The NFL got uglier this weekend, more unhinged. More retaliatory. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning sprinted downfield after a touchdown to scream in a Houston safety's face. Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata kicked a Washington player and then loomed over him menacingly.
Could have been a fluke, those two plays this weekend. Things happen all the time that don't mean a whole lot. Maybe that's what happened when Manning screamed in Texans safety D.J. Swearinger's face one play after this hit by Swearinger left Broncos receiver Wes Welker with his third concussion in 10 months. Maybe that's what happened when Nagata used his right leg to semi-kick, semi-push Washington guard Shawn Lauvao after the 315-pound Lauvao had unnecessarily steamrolled 197-pound Ravens cornerback Dominique Franks downfield.
Maybe what happened is, nothing happened. Nothing that means a lot. Those two plays could've been a fluke.
God I hope not. I hope this is the new normal of the NFL, the evolution of concussion awareness in a league that has had its damaged brain stuck in the sand for too long. By now we know, of course. They know too. Everyone knows -- us on the outside, NFL players there on the inside -- just how dangerous a head injury is to a player, and not just to his ability to play the rest of the game but his ability to chew food in a few decades.
So here's what I saw when Peyton Manning did what he doesn't normally do and ran 30 yards to yell at a defensive back, and when Ngata did what he normally doesn't do and delivered a kick into an offensive lineman:
The continuing evolution of the NFL. An occasionally stupid game getting a little bit smarter, more aware.
Wes Welker is in trouble, see. Three concussions in 10 months? That's potentially disastrous. It might not seem that way in a few days or weeks or however long it takes for Welker to get past his post-concussion symptoms and be cleared to play again. Assuming he does get past his post-concussion symptoms and get cleared to play again. I'm torn on the matter, because for starters I sure would like to see Welker get better, fast. But for another, I'd rather not see him on the field again.
Welker has entered Austin Collie territory, and which is about halfway toward Al Toon territory, though Toon suffered his concussions -- nine, as far as Toon knows -- in the 1980s and early '90s before the world knew just what those concussions might mean. How is Al Toon today? There have been mixed signals. He is a successful businessman who told the New York Times in 2011 that he deals with after-effects of brain injuries, though he said it was "nothing I care to talk about in public."
The public is talking about concussions, way too much for some fans who would prefer this story go away so they can enjoy their football, but we're talking about it and NFL players are listening. And so when Wes Welker gets hammered to the ground by a Swearinger shoulder to the head, Peyton Manning seethes. And when offensive lineman Shawn Lauvao trails a play and launches his 315 pounds at full speed at a defensive back weighing almost 120 pounds less, Haloti Ngata snaps.
Does NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fine Manning for that penalty or suspend Ngata for that kick? Hope not. These weren't NFL players embarrassing The Shield. These were NFL players defending their teammates, one of whom (Welker) was badly injured and the other (Franks) who could have been.
It takes a stubborn or stupid or maybe just cruel guy to play the game with no regard for the health of the other professionals on the field. The game moves fast, yes, but the game has changed. We can't un-know what we know about the brain and concussions and the deteriorating quality of life awaiting players who suffer too many of them. Players know the stakes. Manning knows. Ngata too.
If D.J. Swearinger and Shawn Lauvao want to play like they don't know, well, there's a price to be paid for that. Manning exacted that price in his own way. So did Ngata, in his.
Wasn't perfect, what either of those guys did. Wasn't hard to appreciate, either.
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