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Full text of Roger Goodell’s presentation at the Harvard School of Public Health

[Editor’s note:  On Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke at the Harvard School of Public Health. The full text of his prepared remarks, as distributed by the NFL, appears below.]

Let me begin by thanking Dean Julio Frenk for inviting me to speak here today.  It is truly an honor to discuss two topics that I am passionate about: the game of football and its future.

The history of football is closely connected with the history of Harvard. Football has been played here with distinction since 1873. Professor Paul Weiler of Harvard Law School persuasively argues that the first college football game took place in Cambridge between Harvard and McGill University.

President Faust paid eloquent tribute to Harvard’s football legacy in a speech the night before last year’s Harvard-Yale game. She mentioned the university’s landmark innovations in the game – uniforms, a team doctor, a trainer, a kicking specialist. Harvard’s legacy includes eight national championships and 20 College Football Hall of Famers. Also the current starting quarterback of the Buffalo Bills – Ryan Fitzpatrick – and Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk – who last year won the Walter Payton Award as the NFL Man of the Year for his service on, and especially, off the field.

Football is embedded in your traditions, and your contributions have defined and changed how we play the game. We are proud of the connection. And we know that Harvard is proud of your team and players for their extraordinary accomplishments on the football field, in the classroom, and in life. From Harvard’s first African-American football captain, William Lewis in 1893, to Coach Murphy’s fine team this year, you have given so much to the sport we love. And good luck to the Crimson this Saturday in “The Game” against Yale, one of football’s grandest traditions.

Harvard and the NFL both stand for something else – leadership. Others in education, sports, and countless places beyond the playing fields look to us to influence their own decisions. We embrace our leadership position. And leadership means certain things, whether in sports, academia, or public health. It means thinking about the long term. It means listening and learning from people, including your critics or those who may be telling you what you don’t want to hear. It means facing up to your challenges and working tirelessly to make sure you make the right choices, for the right reasons, based on science and facts, not speculation.

So today, in this place of leadership, I want to speak about our role in protecting the health and safety of athletes – not just in the NFL and football, but in all sports and all levels of play. Our nation is experiencing a public health crisis fueled by growing levels of obesity, particularly in children. You understand the consequences and what needs to be done to reverse the trend. We know kids need to exercise – put simply, to play. And we know that whatever they play, they need to do it safely – with respect for the rules and other competitors, and in support of teamwork and sportsmanship.

Other than my family, my passion in life is football, and always has been. As a kid, it seemed like I was always either playing or thinking about football. The values I learned from the game are central to who I am. I learned about commitment, communication, sacrifice and determination. It was fun, exciting, and the ultimate team sport.

Thirty years ago, I joined the NFL as an intern in Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s office. I was Pete Rozelle’s driver at Super Bowl XX in New Orleans in 1986. I couldn’t believe my luck and couldn’t imagine a better job. It was the beginning of a dream I am still living. It has been, at times, a humbling journey.

I have been fortunate to preside over the National Football League for seven seasons now. As a league, we continue to achieve great success. A growing number of fans – more than one million a week – attend games at our stadiums. The 16 most-watched TV shows this fall are NFL games – that is, aside from the presidential debates. And they were almost a contact sport, too.

A recent Harris Poll indicated that the NFL’s popularity is rising, at an all-time high, and up 12 percent from just 10 years ago. The second most popular sport is college football. The interest is simply amazing – driven by the character of the game, the talent and hard work of our athletes, the dedication of coaches, and the passion of our fans.

I don’t need to tell you that our nation is sharply divided on many issues. But, as President Obama said just last week, “One of the big unifiers in this country is sports, and football in particular. You don’t go anyplace where folks don’t talk about football.”

Football connects generations. Many of us remember watching games with parents and grandparents. We’ve experienced the joy of introducing the game to our own children. It inspires us to rally around our players, teams, and cities. It brings together families, friends, and communities. And on a few occasions every year, it brings together the entire country.

Football has earned a vital place in the rhythm of American life. Nearly 6 million kids play flag or tackle football; another 1.1 million play in high school; and 75,000 play in college. For many reasons, I have never been more optimistic about football’s future or more confident about its place in our society. Optimistic, but not complacent.

The game of football is thriving. It is more compelling than ever. But it is also seen by some as a game at a crossroads. And not for the first time. We are well aware of social commentators who now question our future. And I am here to tell you: If we are at another crossroads, we have already taken the right path. We took it a long time ago, and our commitment to stay on it will not waver.

The risk of injury in football is well known. Throughout history, football has evolved; it has become safer and safer again. President Faust talked last year about eliminating the dangerous “flying wedge” in the college game more than a century ago. In recent years, there has been a much sharper focus on concussions in football and other sports. There are still unanswered questions, but scientists and doctors know more about concussions and their long-term potential effects than they did even a few years ago. The key issue for us is how we use this new understanding to make the game even safer and more exciting in the future.

I can say in no uncertain terms that this is our biggest challenge: Changing the culture in a way that reduces the injury risk to the maximum possible extent – especially the risk of head injury. We want players to enjoy long and prosperous careers and healthy lives off the field. So we focus relentlessly on player health and safety, while also keeping the game fun and unpredictable.

My most important job is to protect the integrity of the game – but it goes beyond that. It is also to protect the 1,800 professionals who choose to play and who make our game so great.

The responsibility to our players does not end when they hang up their uniform for the last time. The health and safety of former, current, and future players involves many facets, not just head injuries. It includes the quality of playing fields, the equipment players wear, rules to protect them from unnecessary risk, programs to support their lives off the field, and post-career benefits.

At one time spinal cord injuries were considered a greater risk than they are today. But after changes in rules and techniques, those injuries have been dramatically reduced. We also have addressed the impact of heat and hydration, better educating our medical staffs and players and supporting the outstanding work of the Korey Stringer Institute. Now we are devoting more resources to the well-being of players as they transition away from the game, including their mental health.

We more than accept this responsibility on total health and safety. We seek it; we pursue it; we honor it. We do it to make a difference in football, in all sports and, we hope, beyond.

I’m sure some of you have asked yourselves the same tough questions others ask: When there is risk associated with playing tackle football, why do people continue to play? And for parents, should I let my kids play tackle football?

These are valid, important questions. Answers can differ from person to person – and especially from parent to parent.

In trying to respond to these concerns, we have looked to the realities of football. We have established an open dialogue – speaking frankly and engaging our critics directly – so that we can improve the safety of football. Whether to play football or any contact sport is a highly personal choice for kids and parents. It must be a thoughtful, informed decision.

The simple truth is that any physical activity comes with risk and reward. Head injuries occur in sports. Earlier this month, many of the world’s top sports concussion experts convened in Zurich, Switzerland. It is the leading conference on concussion in sport. In attendance were experts from the International Olympic Committee, international soccer (or as they say “football”), rugby, equestrian competition, Australian Rules Football and many other sports, including the NFL. The chief medical officer of the international soccer federation noted that 300 million people around the world play soccer. Concussions are hardly an issue limited to football or the NFL.

The conference reached a thoughtful consensus on how to advance safety – teach proper techniques and fundamentals; educate coaches, parents and players about concussion recognition and management; eliminate unnecessary contact; and continue to research the unanswered questions surrounding concussions.  At the same time, these international experts recommended that sports be played actively, but safely, without regard to age. These few steps will make sports safer for all.

There is no question that there are tremendous benefits to playing team sports like football, whether it’s tackle, flag or touch football in the backyard – benefits such as physical fitness, self-discipline, friendships, leadership opportunities, self-esteem, college scholarships, and, most importantly, just plain fun.

Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to John Kennedy to Gerald Ford played and loved football. Business leaders like Jeff Immelt and military leaders like General Ray Odierno learned important lessons from playing football. At West Point, the cadets are required to play a team sport because the experience is fundamental to leadership development.

Is playing tackle football worth the risk? For some, the answer may be no. But millions say yes. We emphatically say yes. And I pledge that the NFL will do everything in its power to minimize the risks and maximize the rewards of this great and increasingly global game.

The way I look at it: Football is always at a crossroads, facing challenges that require leaders to act with courage and purpose to secure and advance its future.

Let’s look back at one issue that involved Harvard more than a century ago, in 1905, before the NFL even existed. This was a time when football was extremely dangerous and violent. More than 150 college players suffered serious injuries and 18 players died in 1904 alone – – at a time when far fewer athletes played football.

Just think about that for a moment … 18 student-athletes died … in one season, primarily from skull fractures.

The nature of the game at that time led to widespread criticism. In 1903, The New York Times stated that football was trending toward “mayhem and homicide.” Some called for ending the sport, including Harvard President Charles Eliot.

The future of football was very much in doubt.

But a Harvard graduate, who happened to be the President of the United States, loved football. And Teddy Roosevelt came to football’s rescue.

He had not played football at Harvard, but he loved the game. He saw the merit in the lessons and principles that make football compelling. And in December of 1905, he brought the Big Three – Harvard, Yale and Princeton – to the White House. He convinced them that something had to change. President Roosevelt recognized that the game did not need to end. It needed to evolve.

As a result of President Roosevelt’s initiative, and the leadership of Harvard, key rules and the equipment of the game were changed and what became the NCAA was created. This led to modern football, one that included the forward pass, 10 yards for a first down, and the elimination of the flying wedge. These changes led to a more wide open, safer game.
Teddy Roosevelt helped transform a sport in trouble into something better – a game that has helped shape the lives and careers of generations of young men in so many positive ways.

In 1910, President Woodrow Wilson observed that the changes were working. “The new game of football seems far more enjoyable than the old one,” he said. “The new rules are doing much to bring football to a high level as a sport, for its brutal features are being done away with and better elements retained.”

So it was that a Harvard graduate and the university itself played a pivotal role in transforming football and paving the way to its future success.

The game has continued to evolve. Not long ago, the game allowed the head slap, tackling by the face mask, horse collar tackles, dangerous blocks, and hits to the head of defenseless receivers and quarterbacks. All of that has changed.

“The war against roughness in pro football is a continuing one,” said the NFL commissioner. That was Pete Rozelle in 1963.

“An Unfolding Tragedy.” That was a headline. The story said, “As football injuries mount, lawsuits increase and insurance rates soar, the game is headed toward a crisis, one that is epitomized by the helmet, which is both a barbarous weapon and inadequate protection.” It was a Sports Illustrated cover story in 1978.

Protecting the health and safety of players has included taking drug abuse and steroids out of the game. We have randomly tested year-round for steroids since 1990, the first league to do so, with immediate suspensions for any violations. Next we need to implement testing to make sure human growth hormone is out of the game. Performance enhancing drugs are dangerous. They also present unknown risk that may be seriously impacting an athlete’s health in ways he or she never considered. Some have suggested that there may be a link between performance enhancing drugs and concussions and brain disease.

Football has always evolved, and it always will. Make no mistake: change does not inhibit the game; it improves it.

It’s with Teddy Roosevelt in mind that we embrace today’s challenges. I learned a long time ago that you don’t do things because they are popular in the short term. You do them because they are right for the long term. And this is the right conversation to be having.

My commitment has been and will continue to be to change the culture of football to better protect players without changing the essence of what makes the game so popular.

It has been done. And it will be done.

As stewards of the game, it is our responsibility to promote a culture of safety. To be leaders. So let me share with you some specifics on how we are leading.

(Leadership)

Leaders do not sit and wait for others to provide answers. We will continue to make rule changes, invest in innovative protective equipment, and provide our medical staffs the tools and authority to protect players on the field.

The rule in our league is simple and straightforward: Medical decisions override everything else. There has been attention this week on the fact that three NFL quarterbacks sustained concussions last Sunday. The positive development was that all three were taken out of the game as soon as they showed symptoms. The team medical staff then diagnosed a concussion, and each player was out of the game. That is progress. That is the way it should be in all sports at every level.

We know that our actions set an example. The concussion awareness material and training videos we developed with the Centers for Disease Control were used by the U.S. Olympic team this past summer. The United States military, NASCAR and college conferences have adopted our concussion protocols.

The Ivy League this year adopted rules similar to the ones in the new agreement with our NFL players, limiting contact in practices and emphasizing taking the head out of the game – as we have been doing.

High schools and colleges must take leadership roles as well with their coaches and athletes. An aggressive dialogue and educational efforts at all levels will raise awareness and change the culture to more strongly emphasize safety. We challenge everyone in sports to be agents of culture change. And we will learn from each other.

There is more to be done. And we will continue to lead by example.

(Research)

Second, leaders base decisions on facts. We actively support independent and transparent medical research. Much of this focuses on the brain, sometimes called the last frontier of medicine and a public health issue that affects millions. Most of them do not even play sports.

We hope our focus on brain injury and the discoveries ahead will benefit the broader population. We recently committed $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for research on the brain. The agreement with our players sets aside an additional $100 million for similar medical research over the next decade. We have invested millions more in medical research through our charitable foundations, including at the Boston University Center for the Study of CTE. The center’s co-director, Dr. Robert Stern, is here today.

We may learn through breakthroughs in science that there are genetic or other factors that make certain individuals predisposed to concussions or brain disease. If an athlete has repeated concussions or takes longer to recover, it may signal a problem unique to that individual. Such individuals will benefit from advances in the science of concussion. They will be able to make more informed decisions about whether to accept the risk of playing a contact sport.

We support research into new helmet designs and have sponsored independent helmet testing to provide better information to players on helmet performance. One of the helmets our players wear was designed by a former Harvard quarterback, Vin Ferrara.

We may see a day when there are different helmets for different positions, based on which helmet can best protect players at their position.

As a sport that is on the national stage and under the spotlight, we are working to make a difference. Innovations in research today will improve safety in the sport tomorrow and for future generations in all sports.

(Rules)

Third, we are committed to strengthening our playing rules – and insisting on strict enforcement. Preserving the essence of the game, while reducing unnecessary risk, means we have to constantly reevaluate and refresh our rules reasonably and responsibly.

Strategy, strength and speed are what make the game great. We don’t want to take physical contact out of the game. But we must ensure that players follow rules designed to reduce the risk of injury. Enforcing rules on illegal hits to the head with fines and suspensions has changed tackling for the better. Players and coaches have adjusted. They always do. We now see fewer dangerous hits to the head and noticeable changes in the way the game is being played.

We continue to look for other ways to take the head out of the game. Two years ago we moved the kickoff line five yards forward to the 35. That reform yielded real benefits – a 40 percent reduction in concussions last year on kickoffs. College football then adopted our rule. Some think that the kickoff – the play with the highest injury rate – should be eliminated from the game or modified even further.

Here’s an idea I’ve heard from an NFL head coach: put a weight limit on players for kickoffs. Smaller players against smaller players would mean less severe collisions.

We will monitor the data on kickoffs, and all plays, with an open mind toward change.

Our Player Safety Panel, co-chaired by Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and John Madden, has recommended that our Competition Committee carefully review the rules on all blocks below the waist. Protecting “defenseless” players started decades ago by banning the hitting of kickers. We now have nine separate categories of defenseless players in our rule book. All players can be defenseless in certain situations and we must address it comprehensively.

The right safety equipment is also crucial. Next year NFL players will be required to wear knee and thigh pads, as players are required to do at every other level of football. Many NFL players haven’t been wearing them. Getting them into the right equipment is part of changing the culture.

Technology is also helping us. Recent developments include new protocols, certified athletic trainers in press boxes to serve as spotters for team medical staffs, and the use of iPads and cell phones by medical staffs on the sidelines. We allow this technology for medical reasons, but not for competitive purposes.

We are testing accelerometers in helmets. They are sensors that determine the impact of a hit. We are also testing sensors in shoulder pads which could provide important information.

The most significant innovation may be the use of video by medical staffs on the sidelines to evaluate the mechanism of injury. We started it late last season and now use it for every game. It allows team doctors and trainers to more quickly understand and better treat an injury. Our team medical staffs are raving about it.

(Advocacy)

Fourth, we use our leadership position to advocate for safety in sports. We took a lead role in supporting the Zackery Lystedt Youth Concussion Law. It applies to all sports. It requires education for coaches, players, and parents, removal from games or practice for any school athlete who suffers a concussion, and clearance by a medical professional before the athlete can return to play. This law has now been passed by 40 states and the District of Columbia. Our goal is to secure approval in all 50 states. And I am confident that we will get there.

We are committed to the safety of young athletes, starting as soon as they step on the field. My twin daughters in middle school play lacrosse and soccer. Girls’ soccer has the second highest rate of concussions in youth sports. I am concerned for their safety. I want them to play, but I want them to play for coaches who know how to teach proper techniques and who are trained in the safety of their sport.

Ten years ago, we helped endow a non-profit organization called USA Football. With the CDC and other medical and football experts, USA Football created the only nationally accredited coaching course in the history of football. Tens of thousands of coaches have completed the course. Better certification and background checks of all coaches must be among the highest priorities for all youth sports.

USA Football has commissioned an injury study – research that the youth game has never seen. It also established a pilot program this year called “Heads Up Football.” This program invites parents to participate and delivers training and education for safer tackling, practice regimens modeled on the NFL, and a safety coach whose sole task is to monitor and ensure player safety in practices and games.

In fact, there is a critical need for more certified athletic trainers for youth and high school sports. According to the National Athletic Trainers Association, in 2010 only 42 percent of high schools had access to certified trainers who were trained in concussion care.

There is more we can do to make youth sports safer. And again, we stand ready to lead.

(Partnerships)

And finally, we know we can’t do it alone. To learn what needs to be learned and do what needs to be done, we need partners with expertise to make things happen.

We will continue to work with leading organizations to support independent research. One day we hope that will include the Harvard School of Public Health.

We have assembled an all-volunteer advisory panel of doctors, scientists, and thought leaders in brain injury from academia, sports medicine, engineering, the NIH, CDC, and Department of Defense. It includes some of our earlier critics. This group has four subcommittees and is directing discussion and research – ranging from long-term outcomes to education to making safer equipment. It includes another Harvard graduate and former Crimson football player, Dr. Mitch Berger. Dr. Robert Cantu, long respected in this area, is here today and he is an advisor to our committee.

We have eight other medical advisory committees within our league, comprised mostly of doctors plus other experts from inside and outside the league. These committees are overseen by a committee of owners chaired by an NFL owner who is also a physician, Dr. John York of the San Francisco 49ers.

Earlier this year, with the help of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, we launched a pilot program to replace helmets in underserved schools.

We need to be driven by facts and data, not perceptions and suppositions. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has done studies on NFL players. This summer NIOSH exploded a myth that has been circulating for years that the life expectancy of NFL players was 55 years of age. That caused many NFL players to make a bad decision to take their pension early at a much lower rate. NIOSH found that the true life expectancy of an NFL player is actually longer than the general population. There are real-life consequences when working off bad facts.

One of our most exciting and innovative new partnerships is with the Army, helping to change the culture in both organizations. Too often, bravery and commitment to the unit or team stand in the way of safety. In this new partnership, NFL players and service members are working together to put in place a culture of safety. It is helping players and soldiers identify the signs and symptoms of brain injuries, and empowering them to make better decisions. We are working cooperatively to make soldiers and athletes safer.

We are proud to be leaders in sports health and safety. Members of Congress, former critics, influential members of the news media, and others have praised our initiatives. But while we have worked hard throughout our history, the right road is never ending. Evolution, by nature, does not stop. Football will always continue to evolve.

The culture of the athlete is still too much of a play-through-it, rather than player safety mentality. Many players have publicly admitted to hiding concussions and other head injuries.

I was recently at dinner with family friends. Their 15-year-old daughter plays field hockey and told me how during a recent game she hit her head on the turf and blacked out for a moment. She didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t want to come out. The next day she was diagnosed with a concussion. It’s the warrior mentality – in a 15-year-old girl. This is unfortunate, but we are working with players, team doctors and coaches to change that culture. It is changing, but will take more time, resolve, patience, and determination.

Let me conclude with a question: What is our goal? I can answer in one simple word: Safety.

A safer game for all who play at every level of football. A safer game made even more exciting through thoughtful adjustments of the rules, next-generation equipment, pioneering research, and transparent partnerships with the best minds.

The road may be long and twisting. But I have no doubt we will reach our destination – a culture of safety for every sport so our world continues to be blessed by the vital and vibrant rewards that come uniquely from sports. For football, I can say with humility, resolve, and confidence: the best is yet to come.

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Lovie Smith on high draft pick: If you’re down here, you have to get something from it

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The Buccaneers are closing in on the top pick in the draft for the fifth time in franchise history, which gives the team something to look forward to as they put the finishing touches on an abysmal season.

Coach Lovie Smith said Monday that adding a good player at the top of the draft next year is something to be excited about, especially since he likes what he’s seen from this year’s rookie class.

“From a 2-13 record right now, I think that we’ve found out our draft class, we’ve played them and we like some things we’ve seen from the draft class,” Smith said, via the Tampa Bay Times. “Of course, Mike Evans, it goes without saying, Charles Sims, we’re seeing flashes from him, Austin Seferian-Jenkins — you know, our top three picks, amongst others. So that part is good. And if you have to be down here, you need to get something from it. We are going to get from our position — wherever it might be — we are going to get to add some more, we have a full allotment of draft picks, we have an excellent staff that evaluates guys. We are going to add some more players to the mix. We need some more players added to the mix. I am excited about that part. And again, if you have to be down where we are, why not get your choice of a few of the best players in the draft.”

If the Buccaneers were to find a quarterback with that top pick, it would probably help others join Smith in getting excited about what’s to come for the Bucs. That won’t fix things on its own as the Bucs need to sort out their offensive line and offensive coordinator as well, but Smith’s right about the need to make your pick count if you’re handing it in during the first hour of the draft.

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Report: Aldon Smith was drinking at scene of alleged assault

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The 49ers have already dealt with Ray McDonald for his part in a new sexual assault investigation.

But now they may have a bigger problem to deal with.

Part of an affidavit outlining allegations against McDonald includes a section in which the victim said she spent the day drinking with McDonald and outside linebacker Aldon Smith.

That’s only a problem as it pertains to Smith’s suspension for a 2013 DUI, for which he’s still on probation.

According to Tracey Kaplan of the San Jose Mercury News, the woman claimed McDonald sexually assaulted her at his home after she passed out by his pool. But she them claimed to have stayed at the house, drinking with Smith and McDonald.

Police have also seized home surveillance cameras and McDonald’s cell phone as part of their investigation.

While the 49ers finally had a moment of clarity and cut McDonald (shortly after being eliminated from the playoffs), they’ve stood firm by Smith throughout a series of transgressions.

There was some dispute at the time of Smith’s reinstatement that he hadn’t fulfilled his counseling requirements.

But if police place him at the scene of a crime drinking, it will put the 49ers in the uncomfortable position of making more excuses for a star after making an example of McDonald.

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Brandon Marshall on Dominic Raiola: Dirty player, worse person

Chicago Bears Brandon Marshall Addresses The Media After Accusations Of Domestic Violence In His Past Getty Images

Bears receiver Brandon Marshall and Lions center Dominic Raiola will not be exchanging Christmas cards this year.

Marshall said after Raiola was suspended for stomping on the leg of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson that cheap shots are par for the course from Raiola.

“This guy is a dirty player, and he’s a worse human being. He has no respect for himself,” Marshall said, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN.

Marshall said his issues with Raiola go far beyond just one incident. According to Marshall, who has long been open about seeking treatment for mental illness, Raiola has approached Marshall on the field to insult him about his mental health issues. Marshall says that before a game two years ago, Raiola walked up to Marshall and made jokes about Marshall taking medication.

“I’m just warming up, just standing there. He’s like, ‘Go take your medicine. You freaking weirdo, you freaking crazy guy,’” Marshall said of an encounter with Raiola.

Raiola has a laundry list of incidents that have gotten him in hot water over the course of his NFL career, and the NFL noted in announcing his suspension that stepping on Ferguson was far from his first offense. Marshall thinks it’s past time that the NFL does something about Raiola.

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Johnny Manziel ruled out for Week 17

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Johnny Manziel’s rookie season is officially over.

Browns coach Mike Pettine announced Monday that the quarterback has been ruled out of the team’s season finale against the Ravens because of the hamstring injury he suffered against the Panthers on Sunday. Pettine called it a “pretty significant” injury that would have kept Manziel out for several weeks if the Browns season had several weeks left in it.

Pettine also said that Brian Hoyer’s shoulder injury would continue to be evaluated over the course of the week and that Connor Shaw would get first-team reps to prepare him for the possible start.

“If he does [play], I wouldn’t be surprised he plays well,” Pettine said, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Pettine added that the team was considering other quarterback options in the event they need to add another player to the roster before Week 17.

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Jim Harbaugh works hard to keep it on the high road

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Jim Harbaugh seemed to the heading for the curb, but managed to steer back onto the high road.

The soon-to-be-former 49ers coach seemed to come close to talking about his own status with the team, something he’s avoided so far.

Via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, Harbaugh was asked if it was hard to resist responding to the anonymous reports about him.

“Yeah, that’s a good question,” Harbaugh said, before laughing. “That’s a good question. . . .

The high road’s the only road I know. I’ll keep on that.”

When reporters tried to follow up, Harbaugh replied: “I think we’ve covered the ground pretty well.”

Sadly, we have not.

Harbaugh also declined to elaborate on a report from Jay Glazer of FOX Sports, who said Harbaugh’s status would be known within 48 hours of the end of the season.

“Well, as you know, I’ve not participated in any of these speculations and unnamed sources, the rumors, I would ask you to have Jay Glazer go back and ask his sources for more clarification,” Harbaugh said. … “I haven’t participated and I don’t intend to now. And this has been a good 12 months of this kind of thing. No reason to start now.”

Oh, there’s plenty of reason, Jim. The truth shall set you free. It’ll be cathartic for you.

You do get the feeling (or maybe it’s hope for a Festivus miracle) that at some point the tightly wound Harbaugh is going to snap, and a stream of truth so torrential will be unleashed, that we’ll all be drenched.

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Cowboys won’t rest starters this week

Tony Romo, Jason Garrett AP

The Cowboys have clinched the NFC East and they still have a shot at grabbing a first-round bye.

They’ll need to get some help from the 49ers and Rams (or a Lions-Packers tie) to make that happen, but even getting those results in the NFC West won’t help if they don’t beat Washington. If they were to win and get all three games to break their way, they’d wind up as the top seed in the conference.

On Monday, coach Jason Garrett said that the Cowboys will do their best to take care of what they control. With all three other games with bearing on their possible slot in the playoffs kicking off later in the day, the Cowboys won’t have the option of altering their lineup based on scoreboard watching and Garrett said, via Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, that the Cowboys would play their starters their usual amount in Week 17.

We’ll see if that holds come Sunday for running back DeMarco Murray and other players with current injury concerns, but the Cowboys have every reason to play anyone without such worries because of the benefits that would come with getting the bye.

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NFL to suspend Raiola for one game

Raiola Getty Images

Lions center Dominic Raiola said his stomp on the leg of Bears defensive tackle Ego Ferguson was inadvertent. There will be nothing inadvertent about the NFL’s reaction.

Per a league source, Raiola will indeed be suspended one game for the infraction. Raiola will get the official word later this afternoon.

Raiola was fined $10,000 last month for striking Patriots defensive tackle Zach Moore in the back of the head. In that same game, Raiola escaped punishment for deliberately diving at Moore’s legs during a kneel-down play.

Raiola will have immediate appeal rights, with the hearing held quickly and a ruling coming as soon as Wednesday.

If the suspension is upheld, the Lions won’t have their starting center for Sunday’s NFC North championship game against the Packers. But they will have him for the first game of the postseason.

Three years ago, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was suspended two games for a post-play stomp on the arm of former Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith.

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Steven Jackson undergoing further testing on quad

Pittsburgh Steelers v Atlanta Falcons Getty Images

The Falcons didn’t need much from running back Steven Jackson to knock off the Saints on Sunday and it’s not clear yet whether they’ll have him in the lineup at all when they try to do the same to the Panthers in Week 17.

Jackson left the win over the Saints in the first half with a quad injury and didn’t return, finishing the day with four carries and one reception. Coach Mike Smith said Monday that Jackson was having further tests done to evaluate the injury, which means we’ll be waiting until later in the week for an idea about whether or not he’ll play against Carolina.

Devonta Freeman was the most effective back in New Orleans, running five times for 36 yards and a touchdown and catching three passes for 48 more yards.

Smith said Safety William Moore is also having tests done on his injured shoulder after leaving Sunday’s game. Moore was on injured reserve with the designation to return for an injury to the same shoulder earlier this season.

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Hoyer, Manziel are both hurt, so Connor Shaw may start

Cleveland Browns v Washington Redskins Getty Images

All season we’ve been asking whether the Browns would start Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel. At the end of the season, the answer may be neither.

Undrafted rookie quarterback Connor Shaw, a member of the practice squad, may be called up to the active roster and forced to start Sunday’s season finale against the Ravens. Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reports that Manziel’s hamstring injury, which forced him out of Sunday’s game, and an injury to Hoyer’s shoulder suffered after Manziel went out, could leave Shaw as the only option.

A three-year starter at South Carolina, Shaw was signed by the Browns in May and had some good performances in the preseason this year. Perhaps he can have another good performance in the season finale, and add a new element to the Browns’ inevitable quarterback controversy in 2015.

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Jay Cutler will start season finale for the Bears

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Getty Images

Meet the new Bears starting quarterback, same as the old Bears starting quarterback.

Jimmy Clausen suffered a concussion in Sunday’s loss to the Lions and the Bears ruled him out for Week 17 on Monday, leaving the team in need of someone to lead their offense against the Vikings. Coach Marc Trestman’s options were Jay Cutler, benched a week ago after a string of poor games that have led to plenty of questions about the future of the coach, quarterback and General Manager Phil Emery, and rookie David Fales.

Trestman has opted to go with the devil he knows.

“Jay gives us the best chance this week. So that’s why he’ll be out there,” Trestman said, via ESPNChicago.com. “Jay said ‘I’ll be ready to go.’ He empathizes with what Jimmy had gone through last night. He’s ready to go. He’ll be in this afternoon to get started.”

Going with Fales would have given the Bears a chance to see the sixth-rounder in action while also protecting Cutler from the possibility of an injury that could hamper attempts to trade him this offseason, although no one’s really sure at this point if that’s the route the Bears will go or who will be making the decisions about such moves. They went the other way, though, and the season will end with the same starting quarterback that took the field in Week One.

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Chip Kelly not miffed about playoff structure

Kelly Getty Images

The Eagles will finish with a winning record, but they won’t make it to the playoffs. The Panthers or Falcons will secure a spot with a losing record. That doesn’t bother Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly.

“Should we move to the [NFC South] so we can get in a different division?” Kelly said to reporters on Monday when asked about the situation. “No, that’s just the rules. People that complain about rules that are already in existence. . . .
We didn’t do enough. We didn’t win enough games against the right opponents to put ourselves in the playoffs. We knew the rules of engagement before the season started. To sit here after it is over and say, ‘Let’s change the rules so this can happen,’ that’s just the way it is. There may be a year where we’re in a situation where we’re not in great shape and we win our division and we get a chance to go. People said it about Seattle a couple years ago, and then Seattle won their wild-card game.

“It’s still about winning each week and doing what you’re supposed to do. We already knew the rules before the season started. That’s the way it expressed itself. We didn’t do enough to win to get ourselves in the playoffs. That’s on us. That’s not on anybody else, or what the structure of setup is.”

It’s the right attitude. The rules are the rules, and the Eagles knew the rules. Everyone knew the rules. Until they change, one team from each of the eight divisions will host a playoff game, whether they “deserve” it or not.

The Eagles may deserve it in relation to Carolina or Atlanta. But that doesn’t matter, because one of those teams will become the best in its division, regardless of the final won-loss record.

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Panthers add Frank Alexander to 53-man roster

Frank Alexander AP

The Panthers have one game to extend their season, and they’re adding a pass-rusher who might be able to help them.

The team announced that defensive end Frank Alexander had been added to the 53-man roster. He takes the place of wide receiver De’Andre Presley, who was placed on injured reserve after suffering a concussion last week.

Alexander spent the first 14 weeks suspended for a pair of substance abuse policy violations, which he said were triggered by his poor handling of grief over the illnesses of family members.

The former fourth-round pick had shown some promise as a pass-rusher, and getting after Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will be critical in Sunday’s win-and-in NFC South title game.

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Report: Dominic Raiola expecting one-game suspension

Detroit Lions v Atlanta Falcons Getty Images

The NFL is considering discipline for Lions center Dominic Raiola after he stepped on Bears defensive tackle Ego Ferguson during Sunday’s 20-14 Detroit win and the team reportedly expects the league to hand down a one-game suspension.

Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports reports that the Lions have told Raiola to expect the one-game ban, which would leave him on the sideline as the face the Packers for the NFC North title in Week 17. Raiola could appeal any suspension and that appeal would likely be expedited so it happened before that game.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday that the team was prepared for the possibility that Raiola would be suspended while adding that he believes the center’s claim that he inadvertently stepped on Ferguson.

“Obviously I took a good look at [the play],” Caldwell said, via the Detroit Free Press. “Looked at both the coach’s copy and also the television copy as well, and I believe what Dom told me, that it was inadvertent. But I can also see why it obviously is being reviewed by the league and everybody’s taking a real good look at it because you can also see the other side of that as well. There’s a league protocol to it. It’ll be reviewed, taken a look at and we’ll deal with the issues after there’s been some determination there.”

Rookie Travis Swanson would likely start in Raiola’s place if he’s out on Sunday.

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Bears say Clausen suffered concussion on helmet-to-helmet hit from Ansah

Clausen AP

On Sunday, Bears quarterback Jimmy Clausen absorbed a wicked helmet-to-helmet hit from Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah while sliding. Clausen seemed fine at the time, remained in the game, and apparently developed no concussion-like symptoms.

Until today.

The Bears have announced that Clausen has been diagnosed with a concussion after delayed symptoms. Which is precisely the headline of the press release.

“Bears quarterback Jimmy Clausen was diagnosed with a concussion Sunday evening after experiencing delayed symptoms,” He is currently being evaluated based on the NFL’s concussion protocol and will not play this Sunday.”

It’s odd for a player to be scratched six days before a game due to a concussion, given that plenty of players improve sufficiently to secure clearance to play the following weekend. It could be that the Bears are erring on the side of caution. It could be that the symptoms are sufficiently significant to allow the Bears to know now that he won’t play.

And it could be that the Bears have seen enough from Clausen.

“After the hit which drew an unnecessary roughness penalty in the final Bears offensive drive of the game, Clausen was monitored by the team’s medical staff and the NFL’s ATC spotter,” the team said. “He exhibited no signs of concussion immediately after the hit or during the final four plays of the drive. At the conclusion of the series he was further checked on the sideline and again exhibited no signs or symptoms. After the game he passed all testing by team physicians and reported no concussion symptoms. Prior to leaving the stadium he was told, as per protocol, to contact team athletic trainers if he had any problems later in the day. Clausen experienced delayed symptoms later Sunday evening and contacted trainers. He was taken to a hospital where he was further examined by a team physician and at that time diagnosed with a concussion. Upon diagnosis, he began the concussion protocol.”

The next question becomes whether Jay Cutler or David Fales starts in Week 17. If it’s Fales, it will become even more clear that the Bears hope to keep Cutler healthy in order to trade him. If it’s Cutler, it could mean that the team hopes to avoid a full-scale mutiny for the regular-season finale.

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Cardinals leaning toward starting Logan Thomas in Week 17

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Cardinals have started three different quarterbacks this season and it looks like they will make it four when they face the 49ers in Week 17.

Coach Bruce Arians said Monday that the team is leaning toward starting rookie Logan Thomas in the regular season finale, although Thomas’s work in practice could send things in another direction. Ryan Lindley started against the Seahawks on Sunday night and played about as well as you’d expect someone with no touchdowns and seven interceptions in his NFL career to perform. Lindley was 18-of-44 for 216 yards and an interception in the 35-6 loss.

Thomas saw some mop-up duty on Sunday and also played in a 41-20 loss to the Broncos earlier this season, when he completed 1-of-8 passes. That one completion was an 81-yard touchdown to running back Andre Ellington on a pass that Thomas squeezed through defenders for Ellington to catch and do the rest of the work.

The fourth-round pick was one of the rawest prospects in the draft this year, but has the kind of big arm that Bruce Arians likes to deploy in his downfield passing game. Given how poorly Lindley played and the uncertainty about Drew Stanton’s ability to return to the playoffs, it makes sense for the Cardinals to get Thomas some game work to give themselves at least the possibility of another option when the postseason gets underway.

Arians added that he expects Stanton to practice some this week and hopes he’ll be available for the playoffs. If he can’t, we’ll get one of the unlikeliest starters in recent postseason history whether Thomas or Lindley gets the call.

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