AFC East: Ross Tucker

Woody's injury presents problems for Jets

January, 14, 2011
How much will the loss of right tackle Damien Woody impact the New York Jets?

Experience is the most obvious subtraction. Woody just finished his 12th NFL season. He has two Super Bowl rings.

His replacement, seventh-year pro Wayne Hunter, had two career starts before December.

[+] EnlargeWayne Hunter
AP Photo/David DrapkinWith Wayne Hunter stepping into the starting lineup, the Jets' depth on the O-line is getting thin.
Hunter started the Jets' final three games while Woody rested a right knee injury for the playoffs. Woody started Saturday's first-round victory over the Indianapolis Colts, but he couldn't finish because of an Achilles injury that required surgery this week.

But Woody's season-ending injury might not be as troubling as the next one that befalls their offensive line.

I reached out to ESPN contributor and former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker for his thoughts on how problematic Woody's absence will be for the Jets in Sunday's game against the New England Patriots.

"In and of itself, Wayne Hunter probably will do fine," said Tucker, who played for the Patriots and Buffalo Bills during his seven-year career. "But my biggest concern is their depth."

The Jets' depth chart doesn't list anybody at tackle aside from Woody and Hunter. Backup guard Robert Turner played right tackle at New Mexico. Rookie backup guard Vladimir Ducasse was a tackle at Boston College, but he has been a disappointment at guard.

"What if somebody else gets hurt?" Tucker said. "Nobody thinks about that, but let me tell you, if Wayne Hunter goes down or [left tackle] D'Brickashaw Ferguson goes down in the first or second quarter, then that becomes a real issue and a real problem."

Hunter is a capable lineman. Jets head coach Rex Ryan called him "the best backup tackle in the league," a remark Tucker deemed "hyperbole on Rex's part." But Tucker did rate Hunter among the NFL's top 10 swing tackles.

"From a natural ability standpoint Wayne Hunter is off the charts," Tucker said.

Hunter has seen a lot of action in the Jets' jumbo and goal-line packages, frequently reporting as an eligible receiver because he's lined up on the outside of another tackle.

Tucker liked what he saw from Hunter against some solid defenses. Hunter started against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills last month.

But expect the Patriots to dial up some special plays to see if they can exploit Hunter's inexperience and get to quarterback Mark Sanchez. Hunter also might find himself lined up against Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who migrates along the line.

"The Patriots may try to test his football acumen, his football intelligence," Tucker said. "I would imagine Bill Belichick will test his faculties pretty early. There are things you can do, whether it's a stunt or a blitz, to see how comfortable he is picking up the right guy.

"Ninety-five percent of the time he'll be blocking either the defensive end or outside linebacker, although most teams with their pass protections tend to slide the protection to the left to protect the backside of the quarterback. Usually, the other team's best pass-rusher is on that side. So Wayne Hunter will have that guy one-on-one more often than the left tackle will. He'll be isolated."

Patriots O-line deserves much love

December, 16, 2010
Tom Brady has gotten the lion's share of the credit for the New England Patriots' success and rightly is considered the leading candidate for league MVP.

ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck and columnist Ross Tucker want to spread the credit around a little.

Hasselbeck recently shined a spotlight on how well the Patriots' offensive line has been performing lately.

"The most important thing is they're a group of guys that, for the most part, is a group of overachievers -- not a ton of guys that are big, physical specimens," Hasselbeck said. "They're kind of technicians at their positions. A perfect example of that would be Matt Light at left tackle. Not the biggest guy, not necessarily the strongest or even most athletic, but very sound in his technique and very productive.

"They're extremely well-coached. Dante Scarnecchia, their offensive line coach, has been with that group for a while and has done a very good job coaching that unit.

"But I don't think we can talk about that Patriots offensive line without mentioning Logan Mankins. When he came back to that football team, there was an attitude, a physical presence that came back to that group. You're starting to see the result of that, the run game really taking off for the New England Patriots. You're seeing BenJarvus Green-Ellis really have a couple very productive games since Logan Mankins has been back in the lineup."

Tucker provided insight as to why Scarnecchia has been so integral to the Patriots' success. Tucker is a former NFL offensive lineman who played under Scarnecchia in 2005.

Patriots must cope with the rookie wall

December, 9, 2010
Rookies have started 49 games for the New England Patriots this year. They've started four rookies on defense four times. A rookie cornerback leads them in interceptions. Two of their top five tacklers are rookies. One rookie tight end ranks second in receiving yards. Another rookie tight end ranks second in touchdown catches.

I'm sure you get the point: Rookies are important to the Patriots' success and, given their 10-2 record, play a larger role than rookies on most other teams.

That's why Ross Tucker's latest column is highly pertinent to the Patriots. After 13 weeks and a dozen games, Tucker explains the "rookie wall" is no myth.

The Patriots expect their season to last another two months, and some of their important contributors already have played more games than they did in a college season.

Tucker writes:
Right around this time of year, once the college football season is clearly in the rearview mirror, the production of some NFL rookies begins to decline. For a select few, their play can drop off precipitously. Young players who are unaccustomed to the length of a grueling NFL season can start to wear down mentally and physically. I know, because it happened to me.

Tucker, an offensive lineman who played for the Patriots and Buffalo Bills, recalls how his rookie summer with the Washington Redskins felt like an entire season before real games began.

Tack on four preseason games plus a lengthy playoff run and you're talking about 23 or so weeks of contact and stress.

It will be an issue for the Patriots to scale.

Connolly stepped up in Mankins' absence

November, 3, 2010
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears was asked for a reaction to left guard Logan Mankins' return to the team.

"Are you kidding?" Fears said with laugh. "The guys are jumping for joy."

[+] EnlargeDan Connolly
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIPatriots guard Dan Connolly is stepping back into his back-up role.
You can't blame New England's running backs for being ecstatic. Mankins is a two-time Pro Bowler and a mauler. He'll make it easier to run, especially in short-yardage situations.

At least one player on the Patriots roster cannot be so thrilled.

Dan Connolly rose from third on the depth chart over the summer and has played admirably at left guard in Mankins' absence. Connolly is about to go from starter on the team with the NFL's best record to backup again.

"It'll be a little bit of a bummer and a little bit of setback for him personally to not play for a while," said columnist Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman. Tucker was with the Patriots in Mankins' rookie year.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the Patriots will evaluate Mankins on a day-to-day basis and hasn't committed to when Mankins would return to the field or the starting lineup.

Regardless of his conditioning, Mankins must reacquire his command for pass sets, get used to pulling to the right side or bursting to the perimeter to block on a screen.

Connolly might remain in the lineup Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, but it's only a matter of time until Mankins takes his familiar spot between left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen.

"A lot of it's just getting back into your stance," Tucker said. "But I don't care how in shape you are. You're still not ready for a two-minute drill. You're still not ready for a 14-play drive.

"There are a lot of different body movements you need to work on to get ready to perform on the offensive line. No matter what he has being doing on his own, they have to make sure he looks comfortable before they put him in a game."

Rather than write about Mankins' return, let's take a few moments to salute the often overlooked and underappreciated interchangeable grunt.

Connolly, a former Patriots practice squad player, has been solid despite preseason fears he would be their weak link.

As it became clearer Mankins was entrenched in his contract demands, the Patriots shifted last year's starting right tackle, Nick Kaczur, to left guard. Kaczur suffered a season-ending back injury early in camp.

Connolly took over with four career starts -- all last year for injured right guard Stephen Neal -- in five NFL seasons.

Before we knew Mankins would choose this week to end his contract dispute with the Patriots, I had the chance to ask Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Neal about Connolly's contributions.

Using a scale of 10 -- with one being total peace and 10 being sheer panic -- I asked Neal how he would describe his mindset when Kaczur went down.

Neal's response: "Zero."

"Dan plays good football and has just been waiting around for an opportunity," Neal said. "I don't think it's a surprise to anyone in this locker room what he's doing out there.

"I know how hard he works. I know he's going to do everything he can. As a line, it's not about each individual. It's about all of us collectively. If we can all work together we can slay the monsters out there."

Connolly has started every game at left guard, has lined up at fullback in jumbo packages and is on the kickoff unit.

"We have asked Dan to do a lot," Belichick said. "He has played left guard obviously, but has also played fullback in our short-yardage and goal-line packages. Smart guy. Good technique player.

"He has really improved a lot over the time he has been here. He has gotten a lot of playing time this year and has continued to improve. So he is doing a solid job."

The Patriots believe in plug-and-play backups. If Belichick doesn't have confidence in someone being able to handle the job on Sunday, that player won't stick around long. Connolly has been working with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for four seasons.

With that plug-and-play mentality, however, comes a strong possibility of relinquishing the job at some point -- and starting again if Mankins, Neal or Koppen gets hurt.

"Connolly is smart enough to realize Logan is a rare player," Tucker said. "Logan is a powerful, powerful blocker in the run game. He is a tone-setter. He's the intimidating force of that offensive line.

"It's fun to play. Practice stinks. Meetings stink. All the other stuff is not fun. The games are fun. For Connolly, it must be neat to get out there with the guys and win games. They're 6-1. But for him, he should take it as a positive because he has now shown he can start NFL games and play at a competent level. This has been really good for his career."

Jim McNally a secret weapon for Jets' O-line

September, 29, 2010
Jim McNallyGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesJim McNally coached offensive lines for 28 years -- including four years with the Bills -- but now he's a consultant for the Jets, and he's helping them prepare for Sunday's game against Buffalo.
From his home in Orchard Park, N.Y., not far from Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, the Mouse quietly has been working for the New York Jets.

Jim "Mouse" McNally, one of the NFL's most respected assistant coaches, did not completely retire when he left the Bills in 2008. McNally surreptitiously has been helping to coach the Jets' offensive line from 300 miles away.

"Cat's out of the bag now, huh?" Jets offensive line coach Bill Callahan said with a chuckle. "God dang it."

Callahan mixed his metaphor, but there's no mistaking his respect for McNally, who coached NFL offensive lines for 28 years.

Callahan, a respected O-line coach himself, described McNally as being "like a golf pro" in his ability to scrutinize technique subtleties, labeled him "an encyclopedia of line play" and said McNally is "certainly one of the best coaches in modern football."

McNally, 66, technically is considered a Jets consultant. But the players call him "Coach." He breaks down Jets game and practice footage on his computer with Hudl software, which allows him to download video and playbook information through a secure Internet connection.

He's helping the Jets prepare for Sunday afternoon against the Bills in his backyard. The game will give McNally rare personal contact with the team he has been monitoring from afar since last summer.

"I look at practice every day," McNally said. "I look at the games. Then I talk to Coach Callahan about what I saw and the game plan and stuff like that."

McNally is in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He grew up in suburban Kenmore, where he first was tagged "Mouse" in neighborhood pickup games. The nickname stuck when he stopped growing at 5-foot-8.

McNally's tenacity was evident by his compulsion to walk on as an offensive lineman for the University at Buffalo. He eventually played both offense and defense. On the coaching staff was a young Buddy Ryan, father of Jets head coach Rex Ryan. That link and a long relationship with Callahan are why McNally is helping a hometown rival.

McNally attended training camp at SUNY-Cortland last year as a guest. Callahan asked McNally to speak to his linemen. Eventually, McNally was breaking down film.

"I didn't purposely try to work for the Jets," McNally said. "Just my relationship with Callahan -- he's such a great friend of mine. It's something that keeps me busy. I don't do it full time.

"I'm kind of under the radar here in Buffalo. It was a convenient way to stay involved in pro football."

McNally rose to coaching prominence for his innovative methods. He spent 15 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, mentoring future Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz and four-time Pro Bowl guard Max Montoya. McNally also established his annual coaching clinic there, turning Cincinnati into what Callahan called "the Mecca" for O-line instruction.

McNally worked with the Carolina Panthers for four years, the New York Giants for five years and the Bills for four years.

"Technique was his greatest strength," said Ross Tucker, who started at left guard for McNally with the Bills in 2006. Tucker spent six seasons in the NFL and now is an ESPN analyst. "He had some technique things I never heard of that were effective and helpful."

One of McNally's inventive concepts was the "lazy forearm," an effective way to fend off a double team while keeping separation. Tucker explained it as a violent upward motion that pries a defender's shoulder back.

[+] EnlargeJason Peters
Paul Jasienski/Getty ImagesJason Peters, who came into the league as an undrafted tight end, became a Pro Bowl tackle under McNally's tutelage.
"He was innovative," Tucker said, "and he was creative from an X's and O's standpoint."

McNally's prized pupil in Buffalo was undrafted tight end Jason Peters. The Bills converted him to tackle, and McNally turned the raw specimen into a star. Although Peters became a contractual headache and forced the Bills to trade him, he has been selected to the past three Pro Bowls.

McNally was supposed to be on scene for "Hard Knocks" training camp this summer at SUNY-Cortland, but health issues prevented it. He underwent an emergency appendectomy and a serious follow-up surgery and myriad tests that sent him in and out of the hospital in June and July.

He has been getting out a little more now. He has been working with local high school teams such as St. Francis, Canisius and Kenmore West. He works as a fundraiser for his alma mater. He also has a website, where you can locate one of his upcoming clinics, learn about his annual camp and find instructional DVDs at

"I went from doing things all day long to sitting around the house and maybe taking a walk around the neighborhood," McNally said. "I've learned how to calm down a little bit. I don't have to leave the house at 6:30 in the morning. It's given me a perspective of that football life I had of 43 years of 'Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!' "

The Jets are thrilled he hasn't stopped completely. He doesn't need to zoom around the practice field like he did when he wore a whistle around his neck.

A steady bit rate from his telecomm provider will do just fine.

"He's been tremendous for me," Callahan said. "He's a wealth of information and knowledge and experience. That's invaluable in so many ways. You're talking about one of the greatest line coaches of all-time.

"He easily could have faded away, but it's great he's still a part of the game. He has so much to give. He's unselfish that way in terms of sharing information and trying to get players better and coaches better, whether it's working with his youth leagues or the New York Jets."

Kelly highlights Tucker's debut podcast

September, 15, 2010
Ross Tucker, a great friend of the AFC East blog, made his ESPN debut Wednesday with one of his typically insightful columns and a lengthy podcast in which he discussed a smorgasbord of topics.

Tucker, formerly of, gave his take on New York Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins' season-ending injury, the New England Patriots' decision to trade running back Laurence Maroney, the Houston Texans' inability to sign former Buffalo Bills defensive end Aaron Schobel and the controversy in the Jets' locker room.

The podcast highlight (at about the 14-minute mark) was an interview with Bills icon Jim Kelly. They talked about the Bills' disappointing opener, their future at quarterback and the NFL's concussion problem.

"I had six concussions," Kelly said. "There are so many people talking about it. They're looking for it. They're looking after it. They're making sure that players don't go back out onto the field.

"Back in the day, 'Aw, you got dinged. You'll be all right.' I know that happened to me probably a half a dozen times where there's no doubt I shouldn't have went back out onto the football field. I didn't even know my name, but I was going back out there.

"But back then it was different because your teammates looked for you to be tough, to stay out there when you’re hurt. I'd look at my teammates the same way."

Tucker followed up on lingering issues when Kelly made reference to his memory being "shot." Kelly said he has seen noted concussion specialist Dr. James Kelly (seriously) in Chicago.

"I do have scar tissue built up," Jim Kelly said. "My memory is pretty bad.

"What me and my wife like to do is go to movies. I'll say 'Why don't we see this movie?' She'll say 'Jim, we already did.' I go 'When?' She goes 'About a month and a half ago.' "

Tucker on Mankins: 'He's their hammer'

August, 19, 2010
I had a chance to speak with columnist and former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker about the impact Logan Mankins' absence will have on the New England Patriots.

Mankins, a two-time Pro Bowler at left guard, remains unsigned and not in training camp. He'll miss his second preseason game Thursday night, when the Patriots play the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome, but unless the tenor changes, he'll miss all four exhibitions and regular-season games.

Mankins became so disgusted with contract negotiations, he publicly demanded a trade before camp. His agent last week said the Patriots "have totally lost this player mentally."

"He's their best offensive lineman," said Tucker, who spent six seasons in the NFL with the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills and Patriots. "In addition to that, he's really kind of the tempo-setter from a physicality standpoint. When you're another team playing the Patriots, the guy you're worried about really putting a lick on you, really finishing a play, really knocking you out is Logan Mankins.

"The other guys have all been solid players, and I'm hearing great things about Sebastian Vollmer, but in terms of a guy that's really going to intimidate the opposition, it's Logan. He's their hammer. They're going to miss that presence if he's not playing, because I'm a true believer that every offensive line needs at least one of those guys, and the more guys like that the better. That type of stuff really wears on a defense."

Tucker lauded Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and noted that whomever plays left guard for the Patriots will do a passable job to the naked eye.

That said, Tucker views Mankins as a difference-maker.

"Because pass blocking one-on-one has never been Logan's strength, and that's the only time offensive linemen are identifiable, there might not be much of a difference between Logan and whoever replaces him to a layperson," Tucker said. "But nobody gets as much push in the running game. Nobody's as powerful. Nobody's as violent, play in and play out, as Logan is."

Reaction to Cushing verdict

May, 12, 2010
I've compiled a collection of unedited Twitter reaction to Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing winning The Associated Press' defensive rookie of the year award after a revote. Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd finished second again.

  1. Kawika Mitchell
    Ka_Mitchell55 RT @jeffreybigmoney @Ka_Mitchell55: I'm convinced Jairus would've had better numbers and played more games if he took what Cushing took!
  2. Brian Moorman
    brianmoorman Can't believe Byrd did not win ROY award after re-vote! That's no message to send to kids!!! Ridiculous!
  3. Ross Tucker
    SI_RossTucker I used to pretty much put zero stock into postseason awards. Now even less, amazingly. I guess that would be negative stock?
  4. Ross Tucker
    SI_RossTucker What a message for HS football players and athletes in general ... "Cheaters don't just win, they win twice!" Hooray.
  5. Marcellus Wiley
    marcelluswiley Im disappointed in the Cushing re-vote. Why should I care if cats cheat, any of them, if most people don't.
    The NFL needs some fixin'!!!!
  6. Aaron Maybin
    AaronMaybin58 If the Byrdman wasn't rookie of the year last year after the recent news, whoevers voting needs to be the one gettin tested
  7. Thurman Thomas
    thurmanthomas The voters, Owners,and the NFLPA are making a big mistake by letting Cushing keep this award. How many kids have his jersey,sld burn it?

Is Patriots' O-line in need of renovation?

February, 15, 2010
Scouts Inc. founder Gary Horton recently compiled his breakdown of the 32 clubs' needs heading into the offseason for an ESPN Insider feature.

For the New England Patriots, he listed outside linebacker, receiver and defensive end as the primary areas to address. Lumped into the "other needs" category, was offensive line.

At least two analysts think the O-line should be a priority in New England.

Boston Herald reporter Karen Guregian wrote a thought-provoking article that takes a look at what would appear to be a strong unit. The Patriots surrendered only 18 sacks in 2009, third fewest in the NFL. In addition to accomplished veterans Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen, they have young tackle Sebastian Vollmer ready in the wings.

For NFL Network and CBS Sports commentator Solomon Wilcots and columnist Ross Tucker, that's not good enough.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is known for holding onto the ball until the last possible moment to give his receivers a chance to separate. He absorbs dozens of unofficial hits each season.

"The offensive line has to be a concern because everything you do has to start with protecting Tom Brady," Wilcots told Guregian. "You can't get Tom Brady beat up like Tom Brady was beat up this year. He had a year in '08 where he got knocked out. He had a year in '09 where he got banged up. That's how you chip away at their [offensive] fundamentals. That's how you chip away at their timing. That's how your quarterbacks age."

Tucker noted in Guregian's article that right tackle Nick Kaczur was a weakness, and right guard Stephen Neal, center Koppen and left tackle Light are in decline.

Is the three-point stance dead?

February, 12, 2010
Hidden amid the Super Bowl coverage last weekend was an interesting comment from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who hinted one of the game's most fundamental images could vanish.

The three-point stance could be outlawed as a safety measure to reduce helmet-to-helmet contact. Goodell, appearing Sunday on "Face the Nation," acknowledged the possibility while explaining to host Bob Schieffer even basic football chestnuts are on the table when it comes to addressing brain injuries. reader mistH2O doesn't like it.

Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesA rare sight in the NFL these days, Jets guard Alan Faneca still can be spotted firing out of a three-point stance.
"Theres nothing wrong with a good clean football game, however, sooner or later it might look like a totally different game," mistH2O wrote in the comments section of my feature on the long-lasting impact of head trauma in football. "They're going to consider taking away the three point stance! I don't watch football to see pansies with helmets play pattycake."

Take it easy, fella.

Two voices of reason say the three-point stance is moot.

One legendary analyst notes it's becoming as obsolete as the jump pass, fumblerooski and single-bar facemask. And a former NFL lineman from the Ivy League contends interior collisions don't cause concussions in the first place.

Last week, I attended the news conference for the inaugural Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award, given each year to the league's best offensive line. The New Orleans Saints beat out the New York Jets for one of the handsomest trophies I've seen -- five men crouched and ready to fire out of a three-point stance.

John Madden, the award's namesake, appeared via satellite. A reporter asked how offensive line play has changed over the decades.

"One of the big things that I see is that they don't get in a three-point stance much anymore," Madden said. "It's all about pass protection. There was a time for an offensive lineman in NFL where maybe it was maybe half run block, half pass protection. ... Now it's about 90 percent pass protection. You see so much shotgun, spread formations. When you're in that, you're going to run a draw anyway so there's no reason to get in a three-point stance.

"The three-point stance is out. Drive blocking is kind of dying out. I'm sure that bothers old offensive linemen, but it's a passing league, it's a spread league and it's a pass-protection league."

Whatever vestige of the three-point stance remains, former Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots offensive lineman Ross Tucker doesn’t see any reason to abolish it. Tucker is a Princeton alum and columnist for

"You don't generate big hits on defensive linemen because you just don't get enough momentum," Tucker told me. "So I don't know what Goodell's talking about. I don't think that would fix the problem.

"It would be a different game, and you would have to start that all the way at Pop Warner, and it would be a lot easier to run the football. It would be very difficult for the defensive linemen to hold their ground [when starting out of a two-point stance] than for the offensive linemen to attack them.

"I respect the fact that everything's on the table, but that's not something worth considering."

NFLers banking brains for future

February, 10, 2010

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas is one of a growing number of NFL players vowing to donate their brains to research.

At least 20 times, the memory came crashing back for Don Hasselbeck.

In a flash, he was a teenager again, a star tight end for La Salle High in Cincinnati. His quarterback had thrown an interception against Purcell. Hasselbeck went into hot pursuit. The rumbling ball carrier veered toward him, driving a knee into Hasselbeck's head.

A few moments later, Hasselbeck regained his senses and sat upright and surveyed the La Salle teammates and coaches that had gathered around him on Purcell's field.

Only he wasn't a teenager anymore. He was a New England Patriot in Schaefer Stadium. Or a Los Angeles Raider in the Coliseum. Or a New York Giant at the Meadowlands.

"Every time I was knocked out -- bang! -- I thought it was the first one in high school," Hasselbeck said. "I can be in the ninth year of the pros, and think I was on that high school field. What is that in my brain that gets triggered to make me think I'm 18 years old?"

Hasselbeck estimated his number of concussions "on the 20-plus side" before his nine-year NFL career was over in 1985. He traveled back in his cranial time machine on every nasty headshot.

He's worried those repeated brain injuries will impact his life.

"I get concerned when I read articles of guys killing themselves or being depressed or dementia or Alzheimer's," said Hasselbeck, a mostly healthy 54-year-old and a longtime Reebok executive. "That scares you. You don't want to see these guys falling apart in front of you."

Al Messerschmidt/NFLOver the span of his nine-year career, tight end Don Hasselbeck estimates he suffered more than 20 concussions.

Hasselbeck is among a growing crowd of retired and active NFL players who have pledged to donate their brains to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine to research the long-term impact of football-related head trauma.

The registry for what's known as "the VA CSTE Brain Bank" -- housed at the New England Veterans Administration in Bedford, Mass. -- is up to 250 players who want to further a cause that began when Chris Nowinski, a Harvard alum and former pro wrestler, got inquisitive about his future after suffering six concussions.

Nowinski and Dr. Ann McKee founded the center. Their findings from CSTE research -- that players are highly prone to clinical depression and early onset of Alzheimer's -- has triggered sweeping changes in the way the NFL views head trauma and could transform the way the game is played both on the practice field and on Sunday afternoons.

"We've made remarkable headway," Nowinski said. "I don't think I ever dreamed the NFL would agree there was a problem. For legal reasons, I just didn't think they'd admit it. It was the pathological research, the brains of the deceased players, pressure from the active and retired players who were courageous enough to stand up."

Nowinski's passion is collecting autographs and game-used equipment.

The autographs are signatures of players such as Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey, former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas and Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes; the game-used equipment he gets them to consign are their brains.

"Once I'm dead, I'm not going to need it anymore," said former Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler. "I plan on being cremated. I always wonder what they do with all those parts.

"But if I'm going to be cremated anyway because I don't feel like laying in a casket and having worms eat my body for eternity. My brain will live forever to help some others, and to let the world know that I actually had one."

Nowinksi wrote the 2006 book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues." About a month after the book was released, former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide. Nowinski convinced Waters' family to donate his brain for research, a seminal moment for the brain bank.

Waters' brain was examined by Dr. Bennett Omalu in Pittsburgh, and it resembled those of Mike Webster and Terry Long, former Pittsburgh Steelers who died young after bouts with depression and dementia.

"We started with guys who were disasters," Nowinski said. "Now we're moving on to guys who might or might not be impacted in varying degrees. But these are people who are committed and recognize the problem and want to be a part of the solution."

Nowinski's cause has reached a level of consciousness where players are approaching him to will their brains without him needing to deliver a sales pitch.

"I told him I would donate my brain," former Bills offensive lineman and columnist Ross Tucker said. "I was never diagnosed with a concussion, but I can remember at least four plays during my career where the collision was just different. When you play football for 18 years, you can tell when something's different.

"For 10 to 15 seconds after, I was thinking 'Wow. That was crazy. I don't know what happened there, but I don't like it.' "

The CSTE scored a major victory in December, when the league announced it would impose stricter guidelines on players returning from concussions and teamed up with the Center for Disease Control to produce a public-service announcement that urges youth coaches, players and parents to be educated on the dangers of head injuries.

"That showed me there was no going back," Nowinski said.

The next step is enacting rules that protect players from Pop Warner and up.

Nowinski referred to testimony Houston Texans guard Chester Pitts gave before Congress. Pitts declared he would forbid his son from playing football because it was too dangerous.

"That's kind of creepy that he's exposing himself to a violent game he wouldn't let his own son play in," Nowinski said. "That's a sign we need to change things."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appeared Sunday on "Face the Nation" and told host Bob Schieffer the league would consider eliminating the three-point stance. Nowinski, citing research that shows 75 percent of head shots occur in practice, raised the possibility of no-contact, helmet-less workouts.

"There always will be four downs," Nowinski said. "A touchdown will be worth six points, a field goal worth three points. But how we hit each other, how we collide has to change."

While Tucker dismissed abolishing the three-point stance as meaningful (linemen don't build up enough momentum in such a short space to make that type of contact significant), he lauded the NFL's decision last spring to eliminate the wedge on kickoff returns as a step in the right direction.

Players on return and coverage teams generally are the last 10 players who dress on game day, the most easily replaceable parts.

"How hard they run down there and how hard they hit that wedge is the difference between 650 grand and going back to Columbus, Georgia, to find a job for 12 bucks an hour," Tucker said. "If those were your options, you'd hit that wedge pretty damn hard, too."

Tucker also would like to see certain drills outlawed. He described what he and his Washington Redskins teammates called "the headache drill" in 2007. Offensive linemen would take on a linebacker at full speed, the frequent result being a helmet-on-helmet collision.

"We hated it," said Tucker, a Princeton alum who retired that year because of herniated discs in his neck and back. "I remember feeling my brain rattling around.

"I don't think it has truly impacted me, but there are times when I forget stuff that I shouldn't. I've always been known for having an amazing memory, but it just seems there's short-term stuff I don't remember sometimes.

"I'm not concerned about it, but there's probably something going on, and if I can help in any small way, I'm willing to do that. Guys are only going to get bigger, only going to get faster. Unless we do something, it's only going to get worse and worse."

Punky QB runs into serious brain power

February, 3, 2010
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A quick vignette from the NFL media center.

Chris Nowinski, the former Harvard player who now runs the brain bank at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, was talking with former Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler and former Buffalo Bills lineman Ross Tucker.

That's a Harvard guy, a Dartmouth guy and a Princeton guy, talking about medical research. Tucker handed Nowinski his card and volunteered to donate his brain to the center.

Then legendary party boy Jim McMahon came strolling by.

Tucker stopped McMahon to introduce him to Nowinski.

"I would like to see this brain," Tucker said, pointing to McMahon's shaved head.

After a bit of salesmanship from Nowinski, McMahon reluctantly took his business card and walked away shaking his head.