PFT Live: Baalke: ‘Dumbfounded’ by Borland’s unexpected retirement

Niners GM Trent Baalke joins Mike Florio to give his assessment of the team’s offseason and explain that they saw Patrick Willis’ retirement coming due to his feet, but Chris Borland’s was a shock that took the team by surprise.

NFL’s head of health and safety advisory: Football has gotten safer

AP

In the wake of Chris Borland’s sudden retirement due to concerns about his long-term health, the safety of football has again entered the forefronts of our minds.

According to Dr. John York, the 49ers’ co-chairman and head of the NFL’s healthy and safety advisory committee, football has indeed become less dangerous.

I think the game has gotten safer,” Dr. York said via CSN Bay Area. “I have no problem with [Borland’s] conclusion. I just think there are things that show positive trends.”

The NFL continues to tell us that concussions are down across the league after implementing recent rule changes that have taken “head shots” out of the game, instead putting the focus on tackling between the numbers. As a result, there are fewer brain injuries, but we’re seeing more and more careers wrecked by blown-up knees.

Per Dr. York, concussions have decreased by 36 percent the past two seasons, and helmet-to-helmet hits are down by 50 percent over the same time period.

We’re never going to see the day that football is without concussions because the players in the trenches — the offensive linemen, defensive linemen, fullbacks, and linebackers — are banging heads every, single play. Those are the players that tend to suffer most in their post-playing careers.

Report: 49ers interested in free agent LB Erin Henderson

Free agent linebacker Erin Henderson was out of the league last season. He was busted for drunk driving twice in one year from January 2013 to January 2014 and released by the Vikings in February of 2014 before being slapped with a four-game suspension at the start of last season.

Henderson worked out for the Chiefs after the season but wasn’t signed to a contract. ESPN’s Josina Anderson reports the soon-to-be 29-year-old held a private workout for teams in Arizona on Sunday.

The 49ers have scheduled a visit with Henderson, according to Anderson, and he’ll make the trip to San Francisco on Wednesday. The 49ers, of course, have lost both linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland to sudden retirements the past couple weeks. They’ve been left with Michael Wilhoite and Navorro Bowman at inside linebacker.

Scheme-versatile, Henderson can play inside in the 3-4 or outside in the 4-3. After sitting out last season, he should be able to land a second opportunity. Henderson has shown an ability to cover backs and tight ends and can also stop the run.

Borland will voluntarily return signing bonus

Getty Images

The 49ers faced a dilemma in the wake of linebacker Chris Borland’s retirement.  Borland has resolved it for them.

Borland told Face the Nation on Sunday that he’ll return the $463,077 in unearned signing bonus money that he received in 2014, as part of a four-year contract.  The amount to be returned exceeds by more than $40,000 the $420,000 base salary Borland was paid a year ago.

It was the right thing for Borland to do — and it’s a bit surprising it took nearly a week for that conclusion to be reached.  In earlier interviews on ESPN and with CBS This Morning, the topic never came up, even though makes his decision to retire at age 24 even more courageous, because he now has to pay $463,077 for the privilege of moving on.

If Borland had wanted to retain the bonus, he could have simply half-assed it through offseason workouts and training camp and gotten cut.  So he should be applauded for taking the course that more clearly articulated his concerns, but that ended up being far more costly.

NFL sees sharp decline in concussions, hits on defenseless players

Getty Images

The NFL believes players have largely learned to avoid hits to the head of defenseless players.

NFL Competition Committee Co-Chair Rich McKay says that at all levels of football, players have taken to heart the rules against hitting opponents in the head when they’re in a defenseless posture. As a result, concussions have significantly declined and so have fines for players committing illegal hits.

“We were down 25 percent in total concussions from 2013 to 2014,” McKay said. “We were down 36 percent since 2012. I think one thing to note here is, and it really became apparent when we talked to the NCAA because they’re seeing the same affect, is we now have players that have come through high school and college and played their games under their targeting rule and those players are now coming into our league and playing under a similar defenseless player rule and I think it’s starting to show itself as players have adjusted in the way they play the game. I will tell you that this year we had somewhere close to a 63 percent decrease in fines to players for hits on defenseless players from 2013 to 2014. That’s a really substantial drop. It shows that players are conforming to the rules and I think part of it is they’re growing up with rules that change the way they play the game.”

In the wake of Chris Borland’s retirement, the NFL released a statement saying football is safer now than it has ever been before. It may take decades to know for sure whether the increased emphasis on avoiding helmet-to-helmet hits is reducing the risk of long-term brain damage associated with playing football. But the NFL believes it’s heading in the right direction.

PFT Live: Will Chris Borland give his signing bonus back to Niners?

Mike Florio takes a look at the possible situation involving Chris Borland paying back the rest of his signing bonus to the 49ers.

PFT Live: PFT Planet calls and tweets

AP

Things may not have ever gotten as crazy as they did when free agency kicked off, but it’s been another busy week around the NFL.

Defensive end Greg Hardy signed with the Cowboys, linebacker Chris Borland retired after his rookie season with the 49ers and Tim Tebow resurfaced for a workout with the Eagles, to name just a few developments in the last few days. Mike Florio will bring you more on some of those while also catching up on everything you need to know heading into the weekend during Friday’s edition of PFT Live.

We also want to hear from PFT Planet. Email questions at any time via the O’Reilly Auto Parts Ask the Pros inbox or get in touch on Twitter at @ProFootballTalk to let us know what’s on your mind.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can listen to all three hours live via the various NBC Sports Radio affiliates, through the links at PFT, or with the NBC Sports Radio app. You can also watch a simulcast of the first hour of the show by clicking right here.

49ers LB Chase Thomas suffers torn ACL working out

AP

The 49ers have suffered another loss at linebacker.

Chase Thomas, an outside linebacker who played five games for the 49ers last season, has suffered a torn ACL while working out, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

An offseason ACL injury usually affects a player into the following season, so it seems unlikely that Thomas will play at the start of the regular season.

The 49ers have already suffered two much bigger losses at linebacker with the retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland.

Still no word on whether 49ers will pursue Borland’s bonus

Getty Images

One of the lingering questions regarding the decision of linebacker Chris Borland to retire is one of the only questions that Borland has not been asked in any of his TV interviews:  Does the team expect him to reimburse the franchise for 3/4ths of his signing bonus?

Last year, Borland received $617,436 up front on a four-year deal.  It reflects $154,359 per year in advance compensation for each year of the deal.

Technically, Borland earned only 25 percent of that money.  The 49ers have the right to ask him to pay back the remaining $463,077.

The Lions didn’t hesitate to do that 16 years ago, when Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders abruptly retired.  The Buccaneers once recovered $3.5 million from quarterback Jake Plummer after trading for Plummer, who retired in lieu of reporting — and who had never been paid a penny by Tampa Bay.

The 49ers still aren’t saying whether they’ll seek $463,077 from Borland, and Borland has not yet addressed in interviews on ESPN and CBS This Morning whether he plans to pay the money back.

It’s a little odd that the topic hasn’t come up.  With the networks understandably seizing on the unusual and courageous decision of a pro football player to stop playing pro football after only one season, the notion that he also had to pay $463,077 for the privilege of not playing makes Borland’s story even more compelling.

Just as it was Borland’s call to end his career after only one season, it’s also the team’s call to request repayment for money given to Borland under the assumption that he’d play for at least four.  For the same reason Borland shouldn’t be criticized for choosing not to play, the 49ers shouldn’t be criticized for choosing to do that which the Collective Bargaining Agreement and Borland’s signed contract give them the absolute right to do.

Thursday morning one-liners

Getty Images

Not everyone in Bills country is sure TE Charles Clay is a good buy.

A look at what Dolphins visitor Michael Crabtree would add to their WR corps.

Suffice it to say the Patriots have a much different look at CB suddenly.

New Jets CB Antonio Cromartie thinks he’ll be a different player than his last stint with the team.

Ravens legend Ray Lewis is suing a former business partner.

Bengals T Andrew Whitworth says the Chris Borland story is about the “evolution of the NFL player.”

When the Browns are pointing and laughing at Tim Tebow, …

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley sees a role for RB Dri Archer.

A look at how the addition of NT Vince Wilfork changes things for the Texans and their defense.

Of course it was the Colts who proposed the nine-point play.

Jaguars team president Mark Lamping signed a five-year contract extension.

Recapping the Titans moves in free agency.

Broncos TE Jacob Tamme is weighing his options.

Chiefs G.M. John Dorsey is pleased with the team’s moves so far.

A key stadium project vote for the Raiders is coming up.

The Chargers love them some former Broncos.

The Cowboys are looking at Baylor QB Bryce Petty, even if history shows they’re unlikely to draft him.

The Giants added depth to their defensive line.

Yesterday’s Connor Barwin deal should be viewed as a positive signal to the Eagles locker room.

Washington’s QB room remains a mysterious place.

The Bears are the home of long snapper respect.

Staying with the Lions probably kept CB Rashean Mathis from retirement.

The only thing more popular than Packers QB Aaron Rodgers in Wisconsin is cheese.

Vikings LB Chad Greenway won the NFLPA’s Byron “Whizzer” White award.

The Falcons added some depth to their offensive line yesterday as well.

With Greg Hardy going to Dallas, the Panthers can only wait to see what kind of compensatory pick they get.

Would the Saints be a possible destination for one of the draft’s second-tier quarterbacks?

What made the Bucs bail out on the Hardy talks.

The Cardinals are looking at one of the top RBs in the draft.

After subtracting, the Rams finally added back to their offensive line.

New 49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini has a lot of work to do.

A look at the Seahawks’ free agency scorecard.

NFL says Maroon doesn’t speak for league on CTE

Getty Images

On Tuesday night, in reaction to the news that linebacker Chris Borland had retired after one NFL season, Steelers doctor and NFL consultant Joseph Maroon appeared on NFL Network’s NFL Total Access regarding the status of medical science and opinions as to potential brain damage from playing football.  Dr. Maroon made waves in part by expressing an opinion that the problem of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy is “over-exaggerated.”

NFL senior V.P. of health and safety policy Jeff Miller, who issued the league’s statement responding to the Borland retirement, appeared on Wednesday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio to discuss various topics regarding concussion prevention, treatment, and consequences.  At the end of the interview, which can be heard under the “Best Guests” tab in the on-demand player, I asked Miller about Dr. Marroon’s characterization of CTE.

Here’s the question:  “Dr. Joseph Maroon was on NFL Network last night talking about CTE, and at one point he said that the CTE problem is over-exaggerated.  Is that his personal belief, or is that the NFL’s position?”

“Joe Maroon doesn’t speak for the NFL, nor we for him,” Miller replied.  “He is well-known neurosurgeon who has a great deal of experience in this field, and his opinion, like those of many other neurosurgeons and neuroscientists, deserves respect.  There are obviously competing views on this.  We’ve heard perspectives from many different quarters on exactly this issue of CTE.  We hear it from the International Consensus Conference in Zurich that meets regularly, from the leading sports concussion experts around the world.  We’ve heard it from the National Academy of Sciences, the government body that looked into CTE and causation, and what the state of the science is there.

“So a lot of people have a lot of important opinions on it.  What the NFL’s position is is that we need to act conservatively to make sure that our players get the treatment that they need, that their injuries are identified when they are, and that we are acting in their best interests.  And that’s our position on the science.”

It’s still difficult not to regard Dr. Maroon’s opinions as being accepted and/or implicitly endorsed by the league.  If, after all, the NFL disagreed with his views on this issue that has become vitally important to the sport of football, the NFL would employ someone else to evaluate its players.

Ultimately, it’s important to gather, to understand, and to present in easily digestible fashion more information as to what the current state of the research is regarding the causes and the risks of CTE.  Borland decided after doing his own research that he no longer wants to play pro football.  That doesn’t make his decision, which undoubtedly is the right decision for him, automatically right for anyone else.  It also doesn’t make his decision wrong for anyone else, either.

At some point when the offseason begins to actually feel like an actual offseason, I’ll track down the current state of the medical research on these issues, presenting the information as objectively as possible — despite the reality that some will dub me a shill absent anything less than a proclamation that all football helmets should be stacked into a giant pile and burned like used tires.

ProFootballTalk: Do other players share Chris Borland’s concerns?

Former NFL athletic trainer Mike Ryan joins the show to discuss his experiences with players who had a similar mentality to Chris Borland, as well as the futures of NaVorro Bowman and Sam Bradford.

 

 

NFL doctor says CTE is being “over-exaggerated”

Getty Images

We’ve known about the condition known as “Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy” for several years now.  From time to time, CTE takes center stage.  And then it fades into the background again.

That’s partially because the condition remains largely shrouded in mystery, especially as it relates to the symptoms and consequences of microscopic changes to brain tissue resulting in the accumulation of tau protein.  In an October 2013 item published at Deadspin, Dr. Matt McCarthy explained that there’s still no clear link between football and CTE, and more importantly between CTE and various cognitive problems that occur as football players age.

“At the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport . . . world experts gathered to discuss the state of head-trauma science,” Dr. McCarthy wrote at the time.  “At the end of the conference, a consensus statement was released that said the following:  ‘A cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports.’

“The statement runs counter to almost everything you have read about CTE, but it received virtually no media attention in the United States when it was released,” Dr. McCarthy added.  “In part, that’s because it speaks to the far higher burden of proof in the scientific community than the one in the public consciousness.  But that’s the point.  The popular consensus has far outstripped the science.”

For some, the popular consensus has become that playing football at any level means that the person who has played football at any level already has CTE, and that CTE is a time bomb that eventually will trigger the implosion of normal brain function.  In the wake of the Chris Borland retirement, some in the media who don’t particularly like football and/or who would prefer that other sports overtake football in popularity and profitability and/or who believe that they can tie their own personal legacies in some way to the death of this American Goliath have trotted out the notion that football is inherently unsafe because in the normal course of playing football, head contact occurs, all football head contact results in CTE, and all CTE results in brain damage.

The NFL, which has suffered plenty of blows to its credibility in recent months, has given the football-always-leads-to-brain-damage crowd ammunition for influencing skeptics and undecideds by trotting out a long-time NFL neurologist who downplayed on NFL-owned TV the prevalence and the risks of CTE.

“I think the problem of CTE although real is it’s being over-exaggerated and it’s being extrapolated to youth football and to high school football,” Dr. Joseph Maroon said on Tuesday’s NFL Total Access.

He then shared some statistics that were a bit confusing, to say the least.  I interpreted it to mean that 63 cases of CTE were found in youth football players over a 59-year period from 1954 through 2013, when 30-to-40 million kids played football.  It wasn’t clear what Dr. Maroon was actually saying about CTE in youth football, and if the NFL plans to try to sell that all is well with doctors on the NFL payroll, anything any NFL doctor says needs to always be clear.

“It’s a rare phenomenon,” Dr. Maroon then explained.  “We have no idea the incidence.  There are more injuries to kids from falling off of bikes, scooters, falling in playgrounds, than there are in youth football.  Again, it’s never been safer.  Can we improve?  Yes.  We have to do better all the time to make it safer.  But I think if a kid is physically able to do it and wants to do it, I think our job is to continue to make it safer.  But it’s much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard than playing youth football.”

Despite the knee-jerk resistance to any self-serving thing the NFL says on this or any topic, it’s accurate assessment of the risks, even though the Fainaru-Wadas of the world now cling to the subtle-yet-disingenuous suggestion that risk of an accident is fundamentally different than the risk of head injuries resulting from playing football.  Again, the popular (but flawed) argument has become:  (1) football entails head contact; (2) all head contact results in CTE; and (3) all CTE results in brain damage.

Dr. McCarthy’s article from October 2013 suggests that the popular argument (which instantly has gotten far more popular in the wake of the Borland retirement) is incorrect.  The problem for the NFL becomes, given the perception/reality that the league routinely sprinkles fertilizer over the public on matters of significance, that folks will now be disinclined to accept at face value whatever any NFL doctor or other NFL employee has to say on the matter.  Which means that the NFL needs to tread lightly when trying to push back against a popular consensus regarding CTE, even if the popular consensus is fundamentally flawed

That’s not to say that anything/everything Dr. Maroon said was incorrect.  But if Dr. Maroon’s assessment is indeed accurate, it becomes important for the NFL to get the truth out in a way that won’t invite criticism those who view anything/everything the NFL says with skepticism.

Competition Committee to unveil proposed 2015 rule changes

Getty Images

Next week, the NFL’s owners, coaches, and General Managers will convene in Arizona for the annual league meetings.  Those meetings include consideration by the owners of potential rule changes for the next year.

Before those changes can be considered by the owners, proposed changes need to be made by the Competition Committee.  On Wednesday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. ET, the Competition Committee will conduct its annual media conference call during which the official 2015 proposals are unveiled.

We’ll post the information as it is released, eventually crafting a full list of all rule and bylaw changes proposed by the Competition Committee and by individual teams.  Eventually, at least 24 of the 32 owners must vote in favor of the change for the change to be made.

Here’s a list of the subjects that may (or may not) be on the list of proposed changes.

1.  Definition of a catch.

The disconnect between the NFL’s definition of a catch and the public’s expectations for what a catch should became more obvious than ever late in a divisional-round game between the Cowboys and Packers, during which Dallas receiver Dez Bryant made what ultimately was the greatest catch in NFL history that didn’t count.  It seemed that the stage had been set for a rewriting of the rule to mesh with the know-it-when-you-see-it, but Rams coach Jeff Fisher already has cautioned that a change could be too hard to make.

Which likely means there will be no change proposed by the Competition Committee for 2015.  But a change could still be proposed by one or more teams.

2.  Pass interference.

The week before the Cowboys seemed to be robbed of a potential win over the Packers in Green Bay, the Lions seemed to be robbed of a potential win over the Cowboys in Dallas due to the failure of the officials to call defensive holding or pass interference in a key moment.  One way to address the problem would be to use instant replay for pass interference calls, a rule the CFL adopted in 2014.

NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent has suggested that a compromise could be the adjustment of the defensive pass interference foul to a 15-yard penalty.  Which seems like a bad way to rectify the mistakes made by officials when deciding whether interference has happened.

3.  Instant replay.

The NFL continuously explores potential improvements to the instant replay process.  Last year, the biggest change came from the direct involvement of V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino in the reviews.  This year, a push could continue to allow coaches to use their two challenges per game (three if the first two are successful) for any mistake they believe can be shown via indisputable visual evidence.

4.  Roster sizes.

PFT has reported that the Competition Committee discussed the possibility of expanding rosters from 53 to 55.  That would create 64 more NFL jobs.

The Competition Committee also has discussed potential roster changes for short-week games.  PFT reported last month that this could entail allowing all players on the roster to be active for Thursday games.

5.  Chop blocks.

Vincent has acknowledged that the chop block, which is still permitted in three specific situations, could be eliminated completely from the NFL, in large part because it has been completely eliminated from the lower levels of the game.

6.  London games.

Vincent has said that the Competition Committee has explored improving games played in London.  Specific potential changes weren’t identified.

7.  Playoff changes.

A year ago, it seemed inevitable that the NFL would expand the postseason from 12 to 14 games.  It now seems likely, if not definite, that the change will be postponed one more year, so that the extra postseason games can be tied to the Thursday night package, both of which would be marketed to networks for 2016.

Chatter also has emerged from time to time regarding reseeding of the playoffs to strip the automatic home game from a team that emerged as the best of four bad teams, like the Panthers did in 2014.

8.  Extra point.

Last year, the NFL approved a partial preseason experiment premised on moving the one-point try from the two to the 15-yard line.  The Pro Bowl included a narrowing of the goal posts.  The NFL remains intent on either making the PAT a more relevant and compelling play — or getting rid of it.

9. Technological advances.

The Pro Bowl included other experiments, including the replacement of the clunky replay-review booth with a tablet and headphone combo that both streamlines the process and further justifies the major investments by Microsoft and Bose in the NFL by giving the companies more natural opportunities for their names and products to be displayed during games.  Also, coaches and players were able to watch game tape from the sidelines on the tablets at the Pro Bowl; so far, tablets have been used only for the review of still images.

10.  Safety.

The timing of Chris Borland’s retirement gives the NFL an opportunity to immediately and efficiently explore potential changes to the game aimed at making it safer at the league meetings. The balance continues to be safety on one hand and the fundamental nature of the game on the other.  Go too far one way, and more players may choose to walk away.  Go too far the other way, and the NFL creates an opening for an old-school, full-contact competitor to emerge.

Wednesday morning one-liners

Getty Images

Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula want their front office to be aggressive in the pursuit of winning.

The Dolphins may face cap trouble next year, when Ndamukong Suh’s cap hit jumps to $28.6 million.

Here’s a look at the cornerbacks the Patriots are considering signing.

Ex-Jets WR Wesley Walker describes himself as “in pain every day” as a result of injuries suffered in football.

Another Ravens free agent may sign elsewhere, as DE Lawrence Guy is visiting the Jets.

Bengals DT Devon Still has provided good news about his daughter’s fight with cancer.

Could the Browns still get Sam Bradford for a first-round pick?

Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Wallace spent three years together in Pittsburgh and there were no indications of friction, but CBS 4 in Miami says that Pouncey called Wallace a coward.

The Texans held a private workout with Southern Illinois RB Malcolm Agnew.

Indianapolis is head and shoulders above the rest of the AFC South, which means other teams’ moves are designed to catch the Colts.

The Jaguars still don’t know the status of WR Justin Blackmon.

Former Titans QB Jake Locker says he had opportunities to keep playing but wanted to retire.

Here’s a ranking of the Broncos’ free agent signings.

Chiefs TE Travis Kelce expects a bigger role in the offense this year.

Raiders RB Trent Richardson is excited to play for coach Jack Del Rio.

Chargers owner Dean Spanos says potentially moving the team is “about competitive balance.”

The Giants have kicked the tires on DT Kenrick Ellis.

Signing Greg Hardy would be a risk, but it may be a risk Jerry Jones is willing to take.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly isn’t afraid to sign players coming off injuries.

Will the quarterback meeting room in Washington be too crowded?

There have been conflicting reports about whether the Bears tried to trade QB Jay Cutler, but there’s little doubt that they’re stuck with him now.

New Lions DT Tyrunn Walker wants to learn all he can from teammate Haloti Ngata.

The Packers remain the NFL’s quietest team in free agency.

The Vikings have re-signed restricted free agent OT Mike Harris.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn is close to Seahawks DE Michael Bennett, although the report that Bennett wants to be traded to Atlanta has been disputed.

Former Panther Travelle Warton may be joining the coaching staff at his alma mater, South Carolina.

The Saints have done most of what they set out to do in free agency.

The Bucs may still be players for free agent DE Greg Hardy.

Sean Weatherspoon expects to be healthy enough to contribute in Arizona.

Rams DT Nick Fairley has 500,000 reasons to stay in shape during the offseason.

Chris Borland’s mom is happy with his decision to retire.

Seahawks DE Bruce Irvin is having a laugh about his rivalry with new teammate Jimmy Graham.