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49ers hit hard after unexpected offseason departures

Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and Justin Smith all retired this offseason.
Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and Justin Smith all retired this offseason.Photos from AP and USA Today Sports

Suffice it to say no team has had a worse offseason than the San Francisco 49ers. In addition to parting ways with coach Jim Harbaugh, who reinvigorated the franchise with three straight conference championship game appearances and a trip to the Super Bowl, the 49ers have lost four players to retirement and suddenly have become the face of the NFL’s concussion problem.

Everyone remembers Chris Borland’s shocking retirement announcement in March after an excellent rookie season, deciding that the risk of concussions and uncertainty of their future impact was not worth NFL fame and glory.

But he’s not the only bright young 49er to walk away. On June 5, productive right tackle Anthony Davis, a 2010 first-round pick who has started 71 NFL games and is only 25, stepped away from the 49ers to give his “brain and body a chance to heal.” Davis missed four games with a concussion last year and admitted to a prolonged “white fog.”

The 49ers characterized the decision as a retirement and placed Davis on the reserved/retired list (maintaining his player rights), but Davis seemed to indicate that he will try to resume his career in 2016.


And safety Eric Reid, only 23, acknowledged he is looking into doctors after sustaining three concussions in his first two seasons. For now, he says, “I’ve evaluated my situation and I feel comfortable playing,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, but he will be vigilant about monitoring himself.

“I will continue to evaluate my own situation. If I have another concussion and I don’t feel like I can play anymore, then I won’t,” he said. “If I [have another concussion], and if I feel that I still can play, then I will. It’s just a case-by-case basis.”

The 49ers have had two other retirements this offseason, though neither for concussions. Defensive end Justin Smith (36 in September) retired after 14 seasons, and linebacker Patrick Willis (30) retired after just eight seasons in large part because of chronic foot issues.


The decisions by Borland and Davis are mature and speak to the improved research and awareness of concussion risks, some of which is being produced or funded by the NFL itself. The tragic cases of ALS developed by former players O.J. Brigance, Steve Gleason, and Tim Shaw also have given NFL players something to think about. On April 22, a federal judge approved a concussion settlement with more than 5,000 former players that could cost the NFL more than $1 billion over 65 years.

At the same time, it’s unlikely that Borland and Davis are going to spark some major trend of players giving up football early.

The reality is that Borland and Davis will be replaced and forgotten fairly seamlessly by the time football starts up this fall, and there will always be athletes lining up to play football for a shot at a lucrative career.

Former Patriots receiver Wes Welker suffered three concussions in less than a year and remains unsigned this offseason, yet is determined to keep playing.

“People make me second-guess myself. At the same time, I feel fine,” Welker said on WEEI a couple of weeks ago. “I went to Dr. [Stanley] Herring up in Seattle and did all the tests with him for two days. He cleared me. I feel good about it all. A lot of guys played with concussions for the last 50 years. Now, a lot of guys are doing well for themselves who’ve had multiple concussions. Then there’s the few that don’t. There’s no way of knowing which guy you’re going to be.”


But Borland certainly has sparked the discussion about whether playing in the NFL is worth the potential brain trauma. He said in March that he has only been diagnosed with two concussions in his life, and none since high school. But he cited the suicides of former players such as Dave Duerson, decided the risks of brain trauma didn’t meet the rewards, and walked away from the NFL after one season.

His father, Jeff Borland, speaking by phone Friday from his office in Dayton, Ohio, said his son has had no regrets in the three months since making his decision.

“I think he’s every bit as confident, if not more. There’s no second-guessing, no regret at this point,” Jeff Borland said.

Borland didn’t necessarily intend to be a flag bearer for the concussion movement when he retired, but over the last three months he has been flying all over the country meeting with and giving presentations to brain doctors, researchers, and universities to give an insider’s view on head injuries and the NFL. His travels have brought him to Boston, including a presentation at Harvard.

“I think that he’s finding that there’s still a disconnect between the activity — the practice and the games, how much contact there is — and the people that are doing the science,” Jeff Borland said. “They haven’t necessarily stood on the sidelines to really get a feel for what’s going on out there. He’s got a practical experience that’s probably beyond most master’s degrees.”


Jeff Borland said he’s not sure if his son had much, if any, impact on Davis’s decision. It certainly seems as if Davis made the decision on his own, since he will have to return $4.66 million in unearned signing bonus money, which he might not be entitled to get back if he un-retires.

“I’m simply doing what’s best for my body as well as my mental health at this time in my life,” said Davis.


Hightower, Vollmer on different schedules

Wearing a brace that extends down his right biceps, Dont’a Hightower tries to bring down Andrew Luck in the AFC Championship game.
Wearing a brace that extends down his right biceps, Dont’a Hightower tries to bring down Andrew Luck in the AFC Championship game.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Patriots have several key players missing offseason workouts as they recover from surgery. Two in particular are intriguing because they seem to have the same injury but different timetables for returning to the field.

A source close to Dont’a Hightower has said he will be out six or seven months after having surgery to repair a torn labrum right after the Super Bowl, putting his availability for training camp and the start of the regular season in question. Meanwhile, a source close to Sebastian Vollmer said he shouldn’t have a problem being ready for the start of training camp in late July despite also having surgery to repair a torn labrum this offseason.

Why the discrepancy? David Chao, formerly the Chargers’ team doctor for 17 seasons, said the answer lies in the equipment each player wore while playing through the injuries last year.


Go back and watch the last few games of the 2014 season, and notice that Hightower is wearing a brace on his right shoulder that extends to his biceps. Chao said the brace is only needed for a significant tear that makes the shoulder unstable. The brace keeps the shoulder in the socket and allows athletes to play with the injury.

It’s similar to the brace Seahawks safety Earl Thomas wore in the Super Bowl after he tore his labrum in the NFC Championship game.

“The Patriots did a much better job hiding Dont’a Hightower’s injury, but they’re relatively similar,” Chao said.

Vollmer, meanwhile, didn’t wear a brace at the end of last season. That means he most likely played with just a labral fray, and the surgery typically involves a trim instead of a full repair.

Thomas has stated that he hopes to be ready for Week 1, and Chao said he expects Hightower to be ready by the regular season opener, as well.

“It’s not a guarantee he’s ready for Day 1 of training camp. It’s not a guarantee that as a precaution that he won’t pass his physical until Day 2 of training camp or go on PUP [physically unable to perform list],” Chao said. “But I would be surprised if he weren’t suited up and ready to go Week 1. He already played through it torn, so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t play Week 1.”


Gambling policy far from consistent

Jordan Cameron was one of three Dolphins players the NFL prevented from participating in a poker tournament.
Jordan Cameron was one of three Dolphins players the NFL prevented from participating in a poker tournament.Lynne Sladky/AP/Associated Press

The NFL’s gambling police were out in full force again last week, informing Dolphins players Jordan Cameron, A.J. Francis, and Jason Fox that they couldn’t serve as the “celebrity bounties” in a no-limit hold ’em poker tournament at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek. According to the Sun-Sentinel, the NFL e-mailed the players and told them that NFL policies prevent players from participating in or promoting any event held in a casino.

This shutdown comes a week after the NFL informed Rob Gronkowski and more than 100 players that they would face punishment if they participated in a fantasy football convention hosted by Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo because the event was being held in a convention center attached to a Las Vegas casino.

The hypocrisy from the NFL is rampant here, and not just because the league embraces other gambling-related activities, such as pointspreads and fantasy football. NFL policies only prevent players from associating with casinos and gambling, but for some reason there are far fewer rules preventing teams from doing so.

In 2012, the NFL passed a rule allowing teams to accept ads for casinos and other state-licensed gambling-related establishments, though they could only appear on game programs, in local radio broadcasts, and in the seating bowl and concourses of a stadium.

On May 26, the Lions announced a partnership with MGM Grand, which owns a Las Vegas casino, to build the MGM Grand Detroit Tunnel Club at Ford Field. The Packers have long stayed at a Radisson Hotel adjoining the Oneida Casino on nights before home games. The Saints will conduct training camp practices at the Greenbrier Resort, which has a casino on the grounds (but not a sports book). The Dolphins willingly promote former player Nat Moore’s charity golf tournament held at the Seminole Hard Rock (with a casino on the grounds), and Jason Taylor has held his charity ping-pong tournament at the same Hard Rock for many years.

It’s time for the NFL to end the charade and allow players to participate in events at casino properties, if not fully embrace sports gambling, which has been a major contributor to the rise of football as the country’s most popular sport.


Immature tweets reflect poorly on league

Speaking of the Tony Romo incident, what’s up with the people who run the NFL’s Twitter account? While Romo and the NFL squabbled about canceling his event, the league sent a tweet on Tuesday with a picture of Romo and the caption, “Hi Tony!”

It was a surprisingly immature jab from the NFL’s official account — which had 11.7 million followers as of Friday afternoon — and the tweet was deleted in nine minutes.

“Obviously when someone takes it down after nine minutes, it tells you probably all you need to know,” Romo told reporters on Wednesday.

But this wasn’t the only troll job from the NFL’s Twitter account this offseason. On May 21, it tweeted a link to an article about what it takes to be a franchise quarterback. The tweet included a picture of Andrew Luck with the words, “Precision. Strength. Intelligence.” In other words, PSI, a jab at the Patriots and Deflategate.

The NFL said that tweet was purely coincidental, but maybe the league should stop putting 22-year-olds in charge of its social media.

Cardona’s ship has come in

Joe Cardona received only a $100,000 signing bonus.
Joe Cardona received only a $100,000 signing bonus.Courtesy Naval Academy

Patriots fifth-round pick Joe Cardona has seemingly received permission from the Naval Academy to postpone his service commitment and play for the Patriots in 2015. But the Patriots don’t know how long they’ll have their long snapper, and they agreed to a unique contract structure that protects the team but rewards Cardona with a slightly higher compensation than he normally would have received, according to a copy of the contract received by the Globe.

Cardona received only a $100,000 signing bonus, much less than the $190,000 he was expected to receive based on his draft position. But he’ll receive bonuses from 2015-17 if he is on the active roster, injured reserve or PUP for at least one game — that is, if he’s with the team and not enlisted in the Navy. In 2015 the bonus is worth $17,500, in 2016 it’s $37,500, and in 2017 it’s $45,000.

If Cardona plays all four years of his contract, he’ll receive $2.48 million — more than the two players drafted before him and about $10,000 more than he should have received.

Extra points

Johnny Manziel’s high school coach is living with him to try to keep him on track.
Johnny Manziel’s high school coach is living with him to try to keep him on track.David Richard/AP

Johnny Manziel is trying to turn his career around after a disastrous rookie season and a stint in rehab. Not only has he moved from downtown Cleveland to the quiet suburbs, but teammate Joe Haden revealed on ESPN that Manziel’s high school coach, Julius Scott, is now living with him to keep him in check . . . Why is Michael Vick still unsigned three months after the start of free agency? One reason is most likely his dedication. Not only did Vick admit that he was woefully unprepared for a start against the Chargers in October, but we’re told that Vick, who turns 35 this month, barely looked at his Jets playbook last year and willingly gave most of his practice reps to fellow backup Matt Simms . . . It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to the Malcolm Butler situation, but in 2006 Titans quarterback Steve McNair won a grievance against the team for trying to prevent him from working out at the team facility during the voluntary offseason program . . . Once again, the Rams are waiting to sign their draft class. Under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, the Rams give their rookies a crash course in financial management during the spring, then sign all of their rookies at once at the end of the offseason program as a team-building exercise . . . One of the most heartbreaking stories of the spring involves new Browns punter Andy Lee, who is switching jersey numbers this season after being let go by the 49ers. Lee will wear No. 8 as a tribute to his daughter, Madeline, who lived for eight days in January before she died from post-birth complications. “She was really alive and really a person. It’s a way to honor her and kind of just give her some glory she deserves,” Lee said on the Browns’ website.

Early retirement

Since the end of the 2014 regular season, eight players 30 years old or younger have retired. Whether the retirements were due to injuris or personal choices, one takeaway is that players are beginning to put a premium on life after football. Here is what the players said in announcing their departures from the NFL:

Compiled by Michael Grossi

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.