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant coach Joe Vitt for six. The NFL also fined the Saints $500,000 and stripped them of their next two draft picks.

A harsh penalty, to be sure, but what did the Saints expect? They not only violated league rules by encouraging players to injure opponents – they violated the image the NFL tries to sell the public.

And that’s a crime the NFL couldn’t let go under-punished.

The National Family-Friendly League

The NFL has convinced us all that football, more than any other sport, is a game that speaks to our “values” as Americans. Sunday afternoon and Monday Night Football have become ritualized viewing experiences involving everyone from the very young to the very old.

The NFL wants us to think that not only can we be entertained by football, we can also identify with football. And that loose mental association between our own identities and this televised sport helps the NFL snatch up billions of the fans’ dollars. Marketing, not quality of product, has made the NFL the most profitable league in the world. The NFL understands that to get our wallets they need to go through our “souls,” and they’ve done it.

Of course, this is all a farce. And the only way to preserve a farce is to never do anything that portrays the NFL as anything other than the family-friendly, “American values” ritual Goodell needs to keep everyone rich.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 13

With two more touchdown catches Sunday, Rob Gronkowski needs just one more this season to break the NFL record for most by a tight end. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Indianapolis Colts gave the New England Patriots a late-game scare Sunday afternoon, but ultimately all the Colts could do was lose with dignity. The Patriots beat the Colts, 31-24, continuing the Colts’ winless season and for now moving the Patriots into first place in the AFC.

Who’s using this game for college credit, and who needs to repeat Calculus 101? Here are this week’s grades.

Quarterback: A

Tom Brady has shown more mobility in the last few games than he ever has before. Given his line’s vulnerabilities, he’s pretty much had to. But whatever the reason, Brady’s agility has become his best pass-protection, helping him elude tackle after tackle while he waits for his receivers to inevitably get open.

Brady completed over 75 percent of his passes Sunday, hitting seven different receivers for 289 yards. One one drive alone he went 7-for-7 for 77 yards. That drive ended in a touchdown pass, the first of two for Brady. Brady passed Johnny Unitas and is now tied with Warren Moon for sixth-most career regular-season touchdown passes.

Running Backs: B+

Stevan Ridley led the team with eight rushes for 33 numbers – paltry numbers that reflect just how ineffective the Patriots’ running game was Sunday. Ridley’s agility and flash isn’t so useful when he’s just trying to run up the middle, and his performance suffered because he tried to dance when he should have just barreled. BenJarvus Green-Ellis knows how to barrel, taking advantage Donald Thomas‘s bulk at fullback to force his way into the end zone for the 1-yard touchdown run in the second.

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Peyton Manning: All-Time MVP?

The Colts' abject failure this season without him proves that Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in the NFL. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

As I watched the New England Patriots easily handle the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, a question occurred: is Peyton Manning the most valuable player in the NFL? I’m not saying he should win the 2011 MVP Award – that will in all likelihood go to Aaron Rodgers. But after watching the Colts, it became clear to me that no player in the NFL is as crucial to his team’s overall success as Manning is to Indianapolis.

Consider this contrast: when the Patriots lost Tom Brady in the opening quarter of their 2008 season, Matt Cassel still managed to win 11 games, barely missing the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Colts have started three different quarterbacks this season and have gone 0-12.

With upcoming games against the playoff-bound Texans and Ravens, plus two against Titans and Jaguars teams that have already beaten them, there’s every possibility the Colts will go 0-16.

Cassel might have been a better backup than Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky, but with a receiving corps as good as the Colts’, shouldn’t they have still found a way to win a game?

Evidently, Manning means so much to everything else the Colts do that losing him for the season sunk the team right at the starting line.

Former Pro Bowler Joseph Addai‘s limited success due to injury has certainly played a part. Donald Brown has never been even a 500-yard running back, let alone a 1,000-yard RB, and without Addai, the running game has been so atrocious (99.0 yards per game, 26th in the NFL) that teams are just keying on the pass.

But again, that doesn’t really explain it, because a team’s rushing success doesn’t matter much in the regular season. The 4-8 Eagles lead the league in rushing yards, while the 12-0 Packers rank 28th.

To not win a single game, beyond the offense failing to run or pass, the defense must be truly horrific. Which it is: 19th against the pass, 31st against the rush, worst at preventing points. But how can Manning’s absence destabilized the defense?.

Manning’s benefit is that usually when the defense takes the field, they will be a) defending a lead, and b) rested. Manning is a terrific scoring quarterback – he puts points on the board most times he gets near the end zone. And he makes very few poor decisions, which has led to a career 64.9 completion percentage, a 2-1 touchdown-interception ratio, and a 94.9 QB rating.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 11

Kyle Arrington's two-interception night highlighted a terrific Monday Night Football performance by the Patriots' depleted secondary against the Chiefs. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Kansas City Chiefs threw everything but the kitchen sink (unless you count Jerrell Powe) at the New England Patriots Monday night, hoping to disrupt Tom Brady early on and keep the game close late. It worked for about 20 minutes, but the Patriots eventually solved the Chiefs’ defense. The end result: a 34-3 Patriot victory and a tie atop the AFC standings.

Who published and who perished? Here’s my weekly report card.

Quarterback: A-

Brady showed considerable poise in the midst of the Chief’s early onslaught, then used a combination of screens and hurry-up offenses to regain control at the line and beat that onslaught. Once Brady could breathe again, he began to pick apart the secondary, finishing the game with 234 passing yards and two touchdowns.

The Chiefs played early on as if they really felt they could beat the far-superior Patriots. Instead of panicking when they made a few plays, the unflappable Brady simply waited until they returned to earth, then swatted them aside like the flies they were.

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Andre Carter A Rousing Success in New England

Andre Carter, this week's AFC Defensive Player of the Week, has been by far the Patriots' best pass-rusher this season. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Few of Bill Belichick’s 2011 off-season acquisitions have worked out. Chad Ochocinco has barely contributed. Albert Haynesworth is gone. The Patriots rotating cast of defensive backs has quite possibly been replaced by cardboard cutouts.

The same can’t be said of Andre Carter, who on Wednesday was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. The award follows Carter’s franchise-record 4.5 sacks against Mark Sanchez and the Jets on Sunday (note: there are some discrepancies across various sports sites as to whether he recorded 4.5 or 4.0; for now, this article will go with 4.5).

Unquestionably the Best Pass-Rusher on the Patriots

Overall this season, the Patriots’ pass-rush has been pretty mediocre; it’s currently ranked 20th in the NFL with 20 sacks. They sacked Sanchez five times Sunday, but that game’s total was a full third of the Patriots’ total over the previous nine games.

Though the Patriots have an above-average run-defense, most opponents have responded by just giving up the run, happy to just pick apart the Patriots’ awful secondary instead. After all, how much pressure will they really have to face?

The lack of pass-rush cannot be blamed on Carter, who has been as much of a disruptive force in the backfield as he can be. His 9.0 sacks tie him for fifth in the NFL. While Mark Anderson has helped out with 5.0 (again, this is based on Carter recording 4.5 Sunday), Carter is far and away the best pass-rusher on the team.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 10

Andre Carter's franchise-record 4.5 sacks were enough to earn the entire defensive line an A in Sunday's road victory over the New York Jets. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

After weeks of offensive malaise and defensive incompetency, the New England Patriots returned to form Sunday, beating the New York Jets, 37-16. Tom Brady and his receivers picked the defense apart while a team of replacements and nobodies held the Jets’ offense completely in check. The Patriots regained sole possession of the AFC East with a victory so complete that even Bill Belichick showed some emotion.

So who made the high-honor roll, and who had to settle for regular honors? Here are my grades.

Quarterback: A

It took Brady a half to get going, leading to 10 first-half incomplete passes that were just off: too high for Danny Woodhead near the end zone, too far for Deion Branch on a crossing route, etc. But Brady exacted his revenge in the second half, going 14-for-17, including his final 13 passes in a row. Stats like three touchdowns, no picks, 329 yards and a 118.4 QB rating are just too gaudy not to give Brady an A.

Brady’s best drive came at the beginning of the fourth quarter, a 84-yarder that chewed up nearly seven minutes of the game and ended with an 8-yard strike to Branch for the touchdown. On that drive, Brady went 7-7 for 65 yards. He hit five different receivers. For at least one game, Tom Terrific was back.

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Patriots Report Card: Week 9

The look says it all: Tom Brady played better than anyone else on his team, but too many mistakes and missed opportunities cost the Patriots Sunday against the Giants. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the New York Giants Sunday featured several firsts. The Patriots lost at home for the first time in 21 games. The Patriots lost two games in a row for the first time since 2006. And the offense failed to score in the first half, also for the first time since 2006.

While Tom Brady did his best to overcome all of that, the defense – which admittedly played very well for the first half – faltered in the fourth quarter, allowing two late-game comeback drives.

Who’s going to Harvard, and who’s falling back on a safety school? Only my grades can say.

Quarterback: B+

Another game, another two-touchdown day for Brady. But it took him far too long to figure out how to beat the Giants’ defense, and he made too many mistakes while doing it. Both interceptions were Brady’s fault: he failed to account for linebacker Michael Boley to start the second quarter, who easily read Brady’s pass, tipping it to Mathias Kiwanuka. Deon Grant‘s interception later happened because Brady threw a bad pass to Rob Gronkowski deep and over the middle. The first pick killed a scoring opportunity, and the second led to the Giants’ first score.

Brady redeemed himself to some extent with two magnificent fourth-quarter drives, capping 80- and 64-yard drives with touchdown strikes to Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski, but the defense couldn’t hold either lead. A month ago, this offense could put up 30 points or more without even trying. Now, 20 points is a chore. As the commander of this offense, Brady must shoulder the blame.

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Pariots Hope to Right Ship Against NFC East-Leading Giants

Eli Manning is having a fantastic 2011 season, and that's bad news for the Patriots, who have the worst pass-defense in the NFL. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

It’s been almost four years since the New York Giants’ ended the New England Patriots’ bid for an undefeated season. That’s far too long ago to call Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium a “revenge game.” Instead, this game will simply be an opportunity for the Patriots to pull their pass defense out of the gutter.

What better way to make a statement than against the streaking, 5-2 Giants?

Eli Manning’s Giant Arm Against the Patriots’ Giant Defensive Gaps

The Patriots enter Sunday’s game with the dead-worst passing defense in the league. Seriously: they allow 323.1 yards per game, ranking them 32nd in the league. And while New England’s nine interceptions are somewhat impressive, remember that two picks belong to Vince Wilfork. Beyond the defensive line, the team’s potential for turnovers is just middle-of-the road.

The Patriots’ terrible pass-defense makes Sunday’s game a potential for total disaster. The Giants have the fourth-best passing attack in the NFL, and Eli Manning is one of the best quarterbacks this season. His numbers season are almost identical to Tom Brady‘s: Brady completes 67.6 percent of his passes, Manning completes 64.8. Brady throws 2.25 touchdowns per interception, Manning throws 2.6. Brady has a 104.4 QB rating (second in the NFL), Manning has a 102.1 rating (third).

Even their protection has been similar: Brady’s been sacked 14 times, Manning 15.

Manning has been nearly as good as Brady this season, but Manning will be throwing against a far inferior Patriots secondary. If Miami’s Chad Henne can throw for 416 yards, Manning’s final numbers could border on obscene.

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No NBA… No Worries?

Whether it's because of race, geography or season-length, the public outcry from the NFL lockout just hasn't been matched during the far costlier NBA lockout. (Fern Shen/www.baltimorebrew.com)

When the NFL preseason – the most over-marketed, over-analyzed, overblown preseason in professional sport – seemed in jeopardy in August due to the ongoing NFL lockout, this country came close to rioting. Ongoing collective bargaining negotiations dotted national headlines day after day after day. Pundits endlessly debated each side’s merits.

Rather than risk a blow to the league’s image or any actual profit losses, owners and players mobilized, getting a deal done without barring fans from a single minute of games that have never, and will never, matter.

Meanwhile, actual NBA games have been officially canceled, yet this country’s furor over lost basketball isn’t anywhere close to what it was three months ago.

The NBA’s lockout is far pettier than the NFL’s: basketball team owners and the NBA haven’t spent years actively quelling allegations that a common basketball injury is secretly ruining players’ brains, leading to an incredibly bitter workforce unwilling to make further monetary concessions to the people who are profiting while they slowly kill themselves for the public’s entertainment.

But even without that angry undercurrent humanizing the people involved, the public outcry just hasn’t been there. Why is that?

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