By Ernie Palladino
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The Giants did Peyton Hillis a big favor when they cut him just prior to the free agent signing period.
Hillis had sat on injured reserve since Nov. 9 against Seattle with a concussion, thus ending his second straight season in that manner. Now a free agent, Hillis is reportedly ambivalent about resuming his career.
The third-string running back still had another year at nearly $950,000 left on his contract, but the Giant cut him to clear that salary cap space. Free agent finances loomed far above humanity in this move, but the Giants did indirectly give Hillis a chance to preserve his brain by taking away the one incentive — dollars — that keeps players coming back to a sport where every tackle is like a car crash.
Hillis will probably make the wise decision and hang it up, even if the open market makes it a little easier with a collective lack of interest. The fact remains that if Hillis walks away because of his mounting concussions, it will represent another step in concussion awareness.
Concussions are no laughing matter anymore. And that statement is being made both at the league and player level.
It’s why Chris Borland, a promising 24-year-old linebacker, walked away from the nearly $3 million that remained on his 49ers contract last week to retire. He never suffered a diagnosed concussion as a pro, but he decided to get proactive to assure he’ll still have all his marbles when he hits 50.
“From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside The Lines. He continued, “I’m concerned that if you wait to have symptoms, it’s too late…I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”
That’s a big statement, one that shows the NFL still has some progress to make in eradicating the brain injuries that have so many of its former stars walking on their heels. Not that the league has ignored the issue. Quite the opposite.
Concussions are down thanks to the rules changes regarding defenseless receivers and run defenders. According to Pro Football Talk, competition committee co-chair Rich McKay said Saturday that concussions were down 25 percent from last season and 36 percent since 2012.
The NCAA has also instituted similar rules, and McKay said the younger players have adapted well. The fines for illegal hits have decreased 63 percent from last season.
That’s all good news. So is the teams’ rigid adherence to a medical protocol designed to get concussed players out of the game immediately, without question.
But the sport still has some work to do. The fact that Hillis has sustained enough concussions to make further playing inadvisable, if not impossible, and that Borland left well before his prime to avoid future problems shows how far the NFL has to go before all is well.
Then again, the days of joking about concussions seem light years away. The death Saturday of Chuck Bednarik brought back memories of that thankfully bygone era where the Eagles linebacker stood triumphant over the motionless form of Giants running back Frank Gifford in 1960. His hit knocked Gifford out of football for 18 months, and is still celebrated as one of the greatest hits of all time.
Eliminating catastrophic collisions like that shows the NFL has made tremendous strides in terms of player safety. But the situations of Hillis and Borland prove the league still has a ways to go before anyone can consider football safe.
At least the league is heading in the right direction.