TSX: Around the League

The Sports Xchange discusses the growing problem of concussions among NFL running backs, Hue Jackson's perceived blackballing around the league, the Saints' free agents, Tim Tebow and more.

In his 13 NFL seasons, New England tailback Kevin Faulk, who might be playing in his final game in Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday evening, can't recall exactly how many concussions he has suffered. That fact, in and of itself, might be alarming.

But Faulk, who has primarily been used as a third-down receiver for much of his career, is hardly the only back who has lost count. None of the five tailbacks from the Super Bowl who were surveyed by The Sports Xchange could remember, either. Nor could former NFL standout back Eddie George, who was here for the festivities much of the week.

"Oh, a few," George told The Sports Xchange. "Probably more than a few."

Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke at length about concussions and the NFL's increased emphasis on safety on Friday, and was asked at least five questions about head injuries during his annual Super Bowl press conference. The timing of the issue was spot-on, given the recent lawsuits, including one by Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, a lengthy piece by The Associated Press on the issue and the perception of many former players that the league simply uses them up.

Interesting, and a point raised previously by The Sports Xchange, is that the NFL does relatively little to protect running backs from head injuries. Running backs within the framework of the line of scrimmage are not considered "defenseless" players, according to the rules. "But," said Brandon Jacobs of the New York Giants, "I can't tell you how many times I've been 'dinged' running the ball off-tackle. I mean, it's not like you can change directions once you're in the hole. You really are about as defenseless as you can get."

League vice president Ray Anderson, among the NFL leaders on safety consciousness and an important liaison to the influential competition committee, said the group continues to look closely at the running back spot. "By definition, they are not so-called 'defenseless' players. But we're doing more and more (scrutiny) of it all the time," he said.

Anderson made the point that, running backs often times precipitate almost as many injuries as they absorb. Said Anderson: "You have those times when a back lowers his head, and rams into (a defender), and there's an injury as a result. So the back can be the initiator, too. We probably don't have enough information yet on it all, but it is a matter of concern."

Echoing the words of Goodell just moments before, Anderson said: "Believe me, we will not relent."

Notable is that New England tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis will wear a special chin strap, "The Impact Indicator," during Sunday's game. Created by Battle Sports Science of Omaha, Neb., the device measures the impact of taking a shot through the chin to the brain, and employs micro-sensors to help signal to trainers and doctors when a player might require additional attention.

Patriots tailback Danny Woodhead will also wear the special chin strap.

"It gets the information into the hands of the right people, qualified people, who can determine if it's safe for the player to have (absorbed) that impact," said Battle Sports Science CEO Chris Circo. "It provides the kind of information that we really haven't been able to give in the past."

Goodell pointed out that, while the NFL hasn't yet mandated that independent neurological specialists be present on every sideline, the league continues to explore that as an alternative. He also pointed out that during the playoffs the NFL is making video available to team doctors and trainers, so that they can more closely review head-shots during games. There seems to little denying, though, that even with the new rules and increased emphasis on concussions and head trauma in general, running backs are among the most vulnerable players.

"Maybe the most vulnerable," Green-Ellis said.

Several weeks ago, The Sports Xchange noted a goal-line play that occurred in a Pittsburgh-Cleveland game on Dec. 8, when Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall ran a play off-tackle, was well into the hole and couldn't change direction, and took a classic helmet-to-helmet hit from Browns linebacker Scott Fujita. Ironically, it was the same game in which the James Harrison-Colt McCoy hit occurred, for which the Pittsburgh linebacker was subsequently suspended, and the Fujita hit got no attention at all.

Said Mendenhall: "They talk about some (backs) who can change direction on a dime. You'd have to be Superman to avoid some shots in the hole."

As previously reported by The Sports Xchange, some league running backs intend to make the "defenseless" issue a talking point when players get together with competition committee members here at their annual Scouting Combine meeting sitdown later this month.

"We'll be listening," Anderson said, when told of the players' intentions.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Deposed Oakland coach Hue Jackson has learned the time just after a game is termed a "cooling off period" by league officials for a reason. Typically, Jackson told The Sports Xchange last week, he would use the period, which generally refers to the time between the end of a game and the opening of the locker room to the media, to take a shower, dress in street clothes, and gather his thoughts.

"But I skipped my own routine," Jackson told The Sports Xchange of the moments following the Raiders' season-ending 38-26 drubbing by San Diego on New Year's Day, a defeat that kept Oakland out of the playoffs. "I went right in and talked to the media, and we all saw what happened."

In an angry, rambling dissertation, Jackson lashed out at his team's lack of effort, came down hard on the performance and seemed to throw some players and assistants under the bus. That was hardly his intention, Jackson emphasized.

Jackson feels the perceptions created by the postgame actions may have cost him some assistant coaching opportunities the past few weeks. Nor was he making a power grab, as many have perceived about his remarks in which he suggested he wanted input into matters on the franchise's future.

Jackson said that assumptions he "made" the trade for quarterback Carson Palmer were incorrect, but acknowledged he favored the deal.

"But the trade was made," Jackson said, "by the organization, not Hue Jackson."

He noted that he knew, shortly into his initial meeting with new general manager Reggie McKenzie, that he would not be back in 2012. Jackson said McKenzie informed him early on that the organization was going in another direction, and that the belief by some that he might retain his job because both men share an agent (Kennard McGuire) was "just people trying to connect dots."

Said Jackson: "I knew of (McKenzie), but I really didn't know him at all."

Most notably, perhaps, Jackson told The Sports Xchange that he feels he would still be the Oakland coach had Al Davis not passed away.

"I think I understood him and he understood me," said Jackson, who said that the late owner "ran" the defense and counted on Jackson to oversee the offense.

--One of the most sought-after celebrities here for the Super Bowl festivities this week was Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, who drew crowds of fans just about everywhere he went.

Tebow allowed that he understands he has considerable work to do, especially in the passing game, and that his efforts will extend beyond just minicamps and OTA workouts.

"I'm going to try to get together with teammates (principally wide receivers in the offseason), and just throw as much as I can, and get some timing down," Tebow told The Sports Xchange. "I think there are some (unspoken) things, some understandings, that you can create by just working with people, and I'm looking forward to that. There were probably some instances last season when we all missed that, and it won't be the case anymore."

Tebow allowed he was "gratified" by the recent remarks of Broncos executive vice president John Elway that he will go to training camp as the team's starter. But he emphasized that he was aware, as well, of Elway's assessment that the team will try to bolster the quarterback depth chart and create competition for the position.

--Not to dismiss the Thursday report by ESPN that Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning has been cleared by a pair of specialists to resume his career after three neck surgeries in 19 months, because the step is an important one. But we've been writing in this space for some time, and discussed with Colts owner Jim Irsay earlier this week, that nerve regeneration for Manning was as big an issue as the healing of his neck fusion.

A few years ago, I suffered a neurological condition in which the peripheral nerves essentially receded and had to regenerate to completely heal. The process, frustrating because nerve re-growth occurs at its own rate and can't be hastened, took the better part of two years. That's hardly to say that the condition is the same as what Manning has endured, but the nerve-related issue really is no different.

Said Irsay to The Sports Xchange: "That's the 'missing puzzle piece' part of all this. It's the part no one knows about. We've gotten no lock-tight answer."

--There are a lot of reasons why New Orleans officials prefer to complete a contract extension with quarterback Drew Brees before the start of free agency - a move he noted publicly this week will "almost certainly" get done - but perhaps foremost among them is retaining the ability to use the franchise tag on two-time Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks, if necessary.

Nicks is a pending unrestricted free agent, and word is that he will be a prime target on the market for both Dallas and Atlanta. The Saints, who already have a ton of money invested in bookend right guard Jahri Evans, apparently are set to invest heavily in Nicks as well, a player they feel is key to their upfront toughness, and whom they don't want to lose.

It's unusual, for sure, to see a franchise spend heavily on a pair of guards. But the Saints have taken a rather unique approach to building their line, using an "inside-out" approach. The rationale, in part, has to do with keeping the middle of the pocket clean for the undersized Brees, but also for the strength of the often overlooked New Orleans running game.

The Saints feel the Nicks-Evans tandem is the best guard duet in the NFL, maybe one of the best in the last 20-25 years, and want to keep it together.

--As the team's rookie first-rounder in 2011, Buffalo defensive lineman Marcell Dareus played both end and tackle, and was effective at both positions. With the Bills switching to a "base" 4-3 in 2012, anticipated after the elevation of Dave Wannstedt to coordinator and then confirmed by head coach Chan Gailey last week, there's still some uncertainty about where the former Alabama star, the third pick in last year's draft, will line up.

Most scouts felt the 33-pound Dareus was a perfect "five technique" fit at end in a 3-4 last season, but he had plenty of success when he played at the "three technique" tackle spot, too.

"We're not sure yet (about where Dareus will play)," Wannstedt said. "No matter where we put him, he'll make a difference for us."

Dareus had 5.5 sacks as a rookie, and Buffalo officials are confident he will build on that.

"We're not sure he'll be a double-digit (sack) guy," one Buffalo executive said this week, "but he'll be in (other) people's backfield."

Dareus could fit well at the strong side end slot in a 4-3, where teams have begun to expect sacks, as well as defenders who anchor nicely against the run. The best bet, though, is that he'll pair up with Kyle Williams at tackle, if the latter returns healthy again after a foot injury cost him significant time in 2011.

--Both members of Indianapolis' new football regime, general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano, lauded the hiring of Greg Manusky as defensive coordinator, but cautioned against extrapolating any conclusions about what the addition of the veteran coach meant in terms of whether the Colts will play their longtime 4-3 front or transition to a 3-4.

Grigson and Pagano several times during separate sessions with the media this week spoke of Manusky's "flexibility" in constructing a defense. Grigson emphasized that Manusky won't attempt to "fit a square peg into a round hole."

Maybe not. But it should be pointed out that in his five previous seasons as a coordinator, at San Francisco (2007-2010) and San Diego (2011), Manusky directed a 3-4 defense, which also happens to be Pagano's principle area of expertise. In neither of the previous stops did Manusky oversee a defense that ever qualified for the playoffs or finished statistically in the top 10.

The 49ers, who ranked No. 13 under Manusky in 2010, jumped to fourth in the league under Vic Fangio in 2011. That's not to suggest Manusky, who was Pagano's second choice for the job after Pittsburgh linebackers coach Keith Butler opted to stay with the Steelers as the heir apparent to coordinator Dick LeBeau, isn't a good fit, just that his track record is what it is. Interesting, too, is that the Colts hired two coordinators, Manusky and offensive boss Bruce Arians, who were fired by their most recent teams, even though those franchises retained their head coaches.

--This week, in which the New England Patriots did not make offensive-coordinator-in-waiting Josh McDaniels available to the media, further accentuated how critical it is for the NFL to close the loophole which currently permits a coach to move from one franchise to another before the season is completed.

McDaniels, who will become the Pats' coordinator for the second time in his career once Bill O'Brien departs to become the head coach at Penn State, was essentially freed by the St. Louis Rams a few weeks ago, and he basically jumped immediately back to the Pats.

McDaniels, 35, worked in New England 2001-08, the last three of those years as offensive coordinator, before departing to become the Denver head coach (2009-10), then the St. Louis offensive coordinator (2011). Under McDaniels, the Broncos averaged 20.9 points per game for two seasons, but the Rams averaged a paltry 12.1 points this season. The rationale by New England officials this week was that McDaniels, whose current (interim) title is offensive assistant, is technically not a coach. But the bet here is that McDaniels will have on a headset Sunday evening, and have some kind of coaching-level input into the New England offense.

--The so-called "Patriots Way" obviously means different things to different people. Here's what it means to several Indianapolis Colts support staffers: Some club employees are only permitted into certain areas of the club's West 56th Street complex here, because the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center is being used for practice by the Patriots, and the facility has essentially become the team's Super Bowl XLVI headquarters.

One longtime Colts employee asked some Pats officials if he might be able to help New England in some way. He was told that he could help unload the team's equipment trucks and help do the laundry, and those would be his only duties. There has been a longtime paranoia between the two teams, especially when Bill Polian was the Indianapolis team president/general manager. Even with Polian having departed, the paranoia still runs deep.

--St. Louis team officials believe that new coach Jeff Fisher has assembled the makings of an excellent staff, but that one of the less-hyped additions could perhaps be the biggest key to the progress of quarterback Sam Bradford in his third season in 2012.

Veteran offensive line coach Paul Boudreau perhaps doesn't have the name value of the Rams' new coordinators, Gregg Williams on defense or Brian Schottenheimer on the offensive side, or even assistant head coach Dave McGinnis. But the consensus around the league, in speaking generally to NFL executives and coaches this week, is that Boudreau will provide toughness and discipline to a mostly rag-tag unit short of both attributes.

Boudreau, who was dismissed by Atlanta after four seasons with the club in a major staff makeover by Falcons coach Mike Smith, will rely on right guard Harvey Dahl, one of his former charges with the Falcons, to be a leader in instilling physicality in the blockers. This will mark the second tour of duty for Boudreau in St. Louis, who previously worked two seasons (2006-07) for the Rams.

Boudreau's hiring has yet to be officially announced in St. Louis - in fact, only Williams, Schottenheimer and McGinnis have so far been acknowledged as part of Fisher's staff - but he has already been in team headquarters reviewing tape.

--It was a bit disingenuous, almost Tagliabue-esque, in fact, when Goodell insisted in his "state of the league" address on Friday that there has been "no discussion" of expansion by the league. Goodell himself raised the issue just one night earlier in response to a question about a franchise for Los Angeles, when he said the NFL would probably have to expand to 34 franchises, not 33, if Los Angeles ever got a team.

Goodell did make some news of sorts in announcing that the league will expand its menu of live games on The NFL Network to 13 contests. The increase will guarantee each franchise at least one primetime game exposure. Goodell also said he will recommend that an 18-game schedule, a move that he had pushed but which was scuttled last year, be studied.

Punts:

-As noted above, the Saints want to be able to retain Nicks, but seem fairly reconciled to the potential departure of pending free agent wide receiver Marques Colston. The six-year veteran, who has averaged 80.4 catches, 1,096 yards and 8.6 touchdowns in the five seasons in which he played more than 11 games (he was injured for much of 2008 and made just eight starts), had previously suggested that he won't give the Saints a so-called "hometown discount," and probably will test the free agent market.

-Everyone from the Giants conceded this week that the team has a standout trio of wide receivers in Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. But there are some New York players lobbying for the Giants to consider bringing back Plaxico Burress to add to the group. They point out that Burress is an outstanding "red zone" receiver, with seven of his eight scores in '11 coming inside the 20-yard line. In fact, 35 of Burress' 63 career touchdowns have been "red zone" scores.

-Personnel directors here seemed intrigued by the potential of Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden in the draft, but a few said that his lack of mobility might be as big a detriment as the fact he is 28 years old. One scout said he is concerned that, even though Weeden seems able to throw every pass, and with good velocity, he essentially abandoned his five-year baseball career because of some shoulder problems.

-Speaking of the quarterback position, the word here was that, despite an obvious need, Washington coach Mike Shanahan is not in favor of maneuvering in the first round to land his passer of the future. That's not to suggest the Redskins won't choose a quarterback, just that they won't overextend themselves to get one.

-The aforementioned Bills aren't the only AFC East club switching back to a 4-3 front in 2012. Under new head coach Joe Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, Miami will make the same move. There are, though, a few skeptics about the switch in the Dolphins players to whom we spoke this week. Some guys wonder how effective nose tackle Paul Soliai and linebacker/end Cameron Wake will be in the new front.

-The Steelers had talked about discussing their offensive coordinator vacancy with Green Bay quarterbacks coach Tom Clements before he was promoted by the Packers to coordinator to replace Philbin in that role.

-Steelers chairman Dan Rooney confirmed for The Sports Xchange on Friday the report by his son, Art Rooney II, that he will step down sometime this year as ambassador to Ireland and return to the team. "I've already spoken to the Obama people about it," Rooney said. "I don't know the timetable yet, but it's in the works."

-As reported in this space last week, San Francisco officials prefer an extension in the three-year range for quarterback Alex Smith, rather than the five-year deal his representatives have pitched. Coach Jim Harbaugh, who typically does not get involved in contract matters but who is generally credited with resurrecting Smith's career by showing just confidence in him, might play some role in helping to bridge the difference in thinking.

-Overheard: The representative for a few prominent pending unrestricted free agents discussing his clients, in some detail, with the general manager of a team that might have some interest in a few of them. The tampering season typically doesn't commence here until the combine workout later this month. The Super Bowl, and the convergence of some high-profile agents and notable club officials, has given everyone a head start of sorts in discussing players over dinner at some of this city's downtown steakhouses.

-Overseen: Goodell and some of his minions dining with an influential member of the St. Louis media, presumably arguing the NFL's case for scheduling the Rams for three games in London over the next three seasons, and probably seeking some information as well about the reaction of local fans.

-Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli said the Chiefs are "getting closer now" to hiring an offensive coordinator. The finalists for the job are Brian Daboll, Jim Zorn and Al Saunders.

-Some Philly officials told The Sports Xchange that, even if head coach Andy Reid had been able to lure Steve Spagnuolo to the Eagles, as has been reported, embattled incumbent defensive coordinator Juan Castillo might have kept his title. Spagnuolo, obviously, would have had significant input in the direction of the defense, but probably would have had the assistant head coach title.

-Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril told The Sports Xchange during an encounter outside one of the press conference meeting rooms here that he would be "less than happy" if the Lions use the franchise tag to keep him out of free agency. That said, Avril, who had 11 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2011, reiterated that he hopes to return to Detroit on an extension. "I think we've got a good thing going and I think we can keep it going for a while," he said.

-As much as Avril is a key for the Lions, the priority for the front office is a new deal for wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who is scheduled to have a $14 million base salary in 2012 and a salary cap charge of about $22 million. "I wouldn't say he IS our offense, but he's certainly the biggest part of it," said one club official of Johnson, who had 17 touchdown catches, and rang up three games of 200-plus yards in his last four outings, counting the playoffs. The Johnson camp has already hinted it will use the monster extension given to Larry Fitzgerald of Arizona last year as a starting point.

-The Cincinnati Bengals are making very little pretense about their plans to draft a much-needed cornerback with one of their two first-round selections.

--The last word: "It occurred to me, 'Just think of all the great (football) decisions made in that chair.' It's something to think about. It'll get your attention in a hurry." -- Grigson, and the fact that Polian's old desk chair is still in the new general manager's office.


Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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