Pulling on his black velvet coat after last week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond had little soreness.
He owed Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald for that.
Thurmond thanked Fitzgerald during the game after the All-Pro wide receiver pivoted into Thurmond for a crack-back block. Thurmond had his head turned, but Fitzgerald politely dipped his shoulder into him.
Fitzgerald later hit Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman with more force in a similar situation. The hit dumped Sherman on his behind and caused him to pat Fitzgerald on the head afterward. It was another clean, effective block from Fitzgerald on a player whose head was turned. He could have “blown him up,” as the saying goes, yet chose not to.
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The NFL’s effort to educate about and limit concussions, while also managing perception, is eliciting different emotions around the league.
In the end, possible change rests with decisions from players – such as the ones made by Fitzgerald – more than any league action.
Some current and former players wondered if Fitzgerald, one of the league’s most respected players, was being lazy or soft.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll sent tape of the plays to the NFL because he was thrilled.
“I said something to Larry after the game about those two decisions that he made because I thought they were perfectly illustrating the new mentality and the right mentality,” Carroll said. “With an iconic guy like that, I just thought it was really powerful.”
Carroll said the understanding of head trauma in the NFL has “come a million miles.”
“From the dark days when nobody would ever acknowledge it or talk about it, the players all would ignore it, the coaches would ignore it telling them to shake it off,” Carroll said. “You’d see guys shaking their head like they’re literally trying to shake it off, which is the worst thing you could do.”
He made those statements the day after Sherman wrote a guest column for Sports Illustrated in which he explained two important things.
First, he played with a concussion in his rookie year with the Seahawks and hid it, writing he was “half-blind” for most of the game.
Second, he emphasized that the players, much more educated now on possible concussion effects, choose to play. They are willing risk-takers. It was a message directed at the league and anyone watching.
“For anybody in the outside world to think they have the answers, or they know what is right would be crossing the line,” Sherman said. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know where that line is. I’m not an expert; nobody knows where the line is. If you knew where the line was, then we’d draw it, wouldn’t we? So I think guys will just continue to play the game at a high level and to keep playing as they see fit.”
For Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, that’s not doing what Fitzgerald did.
Chancellor, a 6-foot-3, 232-pound wrecking ball, said he was surprised to see such action on an NFL field.
“If it was me, the way I play this game, I’m a physical guy,” Chancellor said. “I’m going to try to lay you out. I’m not going to aim at your head, I’m going to hit you in the strike zone (points to the center of his chest), but I am going to try and lay you out.”
In late August, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by more than 4,500 players and their families, largely based on accusations that the league concealed what it knew about subsequent damage from repeated blows to the head.
A recent book and documentary, “League of Denial,” outlined many of these accusations.
There is a feeling that the way the league settled and now enforces rules against big hits exists because the NFL is doing reputation damage control as opposed to having a true concern about player safety.
“The NFL is not worried about concussions,” Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. “The NFL is worried about their pocketbooks. They would not have made any changes if the previous players didn’t sue them.
“That’s my 100 percent belief.”
Former Seahawks linebacker Dave Wyman has multiple concerns about concussions, such as safety, how reaction could affect future participation in the game, and the league’s handling of the issue.
“There’s some dishonesty there (with the NFL),” Wyman said. “Of course it’s about money. Of course it’s about preserving their business and product. Money is a lot about what the players do, as well.”
That goes back to Sherman’s argument. The players understand there is risk — how much and why repeated blows to the head appear to derail some and not others is not fully understood yet — and they accept it.
Time will provide the only conclusive indicators for much of the discussion about head trauma in football. The science will improve, and how players choose to act in the future — in the manner Fitzgerald did or with the decleating ferocity that has led to Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate being fined twice for big blocks — will show whether the game is evolving as Carroll thinks it is.
“It’s taken all of this time until now to really see the game shift,” Carroll said. “I think it’s the last two or three years that it’s really shifted, and the awareness, and guys understand. Guys like Kam Chancellor can be as physical and tough as anybody in football and make the right decisions and still hit guys. Make the plays that are necessary, and keep the game safe.
“It’s a really exciting time. I would never think I’d be saying this from where I was because I was cheering for Chuck Cecil (a former NFL safety known for ferocious hits). I thought he was awesome. He was one of my favorite guys. I see the game different now.”
If there is a common belief among players to whom The News Tribune spoke about concussions and their possible ramifications, it’s that the decision should mostly remain with them. They have been educated by the league more thoroughly than in the past.
Team trainers also harp on the issue, though when someone wants to hide a bell-ringing on the field as Sherman did, the warnings become moot.
“We’re trying to get rid of that mentality, even though it is tough ... play-through-everything mentality,” Seahawks center Max Unger said. “You know when you have a concussion. It’s pretty obvious. It’s just kind of up to you. It always and forever will be on the player to determine how hard and how far he wants to push it.”