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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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In a draft deep at CB, taking one early could be Ravens' best move

In a draft deep at CB, taking one early could be Ravens' best move

The Ravens may need to rethink their draft strategy regarding cornerbacks. They haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first three rounds since 2011, when they took Jimmy Smith with the 27th overall pick.

Smith is still the Ravens’ best corner. However, he has been plagued by injuries in recent years, and lack of cornerback depth has become a glaring weakness for the Ravens, in a league that features many explosive wide receivers.

Related: NFL Mock Draft 1.0

According to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., this year’s draft is loaded with talented corners. With the 16th overall pick, the Ravens can address their need at cornerback with someone who might be talented enough to start as a rookie.

“There’s a lot of corners in this draft that are going to go in the first round,” Kiper said during a recent conference call.

Many believe Marshon Lattimore of Ohio St. will be the first cornerback off the board, and will likely be gone before the Ravens can grab him. In his first mock draft, Kiper had Lattimore going No. 6 to the Jets.

However, the list of top-rated corners that could be available for the Ravens at No. 16 includes Marlon Humphrey of Alabama, Sidney Jones of Washington, Jourdan Lewis of Michigan, Teez Tabor of Florida, Cordrea Tankersley of Clemson, and Quincy Wilson of Florida.

The Ravens grabbed a promising corner in the fourth round last year in Tavon Young, who had a strong rookie season. But the Ravens may not have the luxury of waiting to take a cornerback this spring. Instead of taking the best player available at No. 16, the Ravens will have to consider taking the best corner available.

Related: Depth at running back reduces need for Ravens to trade up in draft

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Depth at running back in draft reduces need for Ravens to trade up

Depth at running back in draft reduces need for Ravens to trade up

Should the Ravens trade up from No. 16 to get an impact running back in the draft?  Not according to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper.

The Ravens’ need for more playmakers is obvious, and coach John Harbaugh says the offense could use another back to complement Kenneth Dixon and Terrance West.

In his first mock draft, Kiper had Leonard Fournette of LSU (No. 8, Panthers) and Dalvin Cook of Florida St. (No. 12, Browns) as the first two backs off the board, with the Ravens taking Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers with the 16th pick.

RELATED: 2017 NFL MOCK DRAFT 1.0

Kiper says the Ravens can get a quality back in the first three rounds, with this year’s draft deep at the position.

“I don’t know that trading up for a running back the grade of Fournette will be high enough to say he’s in that (Ezekiel) Elliott stratosphere,” Kiper said during a recent conference call.

“You have a lot of depth at running back too, with (Christian) McCaffrey, D’Onta Foreman from Texas, and there’s a lot of other backs in this draft that I really like, and of course the Ravens got Kenneth Dixon in the fourth round last year which was a heck of a pick for them. Matthew Dayes from N. C. State, you have Jamaal Williams at BYU, De’Angelo Henderson at Coastal Carolina is an interesting kid. I don’t think there will be a team looking to trade up for the running back this year.”

West led the Ravens with 774 yards rushing in 2016, with Dixon adding 302 yards. However, every other team in the AFC North had a back with more yards than West. Le’Veon Bell (1,268 yards) led the Steelers, Isaiah Crowell (952 yards) led the Browns, and Jeremy Hill (839 yards) led the Bengals.

While the Ravens have other pressing needs like cornerback, wide receiver, and pass rusher, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them take a running back early.

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