HOUSTON — Mark Herzlich beat cancer to make it to the NFL, so he knows something about toughing things out.
He’s also suffered three concussions in the league, a reminder that toughness only goes so far.
“Before I could even tell anyone, my teammates were saying to get him checked out,” the Giants linebacker said about his latest concussion, suffered in a hit in a November game against the Cleveland Browns. “We’re policing each other.”
That, in a nutshell, is the good news about concussions in the NFL these days. Players are more aware of them and there are procedures in place that, in theory at least, get them off the field before they suffer another hit to the head.
Everyone, it seems, is on the lookout for woozy players.
“There’s been a massive cultural change. I see it every day,” said Eric Winston, an offensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals who doubles as president of the NFL Players Association. “It’s changing, I truly believe it’s changing.”
That by itself is cause for a bit of celebration among players in an era where the frightening dangers of CTE caused by hits to the head become more apparent with each discovered case. This is a league, you might remember, that only a few years ago was just fine with an ESPN segment called “Jacked Up” that celebrated the biggest hit of the week.
“I played with a guy who won it two weeks in a row,” Winston said. “And that’s something you don’t want to win.”
There are, of course, still bone-jarring hits and plenty of them in the NFL. That too many of them still come from helmet-to-helmet hits means there is still work to be done to protect players’ brains.
The system is also far from perfect, as evidenced by the hit to the head Miami quarterback Matt Moore took in the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers last month that left him bleeding from the mouth. Instead of being evaluated further in the locker room as the protocol now calls for, Moore was back in the game after missing only one play.
But as members and executives of the NFLPA held their annual session with the media Thursday, they were surprisingly upbeat about the progress that has been made.
“This used to be a different league,” said DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director. “If you stumbled to the sideline, somebody maybe pushed you back in.”
If anyone needed a reminder of that, former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue provided it this week when he apologized for comments he made in the 1990s when medical experts and reporters both started asking questions about the long-term health of concussed players.
At the time Tagliabue said concussions were “one of those pack journalism issues.” He also claimed the number of concussions “is relatively small; the problem is the journalist issue.”
The timing was interesting, with Tagliabue a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Still, it’s never too late to say you’re sorry, even if it does no good for the players whose brains were scrambled during all those years the league turned a blind eye to head injuries.
“I do regret those remarks,” Tagliabue said in an interview with the Talk of Fame Network that aired Wednesday night. “Looking back, it was not sensible language to use to express my thoughts at the time. My language was intemperate, and it led to serious misunderstanding.”
Tagliabue’s successor, Roger Goodell, also had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the concussion debate. He tried to ignore it as much as possible, too, before mounting medical evidence and outside pressure turned it into a crisis the NFL could no longer ignore.
The changes that have been made are significant, if not perfect. Possible concussions are now the first thought after any head-to-head hit, and at every game there are medical personnel in the booth that look for woozy players and can call time out if they spot them.
Players themselves are also more aware, and less likely to shake off symptoms, lest they lose their spot on the field.
Still, in a big game like the Super Bowl that may not be enough, as evidenced by the fourth quarter hit New England’s Julian Edelman took in the Super Bowl two years ago that should have triggered the concussion protocol, but didn’t.
“At the end of the day, I think the medical staff has to protect us from ourselves,” Winston said. “I’ve been saying that a long time.”