The Washington Post published a jarring feature Tuesday on Larry Johnson, the former Kansas City Chiefs running back and two-time pro bowler who believes he's suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Johnson spoke frighteningly about his violent urges and memory loss, saying he can't remember two of his nine NFL seasons.
Then Sunday, Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis led with the crown of his helmet while executing a blindside block on Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams during an interception return.
It's getting harder and harder to separate those two images.
Mid-December is a time of the year when football fans nationwide are focused on playoff races, the sport front and center as their preferred form of entertainment. All entertainment is, inherently, a distraction. A distraction from responsibilities or grand life questions tied to relationships, careers, money and anything else that causes stress. The football fan sits back on a Sunday, carves a couch groove for 12 hours or so and is either elated or frustrated by the result on the scoreboard, though always entertained.
But as you read about Johnson, and then days later see Thomas' unnecessary head shot, questions that distract the viewer from their distraction start to linger. Questions like: How is this still happening? Why don't the players have more respect for each other? And does the NFL need a college-style targeting rule?
The last question is greeted with automatic grumbles. The thought of Davis, a key linebacker on a 10-4 team in contention for a division title, getting ejected from a critical game can immediately bring on a fear of the eye in the sky and mucky league hands having too much influence over the outcome of games.
The response to such concerns is this: The scoreboard stops mattering when we're talking about the long-term health of humans. Humans who are often young men in their 20s.
Adams, who is 24 years old with a history of head injuries, left the game and didn't return after taking this vicious helmet-to-helmet hit, as Mike Cianciolo of WEAU13 News captured:
The blindside throttling came after an interception in the third quarter of an eventual Panthers win. Adams was pursuing Panthers safety Colin Jones, who had snatched the pick and was sprinting away from the original flow of the play.
Naturally, that made Adams vulnerable in the middle of the field, which often happens after an interception. The tables have been turned, and the defenders now know where the play is headed, while offensive players frantically backtrack.
In the process of doing so, there's the danger of running into the unseen. Adams couldn't see Davis coming and had no time to brace or protect himself from the oncoming hit.
Davis had every opportunity to take two important steps. He could have established his position in an area where Adams could see him and then aimed for the ample area below the shoulders and above the waist while executing a clean block on the interception return.
He choose to do neither and instead gave us another week with a gruesome freeze frame:
That came just a couple of weeks after Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster followed through on a similarly irresponsible blindside block.
He had so little self-awareness that the rookie stood over and taunted Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Like Davis, he was penalized on the play (the flag on Davis was for an illegal blindside block, and Smith-Schuster was flagged for taunting and unnecessary roughness).
And also surely like Davis, Smith-Schuster was handed a one-game suspension.
Given the precedent set by Smith-Schuster's punishment, it feels safe to assume Davis will receive at minimum the same suspension. A message has to be sent to curb this dangerous behavior.
The problem, of course, is that any message the league tries to communicate becomes either lost or ignored. The players aren't taking action and doing their part to minimize the head-rattling blows in a sport where an element of violence is the norm.
This leads to a problem of optics and, much more importantly, human health as the longevity of the NFL is becoming a regular subject of debate.
It's hard to preach safety to parents of young athletes when Johnson, who hasn't even reached the age of 40 yet (he's 38), is publicly discussing his difficult post-career life. And it's even harder to imagine the league staying on a towering pedestal in the North American sports landscape if hits like Davis' continue to dominate highlight reels.
So we're quickly approaching a time when the NFL needs to take further action and adopt a targeting rule.
On a basic level, a targeting rule aims to dramatically reduce the amount of head injuries through a zero-tolerance approach. The NCAA implemented the rule in 2013, and it results in ejection for targeting in addition to a 15-yard penalty.
The definition of targeting in the official rulebook has two distinct elements (via SBNation):
Making “forcible contact against an opponent with the helmet crown,” or the top of the tackler's head.
Making “forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent.”
A defenseless player is defined as someone who has just thrown a pass, is catching a pass or kick and hasn't had time to become a ball-carrier, is in the act of kicking, is on the ground or out of play, has the ball with his forward progress stopped or has given himself up through a slide.
And this is the most important criteria: A defenseless player is also anyone who becomes the victim of a blindside block.
An automatic video review comes with any targeting penalty. That aims to guard against officials making an incorrect call as they try to assess a warp-speed play in real time and ejecting an important player who didn't deserve it.
The targeting rule in the NFL would be both a drastic measure and a much-needed one if the league wants to reflect the modern realities of a brutal sport.
For a long time, the NFL was in denial about the long-term impact of head trauma. Then gradually, more former players, including Aaron Hernandez, were diagnosed with CTE. That lengthy list also includes Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, two other former Pro Bowlers no longer with us after taking their own lives.
The potential for head injuries that those players faced will never be eliminated from the game. That's an unrealistic expectation, and there will always be an element of danger. But as more players weaponize their bodies by launching at the opponent's head, it's becoming increasingly difficult to believe current measures like suspensions are discouraging them.
The NFL needs to do more, and do it soon, because doing nothing will lead to even darker conversations about where the league is headed in a decade.