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NFL morning after: It’s the Texans and everyone else in the AFC

Baltimore Ravens v Houston Texans Getty Images

Is seven weeks into the season too early to declare home-field advantage wrapped up? Probably. But let’s be real about the state of the AFC right now: It’s the Texans and everyone else.

The Texans are so much better than the rest of the AFC that only a string of major injuries to key players (like Houston had last year) can prevent them from clinching home field for the playoffs, probably with a couple games left in the regular season. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Houston.

Entering Sunday, the Texans and Ravens were tied for the best record in the AFC at 5-1, and their meeting at Reliant Stadium looked like a possible AFC Championship preview. But on Sunday the Texans absolutely humiliated the Ravens, jumping out to a 29-3 halftime lead and coasting through the second half to win 43-13. If the Ravens are the second-best team in the AFC, then I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger gap between the first and second-best teams in either conference in NFL history.

The Texans are such a complete team. They pass the ball well with Matt Schaub throwing to receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels. In Arian Foster they have one of the NFL’s best running backs. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt is my choice for Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL right now. Johnathan Joseph has been slowed by a groin injury this season, but when he’s at full speed he’s among the NFL’s best cornerbacks — and he looked like he’s getting closer to full speed when he picked off Joe Flacco and returned the interception 52 yards for a touchdown on Sunday.

All of that is half of the reason the Texans are so far ahead of the pack in the AFC. The other half is that every other team in the AFC is deeply flawed. Only the Texans, Ravens and Patriots have winning records, and it’s looking like a year when 8-8 may be enough to make the playoffs in the AFC. All those AFC teams hovering around .500 may look to some people like just the kind of parity everyone likes about the NFL, but it looks more like mediocrity to me.

The Texans’ loss to the Packers a week ago is a strong demonstration of how much better the NFC is than the AFC this season: If the Texans were in the other conference, they wouldn’t be the favorites to earn home-field advantage. But as the one and only really good team in a mediocre conference, the Texans have the clearest path to the Super Bowl of any team in the NFL.

Here are my other observations from the seventh Sunday of this NFL season:

Chris Johnson may be the most inconsistent player in NFL history. Johnson was absolutely sensational for the Titans in Sunday’s win over the Bills, carrying 18 times for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including one 83-yard run on which he looked like he could give Usain Bolt a competitive race. Johnson’s game-breaking ability is unmatched; previously in his NFL career Johnson has had touchdown runs of 91, 89 and 85 yards, and he’s the only player in NFL history with four career touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer. But for the Titans, it’s maddening that a player with the talent to run like that has so many absolutely terrible games. In the first six weeks of this season, Johnson had four different games in which he failed to gain even 25 yards. In those four games, Johnson’s total stat line is 48 carries for 69 yards and zero touchdowns. How can a player who’s good enough to gain 195 yards on 18 carries in one game be bad enough to total just 69 yards on 48 carries in four other games? It’s inexplicable.

Browns rookie defensive lineman Billy Wynn committed one of the dumbest penalties of the year. On a fourth down from the Colts’ own 22-yard line in the second quarter, the Indianapolis offense stayed on the field. Obviously, all they were going to do is try to draw the Browns’ defense offside: No NFL team ever goes for it on fourth down in that situation. Which obviously means that all the Browns had to do was not jump offside. And yet Wynn jumped offside, giving the Colts a free first down. Penalties don’t get much dumber than that.

Wynn’s penalty wasn’t even the Browns’ dumbest fourth-down decision. Browns coach Pat Shurmur made one of the bonehead calls of the year when he sent out his punter on fourth-and-1 from the Colts’ 41-yard line while trailing 17-13 with 6:38 left in the fourth quarter. That’s a situation where you have to go for it. You simply cannot give the ball away because you don’t trust your offense to gain one yard with the game on the line. The Browns, of course, ended up losing by that same 17-13 score. Shurmur is coaching for his job right now, and these are the decisions that get coaches fired.

We’re running out of superlatives for Robert Griffin III. Even in defeat, Griffin is doing amazing things as the Redskins’ quarterback. After Griffin completed 20 of 28 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, plus 89 yards rushing, players on the Giants’ defense declared Griffin the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora described Griffin as “flat-out unbelievable.” It’s amazing how good this guy is, at just 22 years old.

Last year we were running out of superlatives for Cam Newton. If you want to make the case that no one should get too excited about Griffin, all you have to do is point to Newton. Last year Newton was doing many of the same things Griffin was doing, making plays with his arm and his feet in an unbelievable rookie season for the Panthers. But this year Newton just doesn’t appear to be the same player. It’s not that Newton has been terrible, but in games like Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, he just hasn’t been able to make plays when the Panthers need him. Becoming a great pro quarterback is a lot of work, and while Newton may achieve greatness eventually, he’s not there yet. Maybe a full year of film on Newton has better prepared NFL defenses to stop him, or maybe Newton let all the fame get to his head last year. But he’s not playing as well as he did in 2011.

The Jets aren’t going down without a fight. After they lost their best player, Darrelle Revis, to a season-ending knee injury and then lost their next game 34-0 to the 49ers, I thought the Jets would be one of the worst teams in the league the rest of the season. But I was wrong. The Jets are playing tough, competitive football. On Sunday in New England the Jets were (at least according to the Vegas lines) the biggest underdogs in the NFL. And yet they took the Patriots to overtime. Rex Ryan turns a lot of people off with all his bluster, but the guy is a damn good coach.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano had the biggest win of the day. Not because his team beat the Browns to improve to 3-3 and surpass last year’s win total, but because he was sent home after four weeks in the hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. For Pagano, that’s an important step to getting where he wants to be: Back to coaching his team.

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Ted Thompson calls Packers turnaround an “astronomical feat”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 19: Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson speaks to the media during the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 19, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Packers are getting set to face the Falcons for the NFC title on Sunday, which isn’t where it looked like their season was headed when they were 4-6 in the regular season.

There was a lot of talk at that time about what the offseason might bring in Green Bay if the team remained on the same path and missed the playoffs, although none of it came from General Manager Ted Thompson. Thompson didn’t meet with the media after August and guard T.J. Lang said that his demeanor inside the facility never wavered from the “positive attitude” he usually displays.

Thompson said that while he knows his attitude won’t “change the world,” he does believe it is “part of the equation” for getting things back on the right track. The team found that track and has an eight-game winning streak that’s left Thompson impressed.

“When you’re on a losing streak, especially in my job, you have your own little personal misery all the time because — it’s not that the team was underachieving or anything — that’s just the way it is in the NFL,” Thompson said to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. “For the team to recover and do what they’ve done is an astronomical feat, in my opinion.”

Thompson wouldn’t say whether there had been any thought to parting ways with coach Mike McCarthy when the team was struggling, but did say that he wouldn’t make such a decision based on a single season. Given the way things turned around in Green Bay, that’s probably not a bad view for the G.M. to take.

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Jaguars interviewing Keenan McCardell for receivers coach

22 Nov 1998:  Wide receiver Keenan McCardell #87 of the Jacksonville Jaguars looks on during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Jaguars 30-15. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge  /Allsport Getty Images

One of the best receivers in Jaguars franchise history may soon be the team’s wide receivers coach.

Keenan McCardell, who was a Pro Bowl receiver for the Jaguars when they were an expansion team 20 years ago, is interviewing in Jacksonville today, according to 1010XL in Jacksonville. McCardell is second in Jaguars history in catches and receiving yards, second only to Jimmy Smith, who tweeted today that he is praying McCardell will get the job.

McCardell played for Tom Coughlin during his time with the Jaguars, and Coughlin is now back and running the team’s football operations. Coughlin would presumably encourage head coach Doug Marrone to find a place for McCardell on the staff.

The 47-year-old McCardell spent three years as an NFL assistant as Washington’s wide receivers coach, and two years coaching wide receivers in college at Maryland. He was out of coaching last year.

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Report: Chip Kelly met with Bill Belichick

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 06:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots greets head coach Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles after their game at Gillette Stadium on December 6, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots with a score of 35-28.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Jaguars decided against hiring Chip Kelly as their head coach or offensive coordinator. His next conversation was with a team that’s been slightly more successful.

According to Chris Mortensen of ESPN, the former Eagles and 49ers head coach went to New England to meet with coach Bill Belichick after the Jacksonville thing fell through.

It’s unclear whether Kelly and Belichick were talking about any specific role, or whether they just went fishing one afternoon.

But the respect between the two is real, and Kelly seems to have made clear a preference for staying in the NFL as opposed to going back to college.

Kelly also has multiple buyouts after being fired twice in two seasons, so he doesn’t have to get a job or anything. And the Patriots don’t have any openings on the coaching staff, after offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided to stay put.

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49ers may have to adjust on the fly, again

49ers-helmet-thearon-w-henderson-getty-images-49ers-drc_0128_hhfi1s Getty Images

The ever-shifting hiring standards for the 49ers may be shifting yet again.

With Packers executive and presumed 49ers G.M. favorite Brian Gutekunst opting to withdraw from consideration and stay put in Green Bay, the 49ers could be adjusting their focus. Which could result in more candidates emerging.

Initially, the 49ers wanted to hire a G.M. who would hire a head coach. With Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio bowing out, the focus then became finding a coach and a G.M. who would be joined at the hip. When that didn’t pan out, the 49ers opted to wink-nod hire Kyle Shanahan to coach the team, and then to have Shanahan involved in the search for a G.M.-in-name-only, who would essentially set the table for Shanahan.

Some league insiders predict that the job could become more along the lines of “director of player personnel,” with the candidate knowing from the get-go that his job will be to go get players for Shanahan and not to manage or to co-manage the football operations. Folks who would aspire to fill that role may already be contacting Shanahan and/or the 49ers to express interest.

Part of the problem is that, in the rush to get Shanahan to verbally commit to the job after all other coaching candidates had withdrawn, the 49ers apparently promised him control over the 53-man roster. That instantly made the G.M. less attractive and less powerful.

So, basically, the 49ers eventually may need to redefine and rename the job in order to fill it.

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Julio Jones practices, no limitations Sunday

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 13: Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons is tackled by Rodney McLeod #23 of the Philadelphia Eagles after getting a firstdown during a game at Lincoln Financial Field on November 13, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Falcons 24-15. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) Getty Images

The league did away with the probable designation on injury reports this year, which means that teams are only supposed to give injury designations to players if they have doubts about their ability to play.

Don’t expect wide receiver Julio Jones to be listed on the Falcons’ injury report for the NFC Championship Game. Jones returned to practice on Friday after missing the first two practice days this week due to the toe injury he aggravated against the Seahawks last Saturday.

Jones was a full participant in Friday’s practice and coach Dan Quinn said that the team would not put any limitations on the wideout’s playing time against the Packers.

Quinn said that everyone on the Falcons is healthy enough to play, so defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel should also be off the injury report after limited practices this week.

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Johnny Manziel says he has gotten sober without professional assistance

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 20: Quarterback Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns is tackled by defensive tackle Brandon Mebane #92 of the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on December 20, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) Getty Images

Two years ago, Johnny Manziel spent more than 10 weeks in rehab in an effort to overcome addiction. It didn’t work.

Manziel now says he has managed to do it without professional assistance. Via Ed Werder of ESPN.com, Manziel claims that he has achieved sobriety on his own.

The first-round pick of the Browns in 2014 said his next goal is to “PLAY FOOTBALL,” and that he plans to do so in a “preseason game, anything, I don’t care what it is.”

So where will that happen?

“[I] only need one team to believe in me and I’ll do anything to make that a possibility,” Manziel said.

The first challenge will be to get an agent, because he’ll need someone who knows the right people in order to persuade someone to give him a workout, an offseason roster spot, and/or a position on the 53-man roster. Then, the challenge for that agent will be to work the phones and persuade someone to trust Manziel.

Trust ultimately will be the key for Manziel. Who will trust him to do the right things, say the right things, show up for work, be committed to football? The fact that he’s not regarded as a potential franchise quarterback will make it harder for anyone to justify taking the chance, because the benefit won’t outweigh the potential cost of doing business with a man who has become the poster child for all the things that football coaches don’t want in their locker rooms: laziness, lack of discipline, entitlement, lack of commitment.

With so many other players out there who haven’t done anything to put themselves in position to need a second chance, why should Manziel take a spot that could go to one of them? He has had his second chance, and he has squandered it. If he were more talented, maybe he’d get a third chance.

He’s not, and thus he likely won’t.

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Ryan Kerrigan had elbow surgery, faces 6-8-week rehab

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 14:  Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan #91 of the Washington Redskins celebreates after recording a second quarter sack during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at FedExField on September 14, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) Getty Images

Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan had already pulled out of the Pro Bowl because of an injury, now he’s getting it taken care of.

According to John Keim of ESPN.com, Kerrigan had surgery to clean up some “loose bodies” in his left elbow.

His recovery is expected to take six to eight weeks, giving him plenty of time to be ready before training camp.

He suffered the injury late in the season against the Panthers, but continued to play. He finished the season with 11.0 sacks.

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103 players secure early entry to the draft

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 09:  Quarterback Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers reacts after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide 35-31 to win the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium on January 9, 2017 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

The incoming class of NFL players has been supplemented by the players who have achieved special entry to the process.

The NFL has announced that 95 players have been granted “special eligibility” for the draft by meeting the (unfair and arbitrary) three-year eligibility rule. Eight other players, including Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (pictured), have obtained degrees despite having college football eligibility remaining.

That’s down one from 2016, but it’s a continuation of a trend that has seen the numbers spike since the NFL adopted a rookie wage scale in 2011. The restricted earnings at the top of the draft create an incentive to get to the NFL and begin the process of putting in years toward the second contract, because that’s where players now get paid in large amounts.

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Brian Gutekunst withdraws from 49ers G.M. search

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

There were two Packers executives included among the candidates for the 49ers General Manager job, but it appears neither one of them will be making the move to Santa Clara.

A day after director of football operations Eliot Wolf withdrew from the search, Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst has also pulled his name from consideration. Schefter reports that Gutekunst has signed a new deal with the Packers, which was also the case for Wolf.

Both men were on a list of candidates invited back for a second interview. Vikings assistant G.M. George Paton and Cardinals vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough are believed to be the other candidates for the position.

The 49ers are expected to hire Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as their head coach and reports earlier this week had the team planning conversations between Shanahan and the G.M. candidates after the NFC Championship Game.

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Vikings make a couple of coaching moves

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 13: Head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings looks on against the Washington Redskins in the second quarter at FedExField on November 13, 2016 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Vikings promoted Pat Shurmur to offensive coodinator after Norv Turner’s departure last season and they’ll be keeping him in that role this year, which left them in need of a new tight ends coach.

Mike Klis of KUSA reports that former Broncos assistant Clancy Barone will fill the position. Barone served as the Broncos tight ends coach in 2009, coached the offensive line in 2010, moved back to work with the tight ends from 2011-14 and then went back to the offensive line for the last two seasons. He’s also served as a tight ends coach for the Chargers and Falcons, who initially brought him to the NFL as an offensive line coach in 2004.

Adam Caplan of ESPN backs up Klis’ report and adds that the team will move Kevin Stefanski from running backs coach to quarterbacks coach. Stefanski has been with the Vikings since 2006 and worked as the tight ends coach and an assistant quarterbacks coach over the course of his time in Minnesota.

Kennedy Polamalu is expected to be the team’s new running backs coach.

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Vance Joseph shares his thoughts on the AFC title game

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 23:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is tackled by Devin McCourty #32, Duron Harmon #30 and Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots in the first half during the game at Heinz Field on October 23, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) Getty Images

Broncos coach Vance Joseph knows the two participants in the AFC title game very well. As the defensive coordinator in Miami, he faced the Patriots and Dolphins twice this year.

So I asked Joseph during his visit this week to PFT Live which team has the edge.

“I’ll tell you this about the Patriots, it’s the most efficient football team in the NFL,” Joseph said. “So if it’s there to get, that team’s gonna get it. Pittsburgh is probably the most resilient team in the NFL. It never looks pretty. They always have little lulls during the season but it’s a tough, gritty football team.

“So that being said I’m not sure who’s gonna win. It’s gonna be a great game between two different styles of football teams. One team’s very efficient and one team’s a tough, resilient bunch that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer so it’s gonna be a good football game. Tom Brady is obviously a great player, Hall of Fame player so is Big Ben [Roethlisberger]. With Pittsburgh’s weapons, they’re gonna be able to score points with [Le’Veon] Bell and [Antonio] Brown. You know, I think whoever scores the most points wins Mike, how about that?”

It’s no surprise that Joseph chose his words carefully; he’ll be competing with both teams soon. In a way, he already is.

But his points are valid. He’s basically saying that the Patriots are the better overall football operation, but that the Steelers can never be counted out. In other words, “That’s why they play the games.”

On Sunday night, they will. Hopefully, it will be a great one.

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Packers center J.C. Tretter has knee surgery

GREEN BAY, WI - MAY 10: J.C. Tretter #73 of the Green Bay Packers runs through some warms ups before the start rookie camp at the Don Hutson Center on May 10, 2013 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Packers have been without center J.C. Tretter since a Week Seven knee injury, and it doesn’t appear he’s going to be back anytime soon, if at all.

Via Wes Hodkiewicz of the team’s official website, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tretter had knee surgery Tuesday, and wouldn’t be available this week.

The fact they’ve kept him on the roster this long remains a bit of a surprise, and the surgery now suggests the possibility of some degree of recent setback.

Corey Linsley has been starting in his place since the initial injury.

Tretter is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

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Artie Burns: I have to be ready for Tom Brady to come after me

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 25:  Artie Burns #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers signs autographs for fans before the start of the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on December 25, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers defense rounded into form down the stretch this season and ranks among the best defenses in the league over the course of the nine-game winning streak that the team carries into Sunday’s AFC title game against the Patriots.

Two of the players who have seen their playing time go up at the same time the defense’s play has improved are safety Sean Davis and cornerback Artie Burns. The two rookies have played almost every snap over the course of the winning streak and they have helped settle a secondary that was leaky in the first half of the season.

That was when the Patriots beat the Steelers 27-16. The rookies only played 38 snaps between them in that game, leaving Burns feeling like Tom Brady is going to be testing them often on Sunday.

“That’s what he does,” Burns said, via ESPN.com. “He’s a savvy vet. That’s what savvy vets do; they go after rookies. I’m prepared for it. It’s a challenge. I’ve just got to be ready.”

Passing the test won’t guarantee the desired outcome for Pittsburgh — the Patriots ran for 140 yards in the regular season win — but it would likely make for a tighter game than the last one.

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Pursuit of Vic Fangio says plenty about 49ers search

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 30:  Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during pre-game warm ups before their game against the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park on December 30, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Getty Images

The 49ers may not like their neighbors to the not-too-distant north, but they currently seem to be trying to take a page from the playbook of long-time Raiders owner Al Davis. How else can anyone explain the decision to pursue a defensive coordinator before hiring a head coach?

Well, here’s how it can be explained. It can be explained by acknowledging what’s already well known in league circles: Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is getting the job, and the 49ers are in the process of lining up possible candidates to join Shanahan’s staff. The Falcons can hardly complain; they did the same thing two years ago, wink-nod hiring Seahawks offensive coordinator Dan Quinn while the Seahawks still were playing.

The other unusual aspect of this specific situation is that neither Kyle Shanahan nor his father have any experience working with Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who previously worked for the 49ers in that same capacity. Some are interpreting the move to interview Fangio as a dynamic driven by someone other than Shanahan. Which possibly underscores the influence of Paraag Marathe, a factor that possibly has been causing some G.M. candidates to bow out.

Regardless, it’s odd to see a team trying to interview coordinators before having a coach. The truth most likely is that the 49ers have a coach.

Meanwhile, the report of San Francisco’s interest in Fangio and Chicago’s refusal to grant permission for him to interview for the job would seem to conclusively put to rest the idea that Fangio was in trouble. The Bears had an opportunity to get out from under Fangio’s contract, and the Bears declined.

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Zach Orr says he’s “forced to walk away” because of neck condition

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 11: Linebacker Zach Orr #54 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates in the first half of the Buffalo Bills vs. the Baltimore Ravens game at M&T Bank Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

Ravens linebacker Zach Orr is retiring not because he wants to, but because doctors are telling him he has to.

Orr says an examination on a herniated disc revealed that he has a rare neck condition that could result in a serious, life-changing injury if he continued to play. As a result, he’s walking away from football at age 24.

“I’m blessed and thankful that I’m able to walk away from the game in good health,” Orr said.

After initially making the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2014 by playing special teams, Orr emerged as a very good starting linebacker in Baltimore during the 2016 season. There was talk that he could be due for a big contract this offseason, but now he’s done playing football entirely.

Still, Orr seemed to be in good spirits, saying that he’s going to stay active in his community and in mentoring young men. Ravens coach John Harbaugh and G.M. Ozzie Newsome both called Orr a fine young man who has a bright future ahead of him. Just not on the field.

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