If you're like me, when you heard the part of the ugly Gregg Williams audio that touches on the concussion history of 49ers receiver/return man Kyle Williams, you flashed back to the aftermath of the NFC Championship Game. Remember? When Giants special-teamers Devin Thomas and Jacquian Williams said they'd known about Kyle Williams' concussion history and played with that in mind? Here's a rundown from late January in the New York Times:
"The thing is, we knew he had four concussions, so that was our biggest thing, to take him out of the game," Jacquian Williams said of Kyle Williams, who had replaced the injured Ted Ginn Jr. as San Francisco’s punt returner.
Devin Thomas, a wide receiver and special-teams player who recovered the ball both times, said: "He's had a lot of concussions. We were just like, 'We've got to put a hit on that guy.' "
The Giants went into spin-control mode a few days later, with players such as Justin Tuck and Michael Boley saying they'd never gone into a game with the intent to injure anyone. And NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in that same Times story that the Giants were in no trouble from the league because "players are held accountable for their actions on the field" and "there were no illegal hits to the head or neck area against Kyle Williams on Sunday. There was no conduct by the Giants of any kind that would suggest an effort to injure Kyle Williams in any way."
When I reached out to Aiello on Thursday to ask him about this issue, he referred me to those comments and the Giants' denials and reiterated that the Giants were in the clear as far as the league is concerned. And that makes sense. After all, there's nothing to indicate that the league is going to take any action against Williams for the audio that came to light Thursday morning courtesy of Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver. That tape would seem to be just more dirt on the grave of Williams' NFL coaching career, as Mike Sando points out.
Here's what I think about all of this:
It seems clear that it's completely routine for opposing players' injuries to be discussed in defensive team meetings. It seems clear, in spite of the denials after the fact, that Williams' concussion history was a topic of discussion among Giants defensive and special-teams players (and likely coaches) before the NFC Championship Game. I mean, no way did Devin Thomas and Jacquian Williams just think that up independently during postgame interviews. Their lockers were clear across the room from each other.
But it's entirely possible that such issues are raised in non-aggressive ways. There's nothing to indicate that the Giants' plan, knowing Kyle Williams had a concussion history, was to give him another concussion. It might well be that the discussion was about whether the concussion history would lead Williams to shrink from a big hit, or do something potentially game-changing, like muff a critical punt deep in his own territory, if the Giants made a point to be physical with him. Scaring or intimidating a guy would seem to be fair game. Intent to injure, which is what they have Gregg Williams and Sean Payton for based on evidence that predates the 2011-12 playoffs, is a far different thing. And whether the Giants were talking about Kyle Williams' concussions before that game or not, there's no evidence that they set out to injure him. Thomas said as much to Newsday's Bob Glauber in the days that followed:
"It was more about understanding personnel," Thomas said. "You want to find every strength and weakness you can. The whole concept of him having concussions is you know he's been hit a lot. I've had a concussion. When you get rattled like that, your judgment sometimes changes. You worry about getting hit instead of worrying about protecting the ball or whatnot. He's the backup returner, so he's being put in a huge role for a huge game. There's things like that that you key on putting an emphasis on putting a good hit on him. Legal hit, no cheap shots. Let's see if we can get a turnover."
Thomas said the Giants weren't attempting to give Williams another concussion. "That's not the concept," he said. "It's just going after somebody knowing you can do something to change the game."
Fine lines? Sure. But these are the kinds of discussions that will dominate in the present and future NFL. This league is being sued pretty much weekly by hundreds of former players who claim it covered up their injuries. Whether fans like it or not, player safety has become a paramount issue for the NFL, and it will continue to take it very seriously. If the Giants had been flagged for even one illegal hit to the head of Kyle Williams in the NFC Championship Game and then said what their players said after the game, they'd likely be in huge trouble. That they weren't could be good fortune, could be coincidence, or it could reflect the difference between big pregame psych-up bluster and the reality that most players aren't comfortable with the idea of trying to injure (or re-injure) someone.
In the end, my conclusion is that it might be a good idea for coaches and players to stop pointing out their opponents' specific pre-existing injuries in their pregame meetings. That seems like a lesson everybody would do well to take from today.