THEY LAY THERE, seemingly motionless, for a minute or so. Medical personnel from both teams surrounded the tangle of fallen bodies, stabilizing heads, asking questions, working to assess the damage. However long you watch the game, you never get used to the contradictory feelings, the thrill followed immediately by the dread. And so it was again.
The Eagles' DeSean Jackson had been jacked up by the Falcons' Dunta Robinson, head first, helmet into his chest and chin - and now neither was moving. It is the kind of hit that the sport has traditionally celebrated - violent, explosive, raw. Most times, guys just shake their heads and get up. Most times.
The good news is that Jackson and Robinson did get up. Jackson has a concussion. The Falcons did not say anything more than that Robinson has a head injury. There was relief when they finally stood, and an ovation from the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field. But there could be no more poignant football scene than that of the two of them, supported under each arm, walking slowly toward their respective dressing rooms at either corner of the stadium's south end zone.
After which, it was first-and-10 for the Eagles at the Falcons' 17-yard line.
"It's just part of the game," said Eagles cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who suffered a broken neck last season. "Someone gets hurt, I always say, 'The show continues.' For that 10 to 15 minutes, everything stops and everything is standing still. But once that guy gets up, whether he's wheeled off or carried off or walks off on his own power, I think the show continues.
"There's no hard feelings for anybody. I've been in that position. That's just the nature of the game and that's how it goes."
The players are all so matter-of-fact about it that it stuns you - even though you know ahead of time that matter-of-fact is how they are going to be. It is an NFL football player's defense mechanism, that hard mental shell that takes care of the parts that the helmets and the shoulder pads cannot possibly protect.
Of about 10 Eagles players approached yesterday after Jackson's hit, 100 percent of them offered a variation on "it's just part of the game." Nobody criticized Robinson, who received a 15-yard penalty for hitting Jackson while he was defenseless. They cannot afford to be scared or intimidated because there are hundreds of people who would be more than willing to make the same deal in exchange for half of the sum on an NFL player's paycheck.
They cannot afford it. Cannot.
"If I get hit hard, it just happened," said Eagles receiver Jason Avant, a man who speaks often about his religious faith. "I signed up for it, so I can't go out there and be tentative. If you're tentative, you're always going to get hit. If you go hard, you have a chance of hitting somebody before they hit you."
Avant smiled. It is his professional world. From a distance, it seems to be getting better in some ways and worse in others. The league has done much to try to take out the hits on vulnerable, defenseless players - especially quarterbacks. But at the same time, the players all just keep getting bigger and faster - and the whole mass-times-velocity calculation is continually pushing the human body past its ability to endure.
The explosiveness with which a defensive back can launch himself at a ballcarrier has never been more dangerous - and the fact that so many players lead with their helmets and ask questions later turns them into lethal human missiles on pretty much every play.
When you ask Eagles coach Andy Reid if it is getting worse, he says, "I understand what you're saying [but] I think it's been that way. At that position, you've got speed players and then you've got some guys that can whack you when they get to you. I don't think things have changed that way. I think you're seeing some violent collisions throughout the league but you've seen them over time . . . "
Later, Reid said, "I don't see a lot of cheap shots. This is just hard, aggressive, hard-nosed football. These things are going to happen in this sport. Again, this isn't tiddlywinks. This is a violent sport and things are going to happen every once in a while. The league's doing a good job, but guys are bigger and faster and flying around."
There are no obvious answers, not as long as you and I keep watching the sport in record numbers. Because the thrill of the hit is undeniable and it always has been. It is a part of what keeps us all coming back every Sunday, and to pretend otherwise is to do just that - pretend.
Unless they can find a way to shrink the players, or slow down the players, it will just get worse, though. Maybe they need weight limits based on positions. Maybe they need helmets that don't protect so well, which would make defensive players less likely to hit headfirst. It is clear that they need to work toward something safer because those long, hushed moments in stadiums are not getting any less frequent.
Neither is the list of concussions - six for the Eagles since training camp, six and counting.
"You feel bad for DeSean," tight end Brent Celek said. "But you almost have to be kind of heartless about it because if you go out there thinking, 'This is going to happen to me,' then you start playing fearful . . . "
They know no other way.
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