The NFL has a problem on its hands as it relates to concussions.
Yes, I know you already knew that. But this is a relatively new issue in the same realm, for which there aren't any easy answers.
The NFL has implemented systemic changes regarding potential concussions, both in pro sports and at the lower levels of football, which is progress. Some will say the league had no choice due to public pressure, and that's probably true, but the dangers of concussions are at least discussed in a more open forum than they were years ago.
Throwing flags and fining players for dangerous hits to the head and neck area of defenseless players has dramatically changed the game, along with the public opinion of such hits over the past eight years or so. At the same time, terms like "concussion protocol," "return to play" and "independent neurologist" have become commonplace.
But those processes have led to new dilemmas when it comes to players who develop a concussion history or have a tough time clearing the protocol. Consider the examples of Sam Shields and Michael Oher.
Shields was considered the Packers' No. 1 cornerback after signing a four-year, $39 million contract in 2014. Unfortunately, Shields suffered a concussion in Week 1 of the 2016 season and was unable to clear the concussion protocol for the rest of the year. Shields has said publicly that he wants to keep playing, but the Packers released him with one year and an $8 million salary remaining on his contract.
It's hard to blame the Packers, or any other team, for moving on from a player like Shields. How can you count on a guy that could be one hit away from never playing again?
While some will point out that every player is a major injury away from being done, the percentages tell you the risk is much higher for a player with a documented history of concussions like Shields.
Part of running a business is risk management, and Shields was simply not worth the potential reward weighed against how much money the team would have had to guarantee him. Can you blame Green Bay for this decision?
There are a lot of players around the league who are paying attention to what is going on with Shields and others like him. They're the ones who have to decide whether to self-report concussions symptoms.
If you are a young player trying to stay in the league or get a big second contract to secure your family's financial future, are you going to say something about a minor symptom or two if you already had a concussion before?
"Maybe a minor one they might be hesitant," former Bucs and Colts defensive lineman Booger McFarland told me, "but overwhelmingly people are going to think about life. You see what some of these older guys are dealing with. If you are properly educated, you gotta say something. It sounds good to hide it to make some more money, but what good is it to get more money if you aren't able to enjoy it later in life?"
McFarland is on the right track. There is no perfect answer, but the NFL's best bet is to continue to educate players as much as possible about the dangers of concussions, multiple concussions, second-impact syndrome and why it is so vitally important to report any symptoms.
But I'm not as confident as McFarland that players will "overwhelmingly" report what they are experiencing in the interest of their long-term health. These are young guys in their 20s that got to where they are in part because they believe they are invincible. And, in my experience, the "long term" is not really a big part of the thought process at that point.
The Panthers are another team to watch this offseason. Oher, the left tackle who signed a three year, $21 million extension with the team last June, experienced concussion symptoms two days before the team's game on Oct. 2 and never played another down. There are conflicting reports as to whether he has passed the concussion protocol at this point, but even with three years remaining on his contract, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Panthers move on from him.
Can you count on a guy that missed 13 games last year after suffering a concussion to be the man to protect your franchise quarterback's blind side? Do you want the risk of knowing one more hit and you'll be on the hook for his salary again this season without getting any return on that investment?
It'd be hard to fault the Panthers if they felt like it was in their best interests to move on, and my guess is that is exactly what they'll do.
The question is, will players do what is in their best interests moving forward when it comes to reporting concussion symptoms?
And perhaps more importantly, what do they deem to be in their best interests if they are faced with such a decision? Their long-term health or their short-term financial gain?