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NEW YORK -- There's much to dissect this morning. Concussions, Canton, Jim Caldwell, Colts, Bill Cowher, and later in the alphabet, Vince Young's drive, Dennis Dixon's mistake, Rex Ryan's challenge, San Diego's streak, the MVP storm and the latest Game of the Year tonight in New Orleans.
And the Miraculous Bra, of course. (Won't the Victoria's Secret people be excited to make the second graph of Monday Morning Quarterback!)
My starting point is the parking lot outside LP Field in Nashville. That's where Kenny Britt was clutching a Roger Goodell-autographed football an hour after making the kind of catch dreams are made of. I'm a sap, which you may have figured after reading this column for a while. I like sappy stories. That's why concussions and perfect seasons and MVP arguments can wait. Britt and Young deserve a moment here, right at the top of Week 12.
Ninety-nine yards to a saved season for Tennessee.
"I've got the ball in my hands,'' said Britt, speaking of the ball he caught to beat Arizona Sunday at the final gun in Nashville, speaking from the parking lot outside the stadium. "I don't want to let it go.''
Oddest thing about the catch you've all seen 10 times by now: "I never knew I got hit for a half-hour or so after it happened,'' Britt told me. Britt caught the ball near the back of the end zone, then got crushed by nickel safety Matt Ware. He did an impressive job of hanging onto the ball while getting hit with a Rodney Harrison-like ton of bricks from Ware.
"In a situation like that, everything's a blur," Britt said. "I found out [I'd been hit] when I took off my shoulder pads and got in the shower. I've got this big bruise on my left shoulder, and I'm like, 'How'd that get there?' '' Then he reconstructed the play, and people told him he got waylaid in the end zone, and Britt had no idea. Interesting.
There's something about the Titans that speaks to exactly why the NFL is so popular. There's always time for a miracle. When this month dawned, Tennessee was basically playing out the string. At 0-6 when they took the field Nov. 1 against Jacksonville, the Titans were coming off a 59-0 embarrassment in New England. I stated the obvious on one of the Notre Dame halftime shows on NBC -- that coach Jeff Fisher and Young would not be together in Tennessee for the 2010 season. One, maybe. But not both. Thirty days later, we're asking this crazy question: If the Titans can shock the world in Indianapolis Sunday, they're 6-6, and they'd have three of the last four at home to make a legit playoff run.
Young had engineered four straight wins since taking over for Kerry Collins, but Sunday's game looked bleak late in the fourth quarter. Arizona led 17-13 with five minutes left when Britt's deadly fumble after a 51-yard gain seemed to end it for Tennessee. Even when Arizona stalled, Ben Graham's punt was downed at the Tennessee 1 by rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling (Name of the Year, by the way), who'd played a superb game for the Cards, having returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Tennessee took over at the one with 2:37 left. A dink here, a dunk there, two fourth-down conversions, smart use of the clock and smart play-calling that focused on small chunks ... until it was fourth-and-goal from the 10 with six seconds left.
Last play of the game. Maybe the last meaningful play of Tennessee's season.
Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger called a play designed to have four receivers spaced fairly evenly across the end zone. Tight end Bo Scaife and wideout Lavelle Hawkins would run twin curls about three yards deep in the end zone. Nate Washington and Britt would line up in the right and left slots, respectively, and run posts. Different kinds of posts though -- posts that were really 20-yard incuts, where each would run straight to the end line, then turn toward the middle and troll the end line.
"We haven't run that play since I've been back,'' said Heimerdinger, who begin his second stint with Tennessee last season. "Haven't practiced it either. Sometimes that happens -- you see something you think can work against a defense, and you hope your guys can all run it. On that play, Kenny's just playing football.''
Britt's a Jersey kid, raised in Bayonne and polished at Rutgers. He remembered lessons from both places in the last six seconds of this game -- the kind of memories that will have his mentors bursting with pride.
Britt, at 6-3 and 218 pounds, always had the size to be a good prospect at receiver. But he was known at Rutgers as a guy with iffy hands. "Every day, my coach, Greg Schiano, and my offensive coordinator, John McNulty, would be on me about my focus. I'd drop one, and they'd be like, 'Focus! Focus!' That's what I kept thinking about when I knew the ball might come to me.
"I saw Vince scramble. Sometimes in practice he throws it sidearm, so you know you have to be ready for anything. I'm running across the back of the end zone hoping he sees me, and he lets it go for me. First I thought there'd be a clear path for the ball, but then it looked like there was traffic. I've always been taught to catch with your eyes and catch with your hands. Concentrate. Focus. And I had to go up for it. My high school coach, Ricky Rodriguez, always used to say, 'Catch before two.' Catch the ball before your two feet hit the ground. The ball came and I knew I was going to get it.''
He got it. And he might never let it go, from the sounds of how happy he was in the parking lot.
I understand no one wants to read about concussions, but ...
Seems like we're making head-trauma news almost by the week now. A top league source insisted to me Sunday that the Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner benchings Sunday due to mild head-trauma residual effects are not the beginning of a sea change with how individual teams deal with brain injuries. But it sure seemed that way. "I think teams have been taking these injuries very seriously for some time,'' the source said. "I think in the last three years, we've really raised the awareness of head trauma.''
Maybe so, but I can't believe that a couple of late-week headaches by Roethlisberger would have sent him to the bench for a vital Ravens-Steelers game a couple of years ago. And I can't believe Warner would have sat had he woken up with a sore neck in 2006 or 2007 ... maybe even 2008.
But I do think what's happening in the league is a good thing. Earlier this month came the news that each venue would have independent neurologists on the sidelines, to take the decisions away from the team docs about whether a player is "with it'' enough to get back in the game. Now, Jay Glazer reported on FOX Sunday, comes word that commissioner Roger Goodell is on the verge of toughening up the restrictions about dinged players returning to games.
I can confirm Glazer's report -- in the next week or so, the league will have a policy in place that if a player has any symptoms of memory loss or amnesia, or any foggy incident that shows a player clearly has lost his bearings for even a few moments, he won't be able to return to the game that day. Currently, a player has to sit if he loses consciousness for any length of time. This threshold will be much easier to reach.
The league hopes this sends a message to all levels of football that head-trauma has to be dealt with seriously now. It should. Now the big question is whether players will self-report and be honest about headaches and things that may be signs of brain trauma -- and whether it'll affect their standing in the locker room. You know the ethos of the locker room: suck it up, spit on it, tape it up and get back out there. You can't tape up a brain. You can be gutsy and play with a dislocated shoulder, as Matthew Stafford did last week. If you play with severe memory loss, players have to begin to see that might be gutsy for today but potentially life-altering for tomorrow. The long-term concussion-sufferers -- Al Toon, Harry Carson, Wayne Chrebet -- can tell you that.
"It's a man's game,'' Rex Ryan said Sunday. "But we all have to take this issue seriously. The last thing I want to do is put a player at risk. I'm going to be a coach who errs on the side of caution.'' It's against the instinct of coaches and players both to do that, but it has to become the way the league does business. It's time.
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