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In NFL, It’s Always Open Season On The Hurt Guys

By Jim Litke, AP Sports Columnist
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DALLAS (AP) –  A quick glance at the NFL’s weekly injury report should make you wince. Players, on the other hand, scan it with a very specific purpose. They’re looking for targets.

After suffering a cracked rib and punctured lung, Tony Romo led the Dallas Cowboys to a comeback win last weekend that might have done more to build his cred with fans as a tough guy and leader than all his other accomplishments in six previous seasons combined. Because Romo and every other guy in the NFL routinely plays with pain, it’s a tossup whether that says more about the NFL’s macho code or how clueless fans are about injuries. Either way, it put Romo front and center on the Washington Redskins’ hit list.

“Absolutely,” Redskins’ cornerback D’Angelo Hall said when asked whether he would go after Romo. “I’m going to get a chance to try to put my helmet on whatever’s hurt. If it’s Romo’s ribs, I’m going to be asking for some corner blitzes.”

Turns out Hall was just warming up.

“If I know Felix Jones’ shoulder is hurt, I’m not going to be cutting him. I’m going to definitely be trying to hit him high. That’s just part of it. If you know something’s wrong with an opponent, you’re going to try to target in on that,” he said. “We’re going to definitely try to get as many hats on those guys as possible.”

Never mind that Hall is hardly qualified to run his mouth. Now in his ninth season, he’s got fewer sacks (1 1/2 career) than thumbs, and more than a few of the tackles he’s made have been by accident. Maybe inviting the refs at the game and the NFL’s disciplinary cops watching on TV to keep an eye on him isn’t as dumb as it sounds as the only time Hall figures to get close enough to Romo to deliver a blow will be during pregame warm-ups.

Yet none of it should detract from his message. Hall is saying what everybody else in the league is thinking every week. What gave his candor that little extra oomph, perhaps, is that it came during a week when the league seemed more focused on fake injuries than the real ones suffered by marquee names such as Romo and Michael Vick (concussion).

What got the NFL’s attention was a complaint by the Rams that the Giants’ Deon Grant went down with an injury — as if on cue — late in their game last weekend. St. Louis QB Sam Bradford claimed several New York defenders yelled “go down” in a bid to buy time against his team’s no-huddle offense. What made Grant’s injury more suspicious still was rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams cramping up at same instant, then just as suddenly popping back to his feet. By midweek, an NFL sent a memo to all 32 teams that warned of fines, suspensions and even the loss of draft picks if it determined players faked injuries during a game.

Giants teammate Mathias Kiwanuka labeled the warning “a dangerous path to go down,” and he’s right. Too many guys are playing with real injuries and risking lasting damage to their bodies as it is, and that’s before you take into account how little we still know about concussions. Vick, who already had his helmet modified last summer to lessen the force of blows to the head, went back to the same firm for more work this week as part of a bid to get back on the field.

The NFL responded to a growing body of evidence on concussions by putting a league-wide protocol in place midway through the 2009 season. The number of concussions reported last year was 260, up considerably from the 200 reported in 2008. Dr. Thom Mayer, who advises the NFL Players’ Association on concussion-related issues, conceded he’s been “very busy” monitoring the first two weekends of the 2011 season.

“We’ve got to look at a lot more games to see if there’s a trend here or not,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday.

But Mayer also said he believes the numbers reflect cooperation from players in reporting concussions as much as an increasingly violent game.

“We’ve educated the medical staffs, coaches and trainers and put this `battle buddy’ concept in place … so guys who know each other can get involved. We saw a great example of that last season with Aaron Rodgers and Donald Driver.”

Rodgers, the Packers QB, was concussed during a game against the Redskins last season and sat down. After his return, he took another big hit against the Lions and likely would have gone back in — risking a more severe concussion — until Driver asked him a few questions about the snap count and realized his pal needed medical attention.

“It meant sitting another game or two,” Mayer said. “But when you consider Green Bay goes on to win the Super Bowl, then go back and look at Rodgers’ chances of getting hurt in the Lions’ game, it probably had an enormous impact on their entire season.”

The problem is that few injury stories end that happily. Keep that in mind the next time your team’s star goes down and the only thing you care about is how soon he gets back in.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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