MARTY Mornhinweg is a pro football coach. He's also the father of two young football players, one a highly recruited senior quarterback at St. Joseph's Prep, the other, only 12, in his early years of organized football.

So when he discusses hits and head trauma and all the possible safety solutions being tried or proposed by his league, he is equal parts apologist, pragmatist and alarmist.

"I think the NFL does an exceptional job of protecting the quarterback," the Eagles' offensive coordinator was saying yesterday afternoon at the NovaCare Complex. "However, the consistency part we can get better at. And then in college, it appears they protect the quarterback a little less for some reason . . . and then in high school I got to see three or four games and, well . . . "

The coach, morphing back into a father, shook his head.

"Man alive!" he said. "We can do better there!"

Ah, and therein lies the root of the NFL's concussion problem - and the NHL's, too. Derek Boyko, the Eagles' media relations director, sent me a 7-minute video from the league that seeks to explain to players, once and for all, what they can and can't do to other players in the field of play, regardless of the circumstances.

The problem, as Eagles offensive tackle Winston Justice pointed out yesterday, is that by the time those players reach the fields of the NFL, habits have been ingrained from years and years of "man alive" football.

Coaches at the lower levels, for example, tell players to "stick your head in there." Smaller bodies, slower speeds and fewer games and practices mute some of the immediate harm such advice can do, but for those who graduate into the elite levels, a hazardous format has been set that no 7-minute instructional video can offset.

"It's going to take time," Justice said. "Guys have been taught to play this way since they were in Pee Wee. So you're telling 26-, 27-year-old guys, now you can't do it. It's going to take years to change that."

Not surprisingly, several of Justice's teammates agreed - even someone like Jason Avant, who has missed games because of concussions. I have often contended, especially in regards to hockey, that taking some of the hard plastic out of the equipment might reduce incidences of concussion. But Avant smiled and shook his head sideways when it was suggested this might make football safer.

"Times have changed," he said. "The training for football, the offseason work on getting quicker and faster, that's going on at the early levels. They didn't have all the technology to learn speed. With all that stuff, players are so much faster. So much more forceful. So much more explosive.

"But bones are still bones. I don't care how big you are. You think about it, we're not superhuman. We're just flesh."

Said safety Nate Allen: "They come up with all these new helmets and padding for helmets but . . . your head is not meant to go 25 miles an hour into something. So you can do all you want. But . . . if you want to prevent a concussion, don't even play a contact sport.

"I mean, it's part of the game. We sign up for it. We know what's capable of happening. You've got to live with it."

One common perception is that players in both the NFL and NHL have lost respect for their fellow players. But when you think about those player prayer huddles after games and all the hugs and glad-handing that goes on afterward between opponents, that really doesn't make much sense.

"I don't know about hockey, but in football I think there is a great respect," Mornhinweg said. "It's a small community. And I really think that 99.9 percent of them are trying to do the right thing. But they're trying to do the right thing without pulling off of how they want to play the game and how they learned to play the game."

Hitting low, avoiding helmet-to-helmet contact - it's counterintuitive for today's NFL player. And it will be as long as the lower, slower levels are teaching kids to lead with their heads.

That, said Justice, is where real change will come from.

The problem?

"The youth leagues aren't even looking for it," said Mornhinweg, again morphing from coach to father. "I really do think we're in a transition period. And the consistency will come together. And I do think it will take some time with these new rules and these new emphases. And then the players will learn."

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