NFC South: Shaun O\'Hara
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.
ESPN.com 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.
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."
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."
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have picked up a two-year option on the contract of coach Raheem Morris’ contract. That was pretty much a given after a 10-6 season. But keep an eye on this one if the league’s labor situation gets resolved. Morris is one of the league’s lowest-paid head coaches, and the Bucs might give him a raise and a longer deal.
Carolina center Ryan Kalil has been added to the NFC South Pro Bowl roster after New York Giants center Shaun O’Hara withdrew because of an injury.
The Denver Broncos reportedly have asked the Carolina Panthers for permission to interview John Fox for their coaching vacancy. Although the Panthers already have said Fox will not return, his contract runs through Feb. 1. Things didn’t end well between Fox and Jerry Richardson, but I don’t think the Panthers owner will stand in the way of Fox getting another job.
|Rex Brown/Getty Images and Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE|
|Jake Delhomme's Panthers travel to the Meadowlands to take on Eli Manning's Giants Sunday night in a battle of 11-3 teams.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley and Pat Yasinskas
In what could end up being an NFC Championship Game preview, the New York Giants (11-3) and the Carolina Panthers (11-3) will square off Sunday night in the Meadowlands. At one point, the Giants appeared to have a firm grip on the No. 1 playoff seed, but they've now lost two straight games. The Panthers seem to be hitting their stride and a win would make them the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
After an intense negotiation over the debate format, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and NFC East blogger Matt Mosley have agreed to discuss a few issues that may or may not affect Sunday's game. After you've finished reading, we encourage you to continue the debate in the comments section -- or in Pat's personal e-mail account.
Pat Yasinskas: Yes, Manning has the ring and the pedigree, but that's all he's really got on Delhomme. Did Manning carry the Giants to the Super Bowl last season? No, he played above average, but the reason he won was because he had a great team around him. Delhomme gets bashed (sometimes even by Carolina fans), but this guy is one of the most underappreciated quarterbacks ever. He doesn't have the ring, but he's been to a Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Games. He's not an exceptional talent in any way, but he's won throughout his career. You want proof of how much he means to the Panthers? Look at what happened last year when he was hurt. The Panthers went 7-9 and didn't make the playoffs. With him, they're on the verge of claiming the No. 1 seed. Manning's got the name and the measurable qualities, but Delhomme's got everything else. I'll take the guy with intangibles and the real Steve Smith any day.
Matt Mosley: Pat, I hate to see you minimize what Manning accomplished in last year's playoffs by saying he played "above average." He completed more than 60 percent of his passes during the four-game stretch, and that included a 21-of-40 performance when it was 9 degrees below zero in Green Bay. He threw six touchdowns and only one interception, and he played a major role in one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. Everyone in the Giants' locker room believes that Manning's the best quarterback in the NFC, and that's why the Giants don't have a sense of panic right now. Manning has faced more scrutiny in New York than Delhomme will ever experience in Charlotte -- and he's somehow come out on the other side. I'm a fan of Delhomme's work from way back, but he's completed less than 60 percent of his passes this season and he's thrown 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. You're suggesting that Delhomme has all the intangibles that can't be measured. Manning has a certain piece of jewelry that's fairly easy to measure.
Have the Panthers surpassed the Giants as the best rushing team in the league?
MM: It's remarkable how even these teams are in the running game. They both average a little over 30 attempts per game and they gain 4.8 yards per carry. The Giants still hold a slight edge in total rushing yards, but it's almost too close to call. The loss of Brandon Jacobs hurts the Giants far more than Plaxico Burress, although both players make a difference. Jacobs is a huge part of this team's identity. Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw are capable backups, but Jacobs sets the tone. The Panthers are a little bit more explosive in the running game. Both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart can take it to the house, as evidenced by the fact that the Panthers lead the league with six carries of 40 yards or more. The Giants have only two. For some reason, Tom Coughlin doesn't trust Bradshaw enough to give him meaningful carries. That's the guy who needs to touch the ball more. He's a game-changing player who touches the ball about three or four times a game. Makes no sense to me.
PY: Carolina's running game is clicking at the right time and coach John Fox has the kind of offense he hasn't truly had since the 2003 Super Bowl season. Williams and Stewart are a great mix of speed and power, but they're not the real reason this running game has suddenly become the best in the NFL. The real reason is the offensive line. After Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah and R
yan Kalil each missed some time early in the season with injuries, Carolina has had its "real" line intact for most of the last four games and it's shown. The Panthers have been dominant up front and people are only just starting to realize how good this offensive line is. Gross made the Pro Bowl this year and Otah and Kalil might be only a year away.
We just mentioned how Carolina's offensive line is clicking. The Giants' offensive line was exposed by the Cowboys' pass rush. Who's got the better offensive line right now?
PY: Even though I grew up just down the road from Giants guard Chris Snee's hometown (Montrose, Pa.), I cover the NFC South, so I give the edge to the Panthers. Offensive lines are all about chemistry and continuity, and Carolina has that going for it right now. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney blew up last year's offensive line and they don't have a single regular starter in the same place as last year. That's because the Panthers wanted to get bigger and more physical up front. We've talked about how that's shown up in the running game, but it's also shown up in the passing game. The Panthers protect Delhomme well and Gross might be having the best year of any left tackle in the NFL. Sundays are easy for him because he spends the rest of the week trying to block Julius Peppers in practice.
MM: Pat, if the Giants make it to the Super Bowl, I think you just volunteered to do the definitive Snee feature story. You know, how the small-town kid grew up to marry the head coach's daughter. But you may be going a bit overboard on the Panthers' offensive line. I watched it get overwhelmed by the Vikings for five sacks early in the season and the Falcons sacked Delhomme three times in a 45-28 win last month. The Giants' offensive line is coming off a dreadful performance against the Cowboys, but the Mauler from Montrose, Snee, and center Shaun O'Hara earned their trips to the Pro Bowl. The Giants have given up a ton of sacks to the Cowboys. Against the rest of the league, they've been excellent. And David Diehl has had a solid year as well. Give me the Giants' offensive line, although the Panthers are coming on strong.
What will Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo do to slow down Steve Smith and how will the Panthers counter? Teams routinely take Terrell Owens out of games. Why can't they do it against Smith?
MM: It takes skill to bring up T.O.'s name in a Panthers-Giants debate, but it's something we all learned in ESPN.com's blogger orientation. Spagnuolo will mix up the coverages, but I think Corey Webster will end up on Smith quite a bit with some help over the top. On several occasions in Week 15, I saw the Giants line up like they were going to cover T.O. with safety James Butler and then middle linebacker Antonio Pierce raced directly over to the receiver at the snap. It was a strange-looking double-team, but T.O. didn't accomplish much of anything in the game. Everything starts with stopping the run. On a couple of occasions last Sunday, the great Justin Tuck broke outside containment and allowed Tashard Choice to turn the corner. The Giants have to stay in their gaps or Stewart and Williams will find a lane. The Giants know how much Delhomme depends on Smith and I think they'll try to take the receiver out of the game. And honestly, I think they'll be successful. But that leaves other people open.
PY: Perhaps the best quality about Smith is he's so relentless. I won't even attempt to get into Smith's psychological makeup, but let's just say the guy's been told all his life he's too small and he constantly proves that wrong. You live your whole life like that and it becomes a habit, so you're not going to give up when you get double-teamed. The guy's a fierce competitor and he's going to find ways to get open no matter what. Plus, Delhomme relies on him -- too heavily at times. Delhomme will throw into coverage, but Smith will bail him out more times than not. Spagnuolo is a great defensive mind, but I don't envy him this week. He almost has to pick his poison. He can make it a priority to shut down Carolina's running game or he can make stopping Smith the first order of business. Neither one is easy.
Which team has the best chance of having success in the playoffs?
PY: The best advantage the Panthers have going for them right now is momentum. The Giants had a rough outing against Dallas and haven't looked as good as they did early in the year. Carolina is playing better than it has all year. Yes, the Giants went through a Super Bowl run last year and they know how to win. But so do the Panthers. They've been to a Super Bowl and an NFC Championship Game under Fox and they're hungry after two subpar seasons. The Panthers are peaking at the right time and this, essentially, is a playoff game because it could determine home-field advantage in the NFC. That's a huge plus for whoever gets it, but keep this in mind: Fox brought the Panthers into Giants Stadium for a playoff game after the 2005 season and shut out the Giants.
MM: To the players on these two teams, 2005 is ancient history. Last season, the Giants were awful in a Week 15 loss to the Redskins. They came back and clinched a playoff spot against the Bills and then used a narrow loss against the Patriots as the impetus for a Super Bowl run. You brought up the "intangible" word earlier in the proceedings. The Giants have more intangibles than the Panthers. The two running backs for Carolina have no clue what it's like to be in the playoffs. The Giants' roster is full of players who know exactly how it feels. If the Giants win this game, they'll go right back to being Super Bowl favorites. No one circles the wagons or designs a motivational T-shirt like Tom Coughlin. The Giants win this game and regain some of the momentum they lost over the past two weeks. You heard it here first. Pat, let's do this again. Maybe before the NFC Championship Game between the Cowboys and Falcons.