RENTON Don’t blame Cliff Avril for not being a team player when he isn’t watching film of the last time the Seattle played the New England Patriots, like the rest of his Seahawks are this week.
“I haven’t watched any of the Super Bowl, actually. I probably won’t watch the Super Bowl,” Seattle’s breakout defensive end said this week of Super Bowl 49, two seasons ago in Glendale, Arizona.
“I didn’t play much in it.”
On Feb. 1, 2015, the Seahawks were on their way to enjoying a double-digit lead in that Super Bowl. They were getting to quarterback Tom Brady enough to keep New England stuck on 14 points late into the third quarter.
For one of the first times, then-Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn moved Michael Bennett inside from end to a tackle position for much of the game. Bennett sped past New England’s rookie center Bryan Storkall night. Bennett had four hits on Brady. And the speedy Avril coming off the other edge kept New England from totally focusing on Bennett.
At times that night in the desert Bennett and Avril controlled the line of scrimmage almost by themselves. They forced Brady into his first interception and into hurried, drive-ending incompletions.
But then Avril suffered a concussion in the third quarter. It was during Bobby Wagner’s return of his interception that set up Doug Baldwin’s touchdown catch for Seattle’s 24-14 lead. After Avril went out, the Patriots doubled Bennett more, limiting his effectiveness and that of Seattle’s pass rush. Brady rallied New England with two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to win.
Avril watched the last quarter and half with a cloudy mind from the Seahawks’ locker room beneath University of Phoenix Stadium.
"It was delayed, though, on the TVs in the locker room," he said. "It was delayed – and the crowd not really (timed up in reaction) with what you are watching.
"Yeah, I ended up seeing everything. It was unfortunate."
What was not unfortunate was how the Seahawks’ medical staff, the NFL’s assigned concussion monitor on Seattle’s sideline and Avril handled his head injury that day.
Seahawks team physicians plus neurologist Dr. Javier Cardenas, a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee and director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center in Phoenix, determined Avril was unfit to return to play.
That’s no small directive to a player during a Super Bowl: Hey veteran starter, forget about going back out there to win a ring.
But even in his foggy state, Avril saw a bigger picture.
He thought of his wife Dantia and their young son Xavier. Since that Super Bowl, they’ve had a second son. Xander was born 13 months ago.
"Of course I wish I could have played out there. But my health is more important," Avril, 30, said this week. "I think the docs did a great, a good job in that they felt I couldn’t go back out there.
"They ask you all these different things. They ask you days of the week. Some of the questions you probably couldn’t answer if you weren’t concussed," Avril joked.
"Yeah, they went through that whole protocol and felt like, yeah, I was out of it. So they made the right call."
Avril did not protest to go back in? Not at all?
"Nope," he said. "That’s not something you want to play with.
"I mean, the game is changing, obviously, as far as this whole concussion thing. I feel like the more we get to know about how bad the situation may be in the long run, I feel like as a player, as a professional, as a person – as a father – you should do the right thing, even though you want to keep playing.
"If they feel like you can’t, you shouldn’t."
Avril was asked if there was a time earlier in his nine-year NFL career when he would have played through something like that.
"Yeah," he said without hesitation, "before I had kids.
"I’m serious. You start having kids, having a family, now you have to life for them, too. You’ve got to put that in perspective."
Contrast Avril’s case with that Julian Edelman in the same Super Bowl. Seahawks enforcer Kam Chancellor walloped the Patriots’ clutch wide receiver just as Edelman was making a third-down catch for 21 yards, with New England down two scores and 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Edelman got up immediately but stumbled around some while seeking his team’s huddle. He stayed in the game amid controversy. The Arizona Republic reported the next day the league’s concussion spotters were trying to get the Patriots to examine Edelman for a head injury while the Patriots were telling the spotter he had a hip injury.
"I actually went down to the ground. I think he popped right back up. That’s probably the difference in the two," Avril said. "I got hit, I think I got chipped from behind. I’m not sure how long I was down for, but trainers and everyone had to come out."
Avril’s case was seen as how the NFL’s concussion protocol is supposed to work.
"We are diligent in evaluating all head-to head hits," Dr. Cardenas told The News Tribune this week from Phoenix. "Armchair neurologists may look at a play and say, ‘That’s clearly a concussion,' but we can’t make that determination until evaluating the athlete.
"I can’t discuss any specific athletes. But in the Super Bowl (49) all NFL concussion protocols were followed as they are written."
Two seasons later, Avril is healthy – in more ways than one.
He is off to the best start in a season of his career. Avril has nine sacks in Seattle’s eight games. That just two fewer than his career high for an entire season he set when he was with Detroit in 2011. He signed with Seattle in 2013, then signed a four-year, $28.5 million extension in December 2014.
But Avril and the Seahawks won’t have Bennett this time against the Patriots. The Pro Bowl end had arthroscopic knee surgery last week. He is out for at least a couple more games.
And that’s a big deal.
"If he’s not the best defensive player in the league, I don’t know who is," Brady said Wednesday.
Avril’s job is trying to flap the unflappable Brady. It will be much more difficult without Bennett with him Sunday night. The Patriots can double-team or "chip" Avril with a back or tight end far more than they can afford to when Bennett is along Seattle’s same line.
"It’s definitely different," Avril said. "He impacts the game in so many different ways. From the run game and how disruptive he is to the pass game and how he gets to the quarterback. So that’s just a little different for me because, heck, he hasn’t missed a game since he’s been here, until this year."
And Avril since that wise decision to listen to the doctors and stay out of Super Bowl 49? He hasn’t missed a start, either.
Sunday will be his 25th consecutive start since that concussion. He said it was the second one he’s ever had.
"He’s been huge," Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "As if he could step his game up to another level, essentially that’s what it seems has happened.
"He’s taken full advantage of every opportunity."
EXTRA POINTS: SS Kam Chancellor was a full practice participant for the second consecutive day. He is on track to start at New England for the first time in five games, since he pulled his groin. Asked what his level of urgency was to play again, Chancellor smiled, looked at the overhead clock in the locker room then out to the practice field and said "I’m trying to get outside right now. That’s how much urgency." … TE Jimmy Graham went from not practicing at all Wednesday, two days after his two-touchdown first half against Buffalo, to being limited Thursday. … DE Cassius Marsh (ankle) went from not practicing Wednesday to full go Thursday. … Bennett was the only Seahawk to not practice at all.