By Ernie Palladino
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The speculation about Robert Griffin III’s right knee will go on and on now.
The questions about whether such a dynamic, young quarterback tabbed as the NFL’s “next great thing” can come back in the same form that made him the NFL’s “next great thing” after twice tearing up that joint will arise weekly.
As important a conversation as that might be, especially to a team that appeared on the rise before last week’s wild-card loss to Seattle, the more cogent thought might be: “Well, at least it’s his knee and not his head.”
Because we all know, or should know, that the cranium and the NFL don’t necessarily play well with each other.
More proof of that came Thursday, when the league acknowledged the National Institutes for Health’s findings that Junior Seau, the Chargers’ Hall of Fame-worthy linebacker, had suffered from the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he committed suicide last May.
When Seau put that bullet in his chest, he joined a growing line of players whose post-football lives have been enslaved by the disease, which is caused by repeated blows to the head. And like the others, among them Mike Webster, Terry Long, and Dave Duerson, Seau’s condition could not be diagnosed until doctors dissected his brain.
You see, you can only guess at CTE until the patient dies. Only during autopsy can one get true evidence of what caused the depression, hopelessness, and deep, deep abyss that its sufferers can only escape through a self-imposed execution.
What has all this to do with RGIII?
Simply this. The way the Washington quarterback goes about his on-field business not only puts him in danger of ruining his career from the waist down, but ruining his life from the neck up. Even at such a young age, RGIII takes a lot more hits than the average quarterback, and some of those will invariably involve his head.
Keep in mind that as of yet, there are no finite numbers to predict the onset of CTE. Will 10 hits to the head do it? Does it take 100? A thousand? Two?
How many is too many?
We know he suffered at least one already, in the third quarter of a Week 5 loss to the Falcons when Sean Weatherspoon wiped him out on a scramble with a legal shoulder to the helmet. In an issue even more serious than coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to leave him in the wild-card game with a clearly weakened knee, the Redskins came under league scrutiny for failing to report his concussion in a timely fashion. The original report said he had been merely “shaken up,” but Shanahan later said the quarterback had trouble remembering details about the game.
Griffin played the following week against Minnesota and actually had a fantastic game, rushing for 138 yards and two touchdowns, including a 76-yarder. His only missed start didn’t come until Dec. 16 against Cleveland, and that was because of his knee, not his head.
Stats are immaterial here, though. One can easily see that RGIII’s playing style puts him at a higher risk for head trauma. It’s not like turning him into a pure pocket passer will provide the ultimate protection for him, though. Remember, it wasn’t a bunch of check-downs to his tight end that caused Peyton Manning to have all those neck surgeries.
The windup here is that the way the game is played today, and the speed and power at which it is played, leaves all players vulnerable to head injury, even quarterbacks. And a running quarterback — Michael Vick has suffered multiple concussions — is even more exposed.
RGIII was supposed to be the league’s next great thing. It’s now up to the Redskins to watch him closely to make sure he doesn’t become the league’s next tragic thing.
That means watching the head more than the legs.
You only hope it’s not too late — for any of these guys.
What does the league need to do to further protect its players? Be heard in the comments…