MMQB: A NFL season retrospective
Dave Duerson, who committed suicide Thursday, donated his brain for research
Looking back at predictions that went right, and those that were very wrong
An MMQB timeline of 2010, quotes and stats of the year and much more
It's been an odd week. I've been bronchially ill for much of it, napping and coughing and going to bed at 8. I planned to have this week's column be a year-in-review job, what with management and players in silent mode before the federal mediator in Washington over the weekend.
My year in review is coming. But first a few words on Dave Duerson. The former Bears' All-Pro starting safety shot himself in the chest Thursday after texting family members to be sure, after death, that his brain was harvested and analyzed for the kind of degenerative brain condition that has been found to be increasingly common in some former football players. And not just NFL, but high school and college players too, kids who have had more brain trauma than the human brain was meant to have. As part of my year in review, I'm going to recall the scene I discovered in the fall at a VA hospital in Massachusetts, where a smart neurologist is leading a study on brain trauma in deceased people, trauma that has led to dementia, depression and suicide (in the most extreme cases) among some victims.
On Sunday, I spoke with Chris Nowinski, the co-director of the Boston University Med School's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. He's part of a cadre of smart young people working to discover the relationship between brain trauma and debilitating illness. I asked him about Duerson's decision to bequeath his brain to be studied.
Duerson, 50, was a four-year starter at Notre Dame, graduated on time with a degree in economics, won the NFL Man of the Year award in 1987, earned a seat on the Notre Dame Board of Trustees in 2001, worked with the NFL Players Association, and then saw much of his personal and professional success waste away in the past five years. Most of his football friends, in interviews over the past few days, said they were shocked by the dramatic turn of events in Duerson's life that resulted in his decline and suicide.
"Mr. Duerson's decision to donate his brain for research will help a lot of people,'' Nowinski said. "It's an admirable decision to make at a time in his life that I can't imagine the hardship he was going through.''
It will be several months before noted neurologist Dr. Ann McKee and her staff can draw conclusions on the study of Duerson's brain. Not just because to do the job right it takes at least a month of pathology work and study of cross-sections of the brain to determine the extent of any brain damage. Plus, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has received between five and eight brains this month, Nowinski said. They may not all be football players' brains; the Center studies brains of those from other professions where head trauma is common.
Nowinski was careful to say this is not strictly an NFL problem. The Center has studied at least one high school player's brain, and one of a college player, and found the disease. "It's a football problem, not an NFL problem,'' he said. "The problem has to be fixed at the youth level, because guys can play 15 years of football before they ever get to the NFL. The education is improving, but we need to get more creative about changing the rules at the lower levels of football.''
Nowinski pointed out that the National Federation of State High School Associations recently issued its rule changes for the 2011 season, and though there were points of emphases issued about helmets, concussions and helmet-to-helmet hits, there were no rule changes concerning the dangerous hits. Nowinski said he vehemently disagreed. "The building's on fire,'' he said. "They need to react. You've got Little Leagues setting pitch-count limits for young kids, but there are no limits on how many times a young kid can get hit in the head. That's wrong.''
Now for the beginning of my midseason story on a league on fire, and one reason the NFL reacted so stridently to the spate of violent incidents:
From SI, Nov. 1:
At the Veterans Administration hospital in Bedford, Mass., last Friday, one of the world's foremost experts on repetitive brain trauma -- and a major Packers fan too, judging from the Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre bobbleheads on a shelf next to her desk -- slipped a slide into a microscope. Dr. Ann McKee, an associate professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University who has been studying the brains of deceased football players, wanted to illustrate the damage that repeated hits to the helmet can cause. This slide of a cross-section of a human male brain, magnified 100 times, showed scores, maybe hundreds, of tiny brownish triangular bits of a toxic protein called tau, choking off cellular life in the brain.
"This is Louis Creekmur," said McKee. "You can see there are hardly any areas untouched by the damage. Like with Wally Hilgenberg, it is widespread in Louis Creekmur. I would call it incredible chaos in the brain. Louis was demented when he died."
Lou Creekmur: 10-year NFL offensive lineman, Pro Football Hall of Famer. Wally Hilgenberg: 15-year NFL linebacker, one of the key members of the Vikings' Purple People Eaters defense.
Over the past three years McKee has been given the brains of 16 former NFL players, some of whom suffered dementia, ALS or severe depression. Families of the players wondered whether there was a link between football and the psychological, physical or behavioral problems that afflict some older players. Rigorous testing has been completed on 14 of the brains; 13 were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the condition that was so widespread in the brains of Creekmur and Hilgenberg. In addition McKee has examined the brains of deceased college and high school football players and found evidence of CTE in several of them as well.
"I can say confidently that this is a distinctive disorder that you don't develop in the general population," McKee said. "In fact, I have never seen this disease in any person who doesn't have the kind of repetitive head trauma that football players would have."
McKee spoke three days after the NFL came out with its new points of emphasis on helmet-to-helmet shots, fining three players the eye-opening total of $175,000 for frightening hits in Week 6 and warning that suspensions were the next step on the disciplinary ladder if such blows continued. As she gathered up the slides of the damaged brain tissues of NFL players, McKee considered a question: What would she say if she could speak to Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather (fined $50,000 for a helmet hit on Ravens tight end Todd Heap) or Steelers linebacker James Harrison (fined $75,000 for his second offense, a shot on Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi)?
"I wouldn't say anything," she answered. "I'd just show them these slides."
It's hard to transition from that to a breezy look at the season just concluded, so I won't try. Here goes.
Things I don't look bad for writing
On March 8: I talked to A.J. Smith for 20 minutes last Thursday, after all the tenders came out, and the Chargers had tendered Shawne Merriman, a player they don't even like, with first- and third-round compensation. I still don't understand why they did it. In other words, if a team were to sign Merriman -- a player who's been invisible for two straight years -- it would have to give two high picks in one of the best drafts in years. It's not happening, obviously, and I can't figure out why the tender wasn't something like Anquan Boldin's third-rounder, designed to draw out interest from a team and give the Chargers compensation.
What happened: Merriman strained his calf, played but three games, was released by the Chargers Nov. 2 and picked up by the Bills.
On March 22: The NFL Draft's a month from today, and this weekend has proven one thing to me: Tim Tebow's going higher than we thought he would. Something interesting has happened this weekend. Most agents are happy to tell you where their client will be visiting before the draft and which teams he'll be working out for. A top player is usually happy to talk about a conversation he had with Bill Belichick or advice he got on how to throw the ball from Mike Holmgren. Not agent Jimmy Sexton over the weekend. And not Tim Tebow. Both said at the request of the teams, they'd like to keep the opinions from the teams to themselves, and they'd like to keep which teams are interested to themselves. Of course, it's an open secret that Washington coach Mike Shanahan worked out Tebow in Gainesville on Saturday, and that Cleveland, Seattle, New England and Buffalo will either do so or already have. But you won't get that from the Tebow camp. I now think Tebow's going in the 28 to 45 range, to a team willing to be patient with him at quarterback and maybe to allow him to help the team in other ways immediately. That's how much he helped himself with his aggressive remaking of his throwing motion at his workout Wednesday.
I asked Tebow if he thought he'd be a first-round pick, and there was a long pause.
"Heh-heh,'' he said, chuckling a little uncomfortably. "Not sure. Good question. I believe with all my heart that I'll be an NFL quarterback, but who takes me, and where, I don't know.''
What happened: Tebow got picked 25, by Denver.
On April 5, after the Eagles dealt Donovan McNabb to Washington: I like the trade for both teams. I like Reid trusting himself enough and having enough guts, as Bill Belichick did with Drew Bledsoe nine years ago, to trade McNabb to a division rival. Since the Super Bowl loss to New England, Philadelphia is eight games over .500, and Reid saw the team hitting a wall. When a coach sees a team getting stale, he has to change, and Reid has done that, with the release or trade of nine current or former starters between the ages of 27 and 33 since the end of the season.
What happened: I got it half-right. The Eagles got the far better of the deal, and Washington's stuck with a quarterback it really doesn't want.
On April 26, after the draft: Green Bay. The Pack bought what Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was saying -- that the 2009 season of left tackle Bryan Bulaga, idled for three weeks by a thyroid condition, was nothing like his 2008 season, when he was a monster. Bulaga will be ready when either of the old Packers tackles goes down this year. James Starks, nice value in round six, could be a good complement to Ryan Grant.
What happened: Bulaga was a stud at right tackle as a rookie and played great in the Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh. Starks, a late-season surprise, had a 123-yard playoff rushing day against the Eagles.
On July 26, pre-training camp: I have no information for you, other than I, like all of you, think Brett Favre's going to show up in time to play the third preseason game (Aug. 28, Metrodome, Seattle in town).
What happened: Favre was calf-wrestled back onto the Vikings on Aug. 17, played one series Aug. 22 in San Francisco, then played as much as the rest of the first unit in the preseason game with Seattle.
On Aug. 23: I'd put the odds at the owners locking players out of team facilities on March 1, 2011, or thereabouts, at 80 percent.
What happened: I still would.
On Aug. 23, regarding fantasy football: You probably can't pick Arian Foster too high. The coaches still are skeptical of Steve Slaton's ability to hold onto the ball, and Ben Tate's gone for the year ... On the road for much of the last month, I bet I got approached by 50 fans asking me for fantasy advice. (No! Don't take it!) ... The guy who could have more value than all of them is Houston running back Arian Foster. The 2009 undrafted free-agent out of Tennessee has grabbed the starting job with no strings, and with the fleet Ben Tate on IR after a preseason injury, I expect Foster to put up silly numbers in an offense that fits him perfectly.
What happened: Foster won the NFL rushing title with 1,616 yards, and led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,220.
On Sept. 6, predicting a 33-27 Pittsburgh victory over Green Bay in the Super Bowl in the NFL Preview issue: The Steelers? Really? The team with the suspended starting quarterback? The one that traded away a Super Bowl MVP? The club that couldn't beat the Chiefs or the Raiders in 2009? The defensively mortal Steelers? The geezer Steelers? Green Bay in the NFC you can understand, especially after Aaron Rodgers's phenomenal preseason. But Pittsburgh? The football gods are laughing, and the karma gods are weeping.
What happened: I changed my pick before the playoffs to New England-Green Bay. Idiot. Super Bowl XLV: Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25.
Things I wish I had back
On May 24: I think this is just a hunch, but I wouldn't be surprised if Terrell Owens signs with Washington.
What happened: T.O. signed with the Bengals just before training camp.
On May 31: I think one of the surprises of training camps come August will be the readiness of Brady Quinn. Denver coach Josh McDaniels likes what he sees in Quinn, has tinkered with his drop and delivery (slowing him down, which was vital, since Quinn's drop always looked like someone just pulled a fire alarm), and will let the quarterback drama play out there. I still think Kyle Orton wins the starting job, but Quinn has a shot to unseat him.
What happened: Quinn got buried far down the depth chart and never got a chance to sniff the top job behind Orton and Tim Tebow.
On July 26: Ran into Larry King at Nate and Al's deli in Beverly Hills. That's his breakfast haunt. "Who's your surprise team of the season?'' he asked me. I said, "Carolina.'' Expected him to say: "Charlotte, North Carolina ... Hello!''
What happened: The Panthers were the surprise of the season, all right. The surprise pathetic team, finishing with the worst record in the NFL.
On Aug. 30, regarding the new rule that had the umpire stationed behind the line of scrimmage rather than near the middle linebacker: I don't want to be too dramatic about it, but it's a virtual certainty that the rule will have far more impact on the Colts than on any team in football. They won't be able to run their no-huddle offense with the same speed they always have ... For now, I can see some mayhem on the horizon.
What happened: Absolutely nothing, other than more offensive holding calls. This was the same much ado about nothing issue as in 2009 with the low Cowboy scoreboard, which was supposed to be dented by punters weekly. Never got touched in the last two regular seasons.
On Sept. 6, when I predicted the following:
· John Fox would be coach of the year and Carolina would make the playoffs.
· Dallas, San Francisco, Carolina and New York would be the four NFC teams playing on wild-card weekend.
· Ryan Mathews and Dexter McCluster split my vote for offensive rookie of the year.
· Missouri would be awful, again. The Chiefs would finish last in the AFC West at 6-10, and the Rams last in the AFC West at 3-13.
· The Bucs would finish with the worst record in football, 2-14.
What happened: Fox got fired. Carolina was the worst team in football. Dallas, San Francisco, Carolina and New York didn't make the playoffs. Mathews and McCluster were veritable non-factors because of injury. The Chiefs won the AFC West; the Rams lost the NFC West title on the last night of the regular season. The Bucs were one of football's great surprises, finishing 10-6.
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