Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Are NFL Players Wising Up About CTE?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterOctober 7, 2015

Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Sean Lee (50) is assisted by team medical staff after suffering an unknown injury during an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Brandon Wade/Associated Press

1. Brett Keisel, our love of violence and CTE

Recently, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University released data that showed 87 of 91 deceased former NFL players had CTE, the devastating brain disease. Forty percent of the players who tested positive were offensive or defensive linemen. The latter was the position played by longtime Steeler Brett Keisel.

Is Keisel worried about CTE? 

At first, in an interview with Bleacher Report, he made a joke. "I was a bit slow to begin with," he said.

But I press him, and the joking stops. And then you can tell—and this is important—Keisel, who was one of the most professional, dedicated and, yes, violent players on the field, is having difficulty coming to terms with CTE.

I find that as I speak to current and recently retired players, the CTE issue is beginning to really settle in. I can't give you a scientific poll. Nothing exact. I can tell you in off-the-record conversations with current players, one thing is beginning to really hit them, and it's the reality of CTE that almost no one truly understands.

CTE isn't about concussions. It's about the every-down, repetitive hits endured by players. From the Boston University data, reported by PBS:

Forty percent of those who tested positive were the offensive and defensive linemen who come into contact with one another on every play of a game, according to numbers shared by the brain bank with FRONTLINE. That finding supports past research suggesting that it's the repeat, more minor head trauma that occurs regularly in football that may pose the greatest risk to players, as opposed to just the sometimes violent collisions that cause concussions.

To put that in more blunt terms, if the trending science is to be believed, it is the very core of football itself—garden-variety blocking and tackling—that puts players at such great risk of getting CTE, not necessarily concussions.

That's why this disease is so scary: Concussions aren't the worst part of it.

The NFL will say there is no proof that football causes CTE. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that. Virtually impossible, actually.

And CTE isn't just about the hits accumulated in the NFL. It's the sub-concussive hits accumulated in Pop Warner. Take those hits and add them to the sub-concussive hits accumulated in high school. Add both of those numbers to the ones in college. Then add that huge, total number, which may be hundreds and hundreds, to the pros.

Concussions are bad. Really bad. Sean Lee of the Cowboys on Monday night had a head-to-head collision with 6'3", 255-pound tight end Benjamin Watson. Lee looked like he was unconscious before he hit the ground. It was brutal.

Yet the everyday hits of football that do not cause concussions are perhaps even scarier. 

Based on my talks with current players, I honestly do not think players understand this. They don't get that sub-concussive hits are the core of the real CTE problem.

Then again, why would they? The NFL isn't going to educate them. I'm not sure what the union does. Teams don't. Some agents might, but players are their livelihood. Unless players do what Chris Borland did, which is spend extensive time doing their own research, it's understandable why they (at least the ones I speak to) have no idea of what exactly is happening when it comes to CTE research.

The interviews I'm getting—and again, they're not scientific or numerous in any way—portray part of a player base that basically is burying its head in the sand.

So, back to Keisel.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

"I have two sons who want to play football," he said, "and you have to be concerned about it."

Right now, his sons play flag, but he said unequivocally they will play tackle.

Then, Keisel sounded almost resigned to the fact that if you play football, this is a possible consequence.

"Football will always be violent," he said. "That's why Americans love it. It's played with violent men and watched by people who want that violence."

Keisel has prepared well for retirement. He's financially secure, his health is great, and he's still incredibly fit. He doesn't sound totally retired but says it would take the perfect situation for him to come back to football (cough-Steelers-cough).

His view clearly has not been changed by the research on CTE quite yet. But he is worried.

2. Chip Kelly isn't going anywhere

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

I've been hard on Chip Kelly, and he deserves much of the blame for the Eagles' slow start. Actually, all of it. But let's be clear. Kelly isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

The reason is simple: He has total control. A coach with the control Kelly possesses is extremely rare in the NFL. He has the keys to the car, and he won't give up those keys easily.

According to a team source, Kelly has told people in the Eagles organization that he isn't moving back to college, and the idea that he would now is ridiculous. So, for the moment at least, that settles that.

3. Tyrod Taylor could have been an Eagle

Oct 4, 2015; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) looks to throw a pass during the second half against the New York Giants at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Giants beat the Bills 24 to 10.  Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

From NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, on Tyrod Taylor's offseason:

How did he end up in Buffalo? He left Baltimore because he wanted to compete to be a starter, though the Ravens valued him as a backup.

One place he wanted to go, which featured an offense deemed perfect for him, was the Eagles. He asked the Eagles to consider him. However, they did not, eventually signing Tim Tebow instead.

Yes, correct, Taylor wanted to be an Eagle, but they went with Tebow instead.

Please read that sentence one more time.

It is true that hindsight is perfect, but give the Bills credit for taking a chance on Taylor and seeing his potential—instead of going for someone who had failed in the NFL multiple times in Tebow.

4. Another Peyton Manning hot start

Oct 4, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) after the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The way the Broncos have gotten to 4-0 isn't the normal way Peyton Manning has won throughout his NFL career. He's been the alpha male, leader, everything-goes-through-him quarterback. Now, defense is the star, not Manning.

Still, his 4-0 start is historic. This is Manning's seventh 4-0 start, the most by any quarterback in league history, according to the NFL. Fran Tarkenton is next with four 4-0 starts.

The way Manning is starting this 4-0 trip, again, is amazingly different from his others. For the first time, maybe in his entire football life, Manning isn't the main reason his team is unbeaten.

5. The Andrew Luck lessons

AJ Mast/Associated Press

This from an NFC scout: "If there's one main culprit for what's happened with the Colts, it's that general manager [Ryan Grigson]. I like him, but there isn't a personnel person in the league who doesn't wonder why he hasn't done a better job of protecting [Andrew Luck]. When you see your franchise [player] get the hell beat out of him the way he was for years, do a better job of protecting him."

I can't argue with this. Luck has not been good, and he's been injured, but that offensive line has been absolutely awful. That is on Grigson. No one else.

6. How long has Andrew Luck been injured?

R Brent Smith/Associated Press

I tweeted recently that one scout, who has been a Luck admirer for years and has seen almost all of his snaps going back to college, told me he noticed several weeks ago on film that Luck had a hitch in his throwing motion he hadn't seen before.

Maybe it was nothing. But the scout believes that Luck has been hurt for at least several weeks and that accounts for why he hasn't played well. This isn't an excuse for Luck, the scout said, just a possible indicator that he may have been injured longer than we have known.

7. What has happened to Colin Kaepernick?

I've talked about Colin Kaepernick's regression before, and it continues to be a remarkable thing to watch. I cannot remember such a steep, non-law-enforcement-related decline as Kaepernick's. On several plays against the Packers, he couldn't even make basic NFL throws to wide-open receivers right in front of him.

It got so bad, the Packers were mocking him. Clay Matthews sacked him and then did the kiss-your-bicep thingy that Kaepernick used to do. There was also audio that sounded like Matthews saying, "You ain't Russell Wilson, bruh."

For the first time, it's open season on Kaepernick. The rest of the league doesn't fear him the way it once did. In fact, it's the opposite. Defenses want to face him.

Fans of the 49ers were roundly booing Kaepernick. This could get ugly. Really ugly. Kaepernick-benched-and-Blaine Gabbert-starting ugly.

8. The amazing Aaron Rodgers 

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Against San Francisco, Aaron Rodgers didn't have his usual great statistical game. He threw just one touchdown pass. Not a great day for his fantasy owners. Then again, his team won by 14 points. He was efficient and, of course, had no interceptions. He was as good as he needed to be to win 17-3.

One thing I want you to consider: Since the start of last season, Rodgers has 49 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. That is almost superhuman.

9. Some human beings are awful

What some Twitter idiots did to Cardale Jones wasn't just an abomination, it was yet another reason why college players are basically pros. They are subjected to the same kind of vileness that professional players are.

I spoke to a few NFL players about what happened to Jones, and one said this: "At least I get paid while fans insult me."

10. Ndamukong Haynesworth?

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

No, Ndamukong Suh is no Albert Haynesworth, but it is fair to say that Suh has been a magnificent bust so far in Miami.

When I state this, Dolphins fans say it's only been four games. That is true. Yet Suh was given a $114 million contract with almost half of it guaranteed. He isn't supposed to wait until Week 5 to start to play. His impact is supposed to be immediate.

This is also what I get from Dolphins fans: He takes up offensive linemen so others can make plays. He does take on a lot of double-teams, and that is part of Suh's value, to be sure. Again, though, he was paid that massive amount of money to have impact beyond taking up blockers. Warren Sapp took up blockers and stopped the run. And got to the quarterback. And disrupted even the most basic running of an offense. He did everything. Suh has done almost nothing.

In the Dolphins' debacle against the Jets, they gave up more than 100 yards rushing in the first half. Suh was brought there to stop the run, not get obliterated by Chris Ivory.

No, Suh isn't Haynesworth. Yet this is an inauspicious start for him. It's Haynesworth light.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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