Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Paul Domowitch: NFL needs a better brain trust

By Paul Domowitch

Since Roger Goodell became commissioner, the NFL has taken concussions much more seriously. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Since Roger Goodell became commissioner, the NFL has taken concussions much more seriously. (Paul Sancya/AP)Read more

Not so long ago, the NFL refused to even acknowledge concussions.

"I remember one year, [then NFL commissioner] Paul Tagliabue said concussions were a function of pack journalism," said agent Leigh Steinberg.

The league acknowledges concussions now. It just doesn't always see them. Two weeks ago, you didn't need to be a doctor or even play one on TV to know that Browns quarterback Colt McCoy had suffered a concussion after taking a vicious, nationally televised hit from Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

Yet, two plays after McCoy was knocked unconscious, he was permitted to return to the game. Wasn't even given a concussion test on the sideline because the team's medical and training staffs never saw the hit and thought he had injured his hand, not his head.

Browns president Mike Holmgren acknowledged a few days later that the team's doctors and trainers were working on other players when McCoy got cold-cocked and never realized the severity of the hit or the nature of the injury until after the game.

Last year, the same thing happened in an Eagles game when linebacker Stewart Bradley suffered a concussion after hitting his head on a teammate's knee. Millions of viewers at home watched him get up, stagger like a drunken sailor and fall down again. But the Eagles' doctors and trainers didn't.

"I have to tell you, it's hard to imagine him coming back in this game in light of what we just saw," Fox analyst Troy Aikman, the victim of more concussions than he cares to remember during his Hall of Fame career, told viewers. "With all the attention being given to head injuries, it's hard to image he'll be put back in."

But four plays later, he was. While the Eagles claimed they gave Bradley a concussion test before letting him go back in, trainer Rick Burkholder tested him again a little later and realized Bradley had concussion symptoms.

After the embarrassing incident with Bradley, the NFL and the players union both said steps were being taken to see that something like that didn't happen again.

"The fact that they didn't know or have a description of what happened probably needs to be looked at more carefully," Thom Mayer, a medical adviser for the NFLPA said. "We need to make sure the people treating the player have a clear description of what happened when they're evaluating the player."

Yet, a year later, the same thing happened to McCoy. You saw it and I saw it, but the Browns doctors and trainer didn't see it. And nobody else on the team's sideline who saw the hit apparently had enough sense to give the doctors and trainers a heads-up.

This week, the NFL, reacting to the massive criticism it has received for the Browns' mishandling of McCoy's concussion, announced that it will put independent certified trainers in the press box at every game to monitor for head injuries.

Steinberg, who once represented the majority of the league's quarterbacks, including Aikman and fellow Hall of Famer Steve Young, has spent the better part of the last 20 years trying to get the NFL to take the issue of concussions seriously. Since the early '90s, he has been lobbying the league to put a neurologist on every NFL sideline. Since the early '90s, it has ignored him.

"The NFL is, by 2-to-1, the most popular sport in the country," Steinberg said. "There was a week recently where five of the top 10 shows were nighttime football games. NFL football symbolically sets the trend for college and high school football and also sets the trend for other collision sports.

"The NFL should be leaders in this. It's a question of priorities. If concussion consciousness and danger really are in the forefront of the minds of medical staffs and training staffs, then there never would be a time where something like this [the McCoy and Bradley incidents] could fall through the cracks.

"A neurologist could monitor hits. We're talking about a business where billions of dollars are being made and paid. This concept of an additional cost [to put neurologists on the sidelines] is minimal. You've got new TV contracts that are going to blow the roof off already sky-high revenue. In the vernacular, that's chump change for a team."

Because he represented so many of the league's most prominent stars, Steinberg was able to help force the NFL to finally face the concussion issue. He issued a white paper in the '90s recommending neurologists on the sidelines and the abolishment of blocking and tackling with the head or neck and mandatory missed games for players diagnosed with concussions and a grading system for concussions.

"The [changes in] blocking and tackling was the only part that was adapted," he said.

Since Roger Goodell replaced Tagliabue as commissioner in '06, the NFL has taken concussions much more seriously. They have implemented return-to-play guidelines that prevent players from playing again until they've passed testing and been cleared by an independent neurologist.

But there still remain holes in the process for initially diagnosing concussions. Eagles offensive lineman King Dunlap suffered a concussion during a mid-November game against Arizona. He played the entire game with the concussion, and no one on the team's medical or training staffs noticed anything wrong with him until he mentioned after the game that he wasn't feeling well. He ended up missing three games before he was able to pass his concussion testing and get cleared to play again.

"It's an extraordinarily dangerous risk to put someone who's had a concussion back out on the playing field," Steinberg said. "Reflexes become slower. If it takes a strong force to cause the first one, the brain is already set up for the second one. Two in proximity are the perfect neurological storm.

"I'm encouraged by a lot of this because I used to think the only way there would be movement on this issue was the death of a player on the field. You can't count on the player to give you honest answers. The player wants to play under any and all circumstances. Asking him [how he feels] is akin to asking a drunk driver if he's drunk. He doesn't know."

Another week, another 3-4 defense

Two weeks ago, the Eagles' offensive line turned in one of its poorest performances of the season against the Dolphins. The Eagles managed to win the game, 26-10, but Michael Vick was sacked four times, LeSean McCoy was held to 38 yards on 27 carries and the Eagles managed just five first downs and 57 yards in total offense in the second half.

Anyone who watched the game on television probably noticed offensive-line coach Howard Mudd reading his unit the riot act on the sideline at one point.

"He broke three of his canes across our heads after the game," guard Evan Mathis said.

He was just kidding, but Mudd wasn't happy with the way his unit had played, particularly given the progress they'd made this season.

"He was very upset with the way we played," center Jason Kelce said. "He was very upset with how the running game overall from everybody went. We spent a lot of time in practice and in the film room making sure we got it corrected for the Jets."

They followed one of their worst performances of the season with one of their best last week, dominating the Jets' front seven in their 45-19 win.

"We were better prepared," Kelce said. "And the Jets had a lot more tendencies. It was easier to identify who was blocked and who was unblocked."

The fact that the Eagles are going up against their third straight 3-4 defensive front today in Dallas should be a benefit to the offensive line, particularly on a short week of preparation.

"Three weeks in a row [of] not having to make too many recognition adjustments should help us," Mathis said.

Said Kelce: "Going up against our third 3-4 defense in a row, anytime you have continuity or you get in a comfort zone against a certain defense, that's definitely good. We learned from some of our mistakes in the Miami game. We changed some of our blocking techniques. It helped us against the Jets. It should help us this week as well."


* If Carl Peterson ends up with the Dolphins, it won't be as the team's vice president of football operations, as has been reported by several news organizations. According to sources close to Peterson, his discussions with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross have centered around a CEO-type position much like the one he had with the Chiefs. The Dolphins already have a chief executive officer - Mike Dee. But that doesn't mean Dee's job is safe. While Dee mainly ran the Dolphins' business and marketing operations, Peterson would oversee everything, including the team's football ops. He would make the call on a new coach, with Brian Billick and Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer likely topping his list, and determine the future of general manager Jeff Ireland.

* It's nice that the three teams that already have fired their coaches - Miami, Kansas City and Jacksonville - gave the interim head-coaching jobs to African American assistants. But a skeptic might suggest they did it only for show and because it gives them a ready minority candidate to interview when it comes time to adhere to the league's Rooney Rule. The real test will be if any of those teams ends up hiring a minority as their head coach.

* Many people are throwing Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's name around as a possible candidate for one of the expected head-coaching vacancies. While Ryan is confident he'll get a head-coaching job at some point - "Hey, that's going to happen," he said this week - a general manager I spoke with said Ryan could improve his chances greatly by getting a haircut. "I have a lot of respect for Rob and think he'd make a very good head coach in this league," the GM said. "But he's going to have trouble getting an owner to sign off on him until he cleans up and gets rid of the Hell's Angels look. These guys don't necessarily expect their head coach to look like he came out of the pages of GQ, but they don't want one who looks like he came out of the pages of Guns & Ammo either. It's OK when you're an assistant, but not when you're the face of the franchise."


From the Lip:

* "He is the best running back in the league right now. I didn't know he was this good until we got out there and started playing them. He is the real deal. When he gets the ball, he is dynamic. He is a great player. I don't know if we gave him enough credit before the last game. But the league knows now. Everybody knows."

- Cowboys linebacker Bradie James on Eagles running back LeSean McCoy

* "I'm nervous, I'm scared. I have that kind of feeling . . . afraid of what they can do to you if you have some breakdowns out there. I think sometimes I do the best when I'm scared."

- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on the game against the Eagles

* "If I have to walk into a room and tell you how bad I am, [then] I'm probably not that bad. If I'm comfortable in my own skin, I shouldn't have to convince people of my words. That's the whole thing with Rex I look at. At some point, you just look and go, 'Enough is enough.' "

- Fox analyst Michael Strahan on bombastic Jets coach Rex Ryan

* "I thought three quarterbacks would break Dan Marino's record [for passing yards] this year. After it standing for so long, these rules [protecting receivers] have opened up the middle of the field and none of these receivers that are crossing the middle fear getting hit anymore. And if you don't fear getting hit, you'll go anywhere."

- Warren Sapp on Showtime's "Inside the NFL"

By the numbers:

* The Eagles are making oddsmaking history again this week. Last week, they were the first 5-8 team in the last 25 years to be favored over an 8-5 team (the Jets). This week, they are just 1 1/2-point underdogs against the 8-6 Cowboys. According to R.J. Bell, of, it's the first time in the last 25 years that an 8-6 team hasn't been at least a six-point favorite over a 6-8 team.

* The 49ers have not allowed a rushing touchdown in 14 games this season, an NFL record. The record for fewest rushing TDs allowed in a season is two, by the '34 Lions, '68 Cowboys and '71 Vikings. The Lions did it in an 11-game season, the Cowboys and Vikings in a 14-game season. The Eagles have been the only team to rush for 100 yards against the Niners this season (108).

* There have been 105 individual 300-yard passing performances in the league this season. With 31 games still to be played, that's already a single-season record.

* The Patriots have scored 400-plus points for the fifth straight season. The Eagles need 58 points in their last two games to do it for the fourth straight time. In their last six games, the Patriots have put up 215 points, an average of 35.8 points per game.

* Under Tom Coughlin, the Giants are 56-25 when they rush for at least 100 yards, and 16-29 when they don't.

* The Giants have had just two runs of 20 or more yards the entire season. The Eagles have had 18 - 13 by LeSean McCoy and five by Michael Vick.


Thumbs Up: To the NFL, which, unlike the NBA, understands the importance of giving all of its teams and fans hope. The Houston Texans, who finished tied for last place in the AFC South last season, are 10-4 and already have clinched their division. This marks the ninth straight year that at least one team has done the worst-to-first thing. The Broncos, last in the AFC West last season, currently are in first at 8-6. The 49ers have gone from 6-10 to a division-clinching 11-3. The Lions are 9-5 after going 6-10 last year. The Cowboys, also 6-10 last year, are leading the NFC East with an 8-6 record. Everybody likes to believe that this year can be the year. Nobody likes a league where it takes a team a half-dozen years to go from bad to good even if it manages to make all the right moves.

Thumbs Down: To Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who just doesn't know when to shut up. Considering his history of illegal hits and his incendiary comments earlier this year that he hated NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and wouldn't urinate on him if he were on fire, he got off way too easy with only a one-game suspension for his vicious helmet-to-jaw hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. Yet, rather than being thankful that the league showed some leniency, he felt the need to bitch when it didn't penalize the Browns for failing to diagnose McCoy's concussion and letting him return to the game. "If he was hurt so bad, I don't know why they let him back in . . . two plays later," Harrison said. "Something should be done to them, I would think. I don't know. I got a game. What should they get?"


1 Packers 13-1 (1 last week)

2 Saints 11-3 (2)

3 Patriots 11-3 (5)

4 49ers 11-3 (7)

5 Ravens 10-4 (3)

6 Steelers 10-4 (4)

7 Bengals 8-6 (9)

8 Lions 9-5 (10)

9 Falcons 9-5 (13)

10 Texans 10-4 (6)

11 Jets 8-6 (8)

12 Cowboys 8-6 (18)

13 Seahawks 7-7 (16)

14 Chargers 7-7 (17)

15 Titans 7-7 (11)

16 Broncos 8-6 (12)

17 Eagles 6-8 (20)

18 Giants 7-7 (15)

19 Cardinals 7-7 (21)

20 Bears 7-7 (14)

21 Raiders 7-7 (19)

22 Chiefs 6-8 (25)

23 Dolphins 5-9 (22)

24 Bills 5-9 (23)

25 Panthers 5-9 (27)

26 Bucs 4-10 (24)

27 Redskins 5-9 (28)

28 Browns 4-10 (26)

29 Jaguars 4-10 (29)

30 Vikings 2-12 (30)

31 Colts 1-13 (32)

32 Rams 2-13 (31)