NFC South: NaVorro Bowman

NEW ORLEANS -- The glitz is still here, but the tone this Super Bowl week just doesn’t seem to fit with the celebrations on Bourbon Street or the free and easy nature of the host city.

The issue of player safety has been as topical as Ray Lewis' last game or brothers Jim and John Harbaugh coaching against each other.

We've heard predictions that the NFL will be gone in 30 years, or at least reduced to a game of two-hand touch. President Barack Obama hypothetically has wondered whether or not he would let a son play football. Current players have said they "signed up" for a violent game and all that may eventually come with it, even as thousands of former players are pursuing lawsuits claiming the NFL failed to warn them of the long-term effects of concussions. surveyed a group of current and former players and executives to get their thoughts on the player-safety issues.

The group included current San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman, former NFL cornerback Eric Davis, current Baltimore safety Ed Reed, retired quarterback Bobby Hebert, former NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira, former linebacker Willie McGinest, current San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith, NFL Players Association president Domonique Foxworth, current Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, retired lineman Shaun O’Hara, current San Francisco fullback Bruce Miller, longtime Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt and current San Francisco guard Alex Boone.

[+] EnlargeEric Davis
AP Photo/Kevin Terrell"Let's be real honest," former NFL safety Eric Davis said. "It's a gladiator sport. Coliseums were built for it."
Here are the highlights of their answers to the hot-button questions:

Where do you see the NFL in 30 years?

Brandt: "I don’t think we’re Montgomery Ward. Montgomery Ward, at one time, was the leading retailer in the world and they made the mistake of saying we’re not going to go into the little towns, we’re just going to go into these big places, and they stood still. The league may doze, but it will never close. They’re always looking for ways to make things better. They’ve been working on making the game safer and they’ll continue to make it safer."

Pereria: "I see it not a whole lot different than it is. I think the league will go as far as it can and still go further than it is now to try to make the game safer. But I don’t think it’s going to make the league disappear as some people have said. I think this is still a once-a-week game that people get very passionate about their games."

McGinest: "I think the NFL definitely is going to be here to stay. I think that this is the best game in the world. I think that they’re doing everything in their power to keep it that way and to make it one of the safest games. I don't think it's going to look different. I think they're just changing certain things to make it safer. If you're talking about hit zones, if you're talking about staying away from head shots and stuff like that, that's not something we're not used to hearing. So I don't think we're going to go back to leather helmets with no face masks or no helmets. This game is going to be the way it is. I just think they're doing everything and taking every precaution to make it safer."

O’Hara: "Football is not going to disappear in 30 years. Will it look different? Of course it'll look different. Look at the game 30 years ago to today -- different game, different rules, different equipment. So 30 years from now, absolutely, it'll be a different game."

Are the safety concerns overblown?

Foxworth: "My responsibility is just to protect the rights of the players and their health and safety, so I don't think that there can be enough [attention given to safety issues], especially given some of the things that have happened as a result of some of the head injuries. I'm pretty sure that those players and their families would say that there's no such thing as too much attention on the health and safety of the guys. So I come from that standpoint, and, being a former player, it's something I'm keenly aware of from a personal standpoint, and a lot of my friends are in this league and I know a lot of our kids may potentially be in this league. So it's very important that we put as much effort, time and money toward evolving the game and the science of the game as we can."

Smith: "The game is what we signed up for. We didn’t sign up for tennis. We didn’t sign up for swimming and didn’t realize we were going to go out there and get tackled. We signed up for football, which we knew was a physical sport.”

Davis: "Let’s be real honest. It’s a gladiator sport. Coliseums were built for it. People like to watch it and we’re talking about big, strong, fast men. There are going to be collisions. There are going to be injuries. Do all the things you have to do to make it as safe as possible, but the reality is there’s always going to be some danger."

Hebert: "A little bit. But the NFL is so popular because it’s the modern-day gladiator. I mean, I don’t know what that says about mankind. But you can also look at boxing and ultimate fighting and how popular they are. Fans don’t want to see flag football. I still think football will be here. You can change it, but you can only change it so far."

McGinest: "I think it's necessary based on some of the studies, some of the former players and what they're going through, some of the players now. It's necessary. And it's also showing that the NFL cares about its players. If they're taking time to put on these full-on studies and they're going through every precaution with the testing of the gear and the helmets and they are willing to change certain things about the game to make sure that it's going to be here and be a safer game, it has all the signs of going in the right direction."

Boone: "I just never understood how you change the game when you have players who are bigger, stronger and faster every year. It’s just football. It’s going to be physical. It’s a physical sport. There are going to be injuries, but we’re doing things to correct it.''

What one change would you make to improve safety?

Pereria: "The safety issue is really all about the head. That’s something the league has been focusing on for a long time and they’ll continue to focus on making the rules broader than they are right now. Right now, only nine players are protected in certain situations. Can you go further? Possibly. The whole notion is going to try to be to get the head out of the game and get back to the wrap and tackling as opposed to lowering the head. They’re serious about that, and they should be. To me, as I watch so much football on Sundays, it’s already made a difference. You see situations where a defender really has a chance to blow up a receiver and he doesn’t. To me, that means the rules are taking effect and that the fines have made a difference."

Davis: "They’re making the game safe for quarterbacks and star players. But they’re not making it safer for all players. You never hear of a defenseless running back. You never hear of a defenseless linebacker. Defensive players aren’t protected. Unless you make it safer for all players, I don’t think you’re doing as much good as you can. You have to put everyone on equal footing."

Reed: "Defensive players should be protected, too. Offensive guys, quarterbacks in general, shouldn't be treated better than everybody on the football field.''

McGinest: "I would take out the chop-block. That's another thing we don't talk about. A lot of emphasis is on the head, guys getting concussions and stuff, but there are also a lot of players getting their ACLs knocked out because now guys are diving. Now that they know they can't go high, guys are starting to attack with chop-blocking. That's also knocking guys' careers either out or messing them up. Not everybody's Adrian Peterson coming back from those injuries. A lot of guys, they take the wrong hit on the knee, they're never the same player."

O’Hara: "I think the only real way to get everybody on the same page is to somehow get all the players in the NFL and all the coaches in the NFL and all the referees, get everybody in the same building and have, 'This is what is acceptable and this is what is not.' No second- and third-person regurgitation of the facts and, 'Here's what we're looking for,' because that needs to be consistent and everybody needs to hear the same message. Centralize the education, basically."

What else can be done to make things safer?

Hebert: "I think you truly have to take it out of the players' hands as far as whether you’re going to go back into the game or not after a head injury. As a player, when it comes to your teammates, you never want to be looked upon as a wuss. You want to be a tough son of a gun. To me, it totally has to be out of the hands of the players."

[+] EnlargeShaun O'Hara
AP Photo/Mel Evans"You wouldn't give your son a circular saw and let him go and start whittling wood," former lineman Shaun O'Hara said. "You would teach him how to use that."
Davis: "Look, the guys I played with and the guys that are playing now were schooled a certain way. It’s too late for us and maybe too late for the guys still playing in the NFL. But the next generation is where a difference can be made. The kids that are coming into Pop Warner now need to be taught how to tackle properly. And maybe, just as importantly, they have to be taught that if you get dinged, if you take a hit to the head and you don’t feel right, you go straight to the coach or the doctors and tell them immediately. People do that with ankle injuries. You hurt your ankle, you come out of the game. Head injuries need to be treated the same way."

Foxworth: "In nine years, you can ask me that question and I'll have a definitive answer. But I don't know. We don't know how much damage repetitive hits do or whether it's the big knockout blows that do the damage. There are just so many questions. We're not sure about the best treatments and the quicker recovery time and if there are any precursors that make someone predisposed to have these kinds of brain injuries. Those are questions that will be answered by this Harvard research, and at that point, I think we can be able to set forth clear protocols of how to treat a player after a practice or how many hits [before] it's time to sit a guy out. Those sorts of things that are changes that can be made easily."

Brandt: "I think it’s like the Internet. People that are older, like myself, are not Internet-savvy. Kids that are 7 or 8 know more about it than I do. I think it’s a thing that you build from the bottom up. Where I think we have a problem is that we have a lot of youth football leagues and the guys that are coaching sometimes get overzealous. I think we’re gradually educating that element."

Would you let a young son start playing football right now?

Bowman: "I’m not going to deter my kids from the game. When they see the game, they understand what it’s all about. It’s a physical game."

Suggs: I respect [the president's comments] for the simple fact that this is a very physical and dangerous sport, especially considering that with the concussions and the current findings of Junior Seau. A parent would be reluctant [to let] his or her child play football. I think, if you play the game right and you play it appropriately, that injuries are part of the game.''

Pereria: "Sure, I would. But I’d also be out there with him, coaching and working with the coaches to make sure that the game, at that level, is being coached properly and that kids are keeping their heads up and abiding by the rules that are still in the NFL rule book, which defines tackling as wrapping your arms around the opponent and taking him to the ground."

Miller: “Everyone has their own opinions, but I would let my kid play football. It’s a violent game, but not too violent. At the same time it builds character, hard work, dedication, responsibility. All of those things are important. They are taking caution to be careful and concerned for the players’ safety and taking that into account more.”

Foxworth: "My son's so young, I like to think that we would have made advances by the time he's old enough to play to make it safer. Given the current state of the game, I wouldn't stop him from playing it, but I'd be very cautious about the exposure and the frequency with which he may come into contact with those type of dangers."

O’Hara: "If my son wanted to play football, I would absolutely let him. I would drive him. But I would teach him. You wouldn't give your son a circular saw and let him go and start whittling wood. You would teach him how to use that. There's a proper way to use power tools. So my issue is, when I hear parents say, 'I don't want him to play football,' well, it's because you don't want to take the time to teach him how to do it right. Or you don't know how to teach him right. So that, to me, is a big sticking point. When I see kids that want to play football, I just want them to learn it the right way. We need to make sure our coaches are teaching our kids the right way to do things, because for every one kid that gets hurt, that's something that could affect a whole lifetime."
Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton Getty ImagesCoaches Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton will go head-to-head on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET).
OK, so the New Orleans Saints' and San Francisco 49ers' head coaches won't be bonding over the phone this week.

No problem.

NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and I are here to set the record straight heading into the Saints-49ers divisional playoff game Saturday.

We'll get right to the pressing issues, starting with those preseason blitzing shenanigans 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh brushed off Monday.

Mike Sando: I've got no reason to think the Saints' radio voice, Jim Henderson, was anything but truthful when he said Sean Payton ordered extra blitzes against the 49ers in the preseason opener after Harbaugh supposedly failed to call Payton before the game. I've also never heard of protocol requiring coaches to work out a "gentleman's agreement" regarding how to approach preseason games.

Pat Yasinskas: We're talking about two coaches with very strong personalities. Payton and Harbaugh both are extremely competitive, and you can include New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in that category. The Saints blitzed more than any team during the regular season. But there's no doubt all the blitzing in the preseason game was a bit over the top. There's also no doubt Harbaugh and the 49ers will remember that and that could provide some extra motivation. I expect both teams to be very feisty. That's not a bad thing for the Saints. Their defense hasn't been great and the extra edginess could help them.

Mike Sando: Shall we step outside, you and me? I kid, but count me among those questioning the Saints' performance outdoors. I realize New Orleans has won plenty on the road, but the Saints averaged only 23.8 points in their four most recent outdoor games (Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Jacksonville). They averaged 41.1 points at home during the regular season and nearly as much in all their 11 indoor games. What's the truth about the Saints' offense and how well it travels?

Pat Yasinskas: The numbers don't lie. Tennessee was a decent team. The Bucs had not yet fallen apart when they beat the Saints. The level of competition was fairly high in those games. But the Panthers and Jaguars were not good teams. That shows there definitely is something to the perception the Saints aren't the same team outdoors. Obviously, Drew Brees and the passing game are best suited for a dome. But I think the one thing that's overlooked, and something that could be a big factor, is the New Orleans running game. The Saints run the ball well and have gotten better in that area as the season has gone on. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory bring a nice mix of speed and power. I think we could see more of the Saints' running game than usual in this one.

Mike Sando: The 49ers will welcome the challenge. Arian Foster, Felix Jones, LeGarrette Blount, Jahvid Best and Montario Hardesty are among the NFL backs the 49ers have injured since preseason. They roughed up LeSean McCoy, too. Unless Marshawn Lynch suddenly shows up in this game -- and, hey, the Saints wouldn't want to see him, either -- the 49ers' run defense should be OK. I still think getting to Brees is the key. But as John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, Brees has completed a league-high 52.1 percent of his passes over the past two seasons while throwing under duress.

Pat Yasinskas: Although Brees is good against the blitz, believe it or not, he is human. He can make mistakes when pressured. He threw 22 interceptions in 2010. The 49ers' best chance to slow Brees is to pressure him.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireThe Saints should have their hands full preparing for the likes of 49ers QB Alex Smith.
Mike Sando: Two contributors to the NFC West blog, ArmedWithWings and ncannelora, suggested the 49ers’ All-Pro inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, would give San Francisco the personnel and flexibility to defend Brees’ passes to tight end Jimmy Graham and the Saints’ running backs. That would separate the 49ers from just about every Saints opponent this season.

Pat Yasinskas: The Saints are going to score some points, even against good defenses. But I'm thinking outside the box on this game. I'm thinking the New Orleans defense could determine this game. This is not a defense that's going to shut anyone down. But Williams' defenses are built around the theory that coming up with turnovers is the key. That was a strength in the 2009 season, when the Saints won the Super Bowl. The Saints have not been as opportunistic this season or in 2010. If they're going to win, that needs to change. If the Saints can come up with a turnover or two, they'll win. If they don't, they could be in trouble.

Mike Sando: San Francisco has committed only 10 turnovers all season, fewest in the league. The 49ers also led the NFL in turnovers forced. I wonder, though, if the 49ers will have to take more chances offensively to keep pace with the Saints. And as Scott Kacsmar noted recently, teams with historically strong turnover numbers during the regular season have often made quick postseason exits. In fact, the five teams with the fewest regular-season turnovers since 2008 have gone 0-5 in the playoffs, committing 17 turnovers in those games. The 49ers cannot follow that pattern. Conventional wisdom says they need to run the ball with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. That is true. But keep an eye on Alex Smith. He has quietly relished proving the doubters wrong this season. He has only five interceptions all season and has played a role in five fourth-quarter comeback victories.

Pat Yasinskas: We must be fairly persuasive guys. We've managed to talk each other into thinking the other teams can win. Should be a good one Saturday. See you at the Stick.

Quick Take: Saints at 49ers

January, 7, 2012
Three things to know about next Saturday’s New Orleans Saints-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game:

1. On a roll: The Saints have not lost since Oct. 30 when they inexplicably dropped a game to St. Louis. Although that loss was a big reason why the Saints now have to go on the road, it brought about some positives. The Saints made some major adjustments in their pass protection to give tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief help. Since then, the offense has been unstoppable. Everyone talks about the passing game and that’s understandable. But the running game has been almost as impressive with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory sharing the carries. People like to label the Saints a “dome’’ team, but that’s not necessarily true. With this running game, the Saints can also play outdoors and still be able to move the ball if the weather is an obstacle.

2. A different breed: New Orleans’ offense has had a record-setting year. But look back at the opponents. The Saints have yet to face a defense as good as San Francisco’s. Coach Sean Payton will have to be more creative than ever. San Francisco linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are playing as well as any duo in the game right now. Defenses generally have no idea how to match up with New Orleans tight end and Jimmy Graham and Sproles. But the 49ers might have the personnel to do that.

3. Some help from the defense: The offense has carried the Saints throughout the regular season and there was nothing wrong with that because no defense could slow the Saints. But the 49ers have the potential to keep the Saints under some sort of control. That means Drew Brees and the offense could benefit from some help from the defense. Back in the 2009 championship season, the Saints were opportunistic on defense. They produced turnovers in bunches. This year’s defense hasn’t done much of that. But producing a turnover or two -- or at least generating a little bit of a pass rush -- could be a big help in a road playoff game.