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Column: 'Not like we signed up to play tennis.'

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Column: 'Not like we signed up to play tennis.'

Super Bowl week is beginning to resemble one of those family reunions where your crazy uncle says something outrageous, but just true enough to spark a discussion worth having.

Two years ago, it was Steelers linebacker James Harrison ripping the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell for excessive fines on the violent hits that were his specialty, and generally trying to make the game too safe. ``We'll lay a pillow down where I'm going to tackle them,'' he said mockingly at one point, ``so they don't hit the ground too hard, Mr. Goodell.''

This time around, the provocateur was Bernard Pollard, the Ravens' notoriously punishing safety. Covering much of the same ground Harrison had, Pollard said he didn't think the NFL would be around in 30 years because rule changes designed to make it even safer would eventually drive away fans - if something tragic didn't hasten the game's end even sooner.

``The only thing I'm waiting for ... and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen ... is a guy dying on the field,'' Pollard told CBSSports.com.

It may be easy to dismiss a handful of players' exaggerated views, but the notion that the NFL is in real trouble - as well as football at every level from Pop Warner up - isn't as hard a sell as it seems.

Sure, the game has never been more popular. The league is taking in nearly $10 billion annually, breaking its own record TV telecasts almost on a weekly basis, and could repeat the feat again Sunday in New Orleans, when the 49ers tee it up against the Ravens. But just a few weeks later, arguments are scheduled to begin in Philadelphia in one lawsuit brought on behalf of former players and their families contending that the league failed to warn them about the dangers of concussions and then concealed those risks even in the face of mounting evidence. And that's just one of several pending legal actions piling up outside Goodell's office door.

Yet even all those lawsuits combined may not represent the most serious threat to the NFL's existence long term.

``The plaintiffs are facing a huge uphill battle, and that's me speaking as a lawyer,'' said attorney Robert Boland, who teaches sports law at New York University's Tisch Center, and has worked previously as an agent. ``Obviously, the publicity generated by the concussion issues is big, but I don't think the same is true in terms of legal liability. This is a collectively bargained issue for the most part and while the NFL is the biggest target - it has the deepest pockets - courts are likely to take a very narrow view of what responsibility it's facing. It may well be the case where the NFL wins in the courts very quickly, then has to find a way to be sensitive to the very real dangers that exist as part of the game.

``The concussion issue is forcing people to choose sides and yet the real challenge, I think, will be holding together the coalition that made the game so popular - players, coaches, parents and fans. There's already a bar for young players to get into the game; the cost of equipment, the staffing it requires, and if the insurers get nervous and drive up the costs even further, that might be the biggest short-term threat. Nothing has shown up yet,'' Boland added, ``but anybody taking the long view has to be looking at the present and saying, `It could.' ``

President Obama tackled that issue in a recent interview with The New Republic, saying that he anticipated the less exciting pro game that guys like Harrison and Pollard envisioned as safety concerns change the way it's played. What really worried him, though, was whether those changes at the top would filter down to the lower levels of the sport soon enough.

``I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football,'' Obama said.

``I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union. They're grown men. They can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies,'' he added. ``You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about.''

Don't expect action from the NCAA anytime soon, but the NFL and its players' union may not have the luxury of time. A quick sampling of comments during media day showed many players still favor the status quo, risks and all.

``That's what we all know coming into the game,'' 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith said. ``We all signed up for it. It's not like we signed up and thought we were going to play tennis, you know?''

His coach, one-time NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, took that cavalier attitude a step further, when asked to respond to the president's remarks.

``Well, I have a 4-month-old - almost, soon-to-be 5-month-old - son, Jack Harbaugh, and if President Obama feels that way, then (there will) be a little less competition for Jack Harbaugh when he gets older,'' Harbaugh chuckled. ``That's the first thing that jumps into my mind, if other parents are thinking that way.''

Keep in mind that the NFL's nightmare scenario played out on a football field an hour from Boston only a few months ago. In a Pop Warner game between longtime rivals, five kids between the ages of 10 and 12 were concussed, all on the losing team, three in the first quarter and the last one on the final play. Not everyone is convinced there's enough time to wait for Goodell and the union to sort out the legal battles and work together to advance the safety issue.

``I think it's being taken seriously, but as far as young people starting to play, we need better and smarter instruction than ever before,'' said former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, who's enlisted his famous sons, Peyton and Eli, to help run his annual quarterbacking camp. ``We've got to bring some attention to bear right away, especially how we teach tackling and the rest of the physical components of the game.

``You only get so many chances and we've let a lot slip past. We can't afford too many more misses,'' he said finally, ``We've got to get it right.''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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Proposed NFL rule change would eliminate Ravens' intentional holding strategy

Proposed NFL rule change would eliminate Ravens' intentional holding strategy

BY TYLER BYRUM, @theTylerByrum

It made everyone do a double-take, then it made perfect sense to non-Cincinnati and non-Pittsburgh fans.

Back in Week 12 when the Baltimore Ravens held off the Cincinnati Bengals 19-14, it wasn't a single touchdown that made national headlines. Rather it was a game ending safety that cut a seven-point deficit to only five. 

On the final play, numerous Ravens players held the opposing Bengals, who were setting up to receive punt, with 11 seconds left on the clock. Punter Sam Koch, just sat back, draining the clock before finally running out the back of the end zone with the clock at zero. 

SEE LINK FOR FULL RULE EXPLANATION

Thursday it was proposed to the NFL's Competition Committee to make plays like this illegal. 

While it may be considered unfair to some, making this new rule would simply add to an already expanding rule book and only be used for a select handful of plays a year, maybe. 

Eliminating cleverness of coaches that are well versed in the NFL rule book, should not be the approach of the of rule adaptations. There is no impact on player safety nor does it make the game 'more watchable' (like the extra-point rule).

Not only that, but the new proposed rule just leaves another set of loopholes for coaches to take advantage of at the end of a game. What if team trying to score on the last play commits two offensive penalties just to get another shot at the endzone?

But before making a massive overhaul to fix all of the loopholes in the NFL rule book, can we establish what a catch is first?

MORE RAVENS: Tony Jefferson used Madden to make free agency decision

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Ravens mock draft roundup: Mike Williams continues to pop up

Ravens mock draft roundup: Mike Williams continues to pop up

Just over a month away from the NFL Draft, mock drafts across sport media sites are beginning to narrow in on players that fit specifically into blaring holes on a team's roster.

As the first wave of free agency has come through, a majority of the top names at each position has been snatched up. While the Baltimore Ravens can still sign a handful of free agents on the open market, getting backup or a young star in a key position can be a the primary goal. 

Here's a look at who some of the various analysts have the Ravens taking with their No. 16 pick in the first round. The general consensus is help in the defensive secondary and at the wide receiver position.

DE Taco Charlton, Michigan, Ben Standig, CSN-Mid Atlantic

Standing: At some point the Ravens must find an edge pass rushing replacement for Terrell Suggs. Charlton might be better stopping the run than rushing the passer right now and yet he had nine sacks in 10 regular season games.  

SEE STANDIG'S FULL 2017 MOCK DRAFT

SS Jabrill Peppers, Michigan, Rob Rang, CBS Sports

Rang: With starting safety Matt Elam a pending free agent and Eric Weddle poised to enter his 11th NFL season, the Ravens may very well be looking for help in the secondary in the 2017 draft. Peppers starred as a linebacker in 2016 but possesses the agility and speed to handle coverage.

WR Mike Williams, Clemson, Dane Brugler, CBS Sports

Brugler: The Ravens have plenty of speed at receiver, but only average size. Williams has only average speed, but his body control, catch radius and overall size are where he shines.

WR John Ross, Washington, Bucky Brooks, NFL.com

Brooks: An electric playmaker with speed to burn would be a welcome addition to an offense that wants to play long ball with Joe Flacco at quarterback.

DE Charles Harris, Missouri, Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com

Jeremiah: Harris is a very productive edge rusher who is plenty athletic enough to drop in coverage if needed.

WR Mike Williams, Clemson, Chris Burke, SI.com

Burke: Baltimore has two receivers, Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, who can scorch defenses deep. They need a physical, intermediate threat. Check.

CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama, Peter Schragers, FOX Sports

Schragers: I seem to be a lot higher on Humphrey than other mock draft pundits. Oh well. I’ll ride with the star of the Alabama defensive backfield from last season. The son of NFL running back Bobby Humphrey, he was a stud at the well-known Hoover High and a prime recruit of Nick Saban’s. An opportunistic player who started for two seasons in Tuscaloosa, Humphrey forced three fumbles and intercepted two passes in 2016. Baltimore already has added Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson to its defensive backfield but might not be done.

RELATED: REDSKINS MOCK DRAFT ROUNDUP