During the question-and-answer session following NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s speech Thursday at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Robert Stern stood up to ask a question.
Stern is a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University and the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Basically, the man is a brain expert, and his opinion is very important.
“Initially, our group of researchers were amongst your biggest critics,” Stern told Goodell. “And I want to say that we and I applaud your leadership not only in the NFL but across all sports over these last several years and really making a huge difference. The changes that you’ve made in the NFL have just changed the game dramatically for the safety of the players.”
That’s a big vote of confidence for Goodell from a very important person and group, and Stern is absolutely right: The NFL has come a very long way in a very short period of time. Now, whether they led or were dragged kicking and screaming will be addressed with the many concussion lawsuits.
Goodell also knows there is a long way to go when it comes to brain trauma. Nobody is expecting everything to be solved overnight.
The next leap is going to come in a couple of years when the equipment — featuring sensors in the helmet, chin strap, or shoulder pads — is ready to be used. At that point, concussions will be much easier to diagnose and in a more timely matter.
But what happened last weekend has led to questions about whether the league is doing everything it can right now.
As many as 12 players may have suffered concussions last weekend. Three were quarterbacks: Jay Cutler of the Bears, Alex Smith of the 49ers, and Michael Vick of the Eagles. Cutler and Smith both continued to play after their injuries before being removed.
“The positive development was that all three were taken out of the game as soon as they showed symptoms,” Goodell said. “The team medical staff then diagnosed a concussion, and each player was out of the game. That is progress.”
Sure it is, from the stone age the NFL used to operate in, but it is not nearly enough. The NFL can be doing better on this important point.
“The players were taken out when they developed symptoms,” Goodell said. “If they don’t tell medical professionals that they’re getting symptoms, it’s difficult to tell. If we see an impact, he’s showing symptoms, we’ll take him out of the game. In addition, we need teammates to be able to say, ‘This guy’s not right. Something’s wrong. He needs to be evaluated.’ ”
Goodell said he has learned from some of his dealings with the military that a soldier will leave the battlefield only if another soldier tells him to.
Point 1: Are we really expecting a player, after taking a blow to the head, to have the sense to say, “Maybe I need to go to the sidelines right now”? The guy just suffered brain trauma and we’re expecting him to make clear decisions? That’s Plan A?
Point 2: Are we really expecting a teammate, who is worried about the next play and not getting cut, to be a first responder on the field? I think that’s a bit naive.
Point 3: I get the comparison between soldiers and football players, but I don’t really subscribe to it, considering the military doesn’t have 30 HDTV cameras capturing every movement so that injuries are easier to spot, nor does it have the ability to put neurologists with every unit for battle.
Right now, the only real in-game protocol is for a certified trainer in the press box, who is trained to spot potential concussions, to contact the team doctor on the sideline. There have been issues with that communication in some games, and there isn’t enough time to pull a player — which puts him at further risk of a very dangerous second blow. That system is not working. Last weekend showed that.
The NFL does have the ability to put an independent neurologist on each sideline — something the Players Association has asked for — yet it has not done so. Why?
“We have an independent neurologist . . . after the game,” Goodell said as he was leaving Harvard.
That’s great, but what about during the game?
“We just talked about that with [NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith],” Goodell said. “We’re still going through whether that’s the right step because there are a lot of medical professionals that believe those determinations should be done by the doctors that understand the patient, know the patient, and can make those determinations.”
But why aren’t they being used during the game, which should be Plan A?
The league hasn’t clearly answered that question, but some of the issues include the potential for excessive stoppages for injuries, and whether or not the neurologist could do a good job in the heat of a game. Can you imagine the reaction if a doctor determined that Tom Brady needed to come out for a few plays during the AFC Championship game?
I get the concerns, I do. But they can and must be mitigated. Goodell said safety is king.
“The rule in our league is simple and straightforward: Medical decisions override everything else,” he said.
The lack of independent neurologists on each sideline shows that’s not entirely true.
COVERING THEIR BASES
What is the best lineup in Patriots secondary?
The Patriots will certainly have some interesting secondary choices to make now that cornerback Aqib Talib is eligible to play. And that goes for personnel, strategy, and scheme.
Signs are pointing to Devin McCourty staying at safety for the rest of the season. That’s what the Patriots wanted in the offseason, but that was predicated on Ras-I Dowling nailing down one of the starting cornerback spots.
The problem was Dowling was never fully healthy, even in offseason workouts. He was dealing with things on and off, so the coaching staff never had enough confidence in the talent at cornerback to move McCourty.
Enter Talib. He is essentially taking over the role the Patriots had in mind for Dowling: a cornerback with the ability to cover top receivers one-on-one because of size and ability.
Who will fill out the other cornerback spots? Don’t be surprised if at some point the Patriots go with Kyle Arrington on one side, and Marquice Cole in the slot.
A lot of it depends on Alfonzo Dennard. The feeling here is that, at least as a rookie, the more Dennard plays, the more he is exposed because of his inexperience and lack of discipline. At least with Arrington and Cole you know exactly what you’re going to get, and there’s something to be said for that stability as the games get bigger. Perhaps Dennard will be given more time to prove his mettle.
As far as the other safety spot next to McCourty, based on overall play alone, Steve Gregory should win out over Patrick Chung. But former Patriots tight end Jermaine Wiggins made an excellent point during our “Globe Insider” film session last week that I hadn’t thought of:
McCourty and Gregory are essentially the same players, deep free safeties. When they’re both on the field, one has to play closer to the line in the strong safety position, and that’s a weakness for each of them. It was on display against the Bills when they combined for six missed tackles.
To be the best they can on defense, the Patriots need Chung playing next to McCourty. He’s the strong safety on this team. And that would free up Gregory to fill a variety of roles (safety, cornerback, nickel, dime), which is exactly what he was supposed to do before the season started and McCourty looked headed to safety.
Goodell makes himself heard on other issues
In his appearance at Harvard, commissioner Roger Goodell touched on a few additional topics that are important to the NFL, among them the status of HGH testing. The NFL and NFLPA agreed in principle on it as part of the new collective bargaining agreement but haven’t agreed on how to implement it.
“Unfortunately we don’t have that agreement,” Goodell said. “I just talked to [NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith] this week about it. I still believe it’s something that’s in the best interest of the players, from a health and safety standpoint, but it’s also in the best interest of the game.
“We’ll have, hopefully, some meetings in the next couple weeks to address some of the remaining issues. I’m hopeful we’ll get something done.”
Goodell made his strongest statement to date against continuing with four preseason games.
“I believe we can get to two games,” he said. “And it’s one of the genesis of the 18-2 or potentially the 16-2 [schedule]. And both of those are alternatives that we have to look at.
“Do I think we’ll move towards a shorter preseason? Yes, from a health and a safety standpoint, but also from the standpoint of the fan reaction. It just does not meet the standard of the quality that the NFL is all about.”
Thursday night games are here to stay, for now.
“We have to look at the data and see if there’s a higher frequency of injuries,” said Goodell. “We have not seen that. If we did, we would certainly evaluate that.
“[The players], actually, in most cases, like the Thursday night game. They don’t practice much the week of the game, and they get 10 days off after that. They enjoy that aspect of it. The reaction, while always mixed, right now has been quite positive from a players’ standpoint.”
One NFL coach actually suggested putting a weight limit on players for kickoffs to cause less severe collisions.
All blocks below the waist are being looked at carefully by the Competition Committee.
Knee and thigh pads will be mandatory next season. The NFLPA balked at that this season.
‘60 Minutes’ profile has Rodgers ticked off
You may not have caught it, but “60 Minutes” did a piece on reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers of the Packers Nov. 3. Most of the story centered on the usual things — Rodgers being overlooked since high school, fan reaction to him replacing Brett Favre and leading the Packers to the Super Bowl title. But it also spotlighted the fact that Rodgers can be sensitive — he didn’t like comments about his height — and his teammates chimed in on that. Yes, CBS should have showed Rodgers’s great work fighting childhood cancer in Wisconsin with the MAAC Fund, but the story overall was entirely accurate. It didn’t take Rodgers long to voice his displeasure with the piece on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show, and then he doubled down when talking to Lions reporters this week. “I wouldn’t put a whole lot of weight into that story,” Rodgers said. “It was cut for their purposes, their agenda, and most of the answers were either just portions of a bigger answer or probably not even for the question that was asked.” CBS News chairman Jeff Fager denied Rodgers’s accusation and then took a shot at him. “It was fair and accurate and it was obvious we got it right when we reported that he tends to be overly sensitive,” Fager said. Apparently, Rodgers confused “60 Minutes” with one of the ESPN shows that’s happy to portray athletes in an overly positive light. If you don’t want a real story done on you, don’t talk to a real news organization. And certainly don’t try to impugn one of the most venerable news outfits in the history of journalism. It makes you look worse than the piece did.
1. ESPN and PBS combined on a story that revealed that former Steelers center Mike Webster and two other players were paid disability benefits by the NFL retirement board in the 1990s for brain injuries when the league was denying any link between football and long-term brain damage. The report touted this as a “smoking gun.” But something seems amiss on the story. If the NFL gave the players a check, then they have something. But the board is independent of the league and includes player representatives. So if you’re saying the NFL was covering something up, then the NFLPA wasn’t exactly in the dark.
2. Tim Tebow hasn’t done anything but be a good teammate, yet he gets stomped on by anonymous quotes in the New York Daily News. How about if some sources talk about how the team has no cap room, picked the wrong franchise quarterback and extended his contract, let the defense get old, and completely botched the 2010 draft?
3. Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Alfonzo Dennard were fined a combined $44,000 from penalties in the Bills game but no one was hurt. Yet Bills end Kyle Moore, who actually knocked Patriots guard Dan Connolly from the game with a cheap shot from behind, wasn’t flagged or fined. Yeah, that’s fair.
4. Bill Belichick on there being one kicker in the Hall of Fame: “It’s hard for me to believe that, as great as this game is, that there are no punters and one kicker in the Hall of Fame. We can argue that they only play X number of plays and everybody else plays a different number of plays, but they’re still significant players at their position.” Preach, Hoodie.
5. It looked like the Steelers might catch the Ravens when Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb were knocked out for the year. And then Ben Roethlisberger was lost for at least a few weeks with a dislocated rib near his heart. Now the AFC North, with a Steelers-Ravens showdown Sunday night, looks like a war of attrition.
Former Merrimack star linebacker Shawn Loiseau (Shrewsbury) signed with the Colts practice squad this past week. “I know he’s a high-energy guy and loves football and that’s the kind of guy we love to have,” said coach Bruce Arians. “He looks the part and I’m anxious to see him in pads.” Loiseau was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Texans but was released Aug. 31 . . . According to reports, former Texans punter Brett Hartmann is suing the group that runs Reliant Stadium because he believes the turf caused a 2011 knee injury that effectively ended his career. Wes Welker’s knee injury in 2009 was cited in the suit, as was Belichick’s quote, “The turf down there is terrible. I really think it’s one of the worst fields I’ve seen.”
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report