RENTON The man who will benefit most from Cliff Avril being out--perhaps for the season, perhaps for his career--doesn’t feel like he’s benefiting too much right now.
"It’s a huge opportunity,” Frank Clark told me Thursday. “Nevertheless, though, it’s kind of hard.
"Cliff, just having my vet there basically the whole time I’ve been here, it’s going to be different without him. It was different last week. It was different when he went out.”
More than Clark reveling in his own chance to be an every-down defensive end for the first time in his pro career, Seattle’s third-year pro feels reverence for Avril. Avril is 31. He has what Clark has been dreaming about for most of his 24 years: a wife, two young sons, a great, philanthropic life, $25 million the last four years, Pro Bowl status—and a Super Bowl ring.
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What else Clark feels: fear.
He’s been up close watching an NFL veteran at the top of his game have it all change with one, odd play. Avril’s injury three weeks ago has him contemplating his future and his well-being.
Clark was talking at his locker a few feet to the left of his mentor’s. Avril wasn’t occupying his, just like he hasn’t been occupying his normal place bookending the Seahawks’ defense since a career-threatening neck injury on Oct. 1.
Sunday’s game at the New York Giants will be the second consecutive one Avril has missed while consulting with specialists on whether to have neck surgery, and where his career and more importantly life will go from there.
Clark was a situational pass rusher when Avril was playing every down in 2015, ’16 and the first month of this season, until Avril got kicked under the chin by Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett while pursuing him. Clark had 10 sacks in his specific role last season. Now he’s suddenly an every-play end, versus run and pass, opposite Pro Bowler Michael Bennett.
Thursday, Pete Carroll was asked if Avril might never play again. The Seahawks coach replied "we have to wait and see on that."
Minutes later, Clark was talking far more about Avril’s sudden fate than his own, big chance.
"It’s real scary," Clark said. "You watch that, and watch what happened to Gordon Hayward (who minutes into his Boston Celtics debut dislocated his ankle and broke his tibia on the NBA’s opening night Tuesday), you realize how dangerous this sport really is.”
Clark articulated why the NFL player’s quest for guaranteed money and a second contract is so vital and sometimes so contentious. Why younger players less accomplished than Avril sacrifice and sometimes risk their health to get there.
It struck me as we chatted that NFL players, especially ones in the middle of a season and three days before their next violent game day, rarely talk about this risk, this potential for a career ending on one play.
But it’s there.
Avril ended Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo’s career with a hit during the 2016 preseason, breaking a bone in his back.
No need to remind Clark he is still 1½ seasons from his first chance at that second contract.
"You see why you got a lot of guys who pressure these teams and pressure different people about their money. It’s because things like this happen,” Clark said. “And it happens in sudden moments.”
Clark snapped his fingers.
He thought also of Green Bay’s two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers breaking his collarbone last weekend on what appeared to be, like Avril’s on Romo, a rather routine hit into the turf against Minnesota.
"It can happen," Clark said. "It’s the sport we play. It’s the nature of the sport.
“It’s crazy, I was just talking to my boys last week, I was like, ‘Man, somebody gets hurt EVERY week. Literally, EVERY week, in our sport. I was like, ‘It’s important that we really take advantage of each opportunity that we’ve got currently, because we never know. You never know if it’s going to be your last. It’s that simple.
"I think it’s important that we understand that. And like you said, man, you’ve got a guy who’s on top of his game. Pro Bowl, 11 1/2, 12 sacks (last season)—then out of nowhere, there’s a clip, off a clip off a foot, to the wrong place. You know, it’s like…wow, it can be a potentially career-ending thing."
Carroll, the Seahawks and even Clark don’t know how much Avril’s career is in jeopardy. Carroll said Thursday the team is about to put him on injured reserve, which means he will miss at least the next eight games into mid-December. Avril continues to see specialists to get opinions on what to do next.
“I’m not officially telling you (about the exact nature of Avril’s neck injury), because I don’t officially know," Carroll said. "He has concerns, but I don’t know the medical part of it. Even though I saw the X-rays and all that kind of stuff, I still can’t tell you anything."
Asked how much a concern there was Avril may not play again, Carroll said: "We have to wait and see on that. That’s really up to the doctors and Cliff, and all that kind of stuff.
"I’m one-thousand percent supportive of whatever we need to do here to help him. That’s why we’re taking our time. The IR thing gives him six weeks at least to figure out whatever else we can figure out. But he’s not sure what is best for him right now, and he’s trying to find that out.
"We’re giving him hopefully a good sense and the comfort that we’re going to support it all the way throughout it and figure out what’s best and do that."
Clark was using the past tense while talking about all Avril’s done for him since he entered the league.
"Not that it’s career-ending at an early age; he has mastered the art of the strip sack," Clark said. "He’s the best strip-sack player I’ve ever seen play the game, with my own two eyes. He’s one of the best defensive ends I’ve seen play the game. So it’s not like he’s ending on a sad note. Really, on the whole, it isn’t like he hasn’t done anything for this team, in this league. Pro Bowl. A Super Bowl champion.
"So there are things that you should be happy about, when it comes to the situation. So it’s not all negative.
"But at the end of the day, it does suck. Because it is somebody’s career.
"But it’s the nature of the game."
"I just want to continue to play the position the way I’ve been playing," Clark said. "And produce as much as I can, as close as I can, to how Cliff was producing, just honoring him.”
THOMAS AWAY FOR PERSONAL REASONS
Earl Thomas missed his second consecutive practice for what the team listed as "not-injured related—personal." There was no further word from the team on the nature of his absences.
The Seahawks leave Friday afternoon for New Jersey.
BENNETT, LANE PRACTICE
After missing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to rest his plantar-fascia injury in his right foot, Bennett practiced. That’s an indication of what he and Carroll have been saying all week, that he will play against the Giants. Bennett called it a pain-management issue.
Jeremy Lane returned to practice after missing the Oct. 8 win at Los Angeles with a groin injury. Carroll said the team needs to see how the cornerback and nickel defensive back responds to Thursday’s work to know more whether he can play Sunday.
Rookie Shaquill Griffin would start again at right cornerback with Justin Coleman again at nickel if Lane can’t play.
Carroll said Quinton Jefferson has surprised the coaches and medical staff with how quickly he has recovered from a broken bone in his right hand. He will be able to play Sunday with a cast, and will provide needed depth on the defensive line with Avril out and Bennett not fully healthy.
Jefferson laughed and said, “at least it’s not a knee.”
His rookie season ended after just three games in 2016. He went on injured reserve because of a major knee injury in practice 12 months ago.