Patriots

Johnson: NFL set up for 'abuse of power'

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Johnson: NFL set up for 'abuse of power'

President Barack Obama is the latest high-ranking individual to question the safety of football, but it's been a hot topic long before that.

Over the past couple years, the NFL has tried to take steps to prevent "concussions" by limiting what defenders can do. Essentially, they've tried to take big hits out of the game.

That obviously hasn't sat well with players on defense linebackers, safeties, etc. who are trying to make a living stopping offenses from gaining yards and scoring points. One linebacker, Ravens' Bernard Pollard, said today that with the way things are trending in the NFL, it may not be around in 30 years. Fans will lose interest in a game that has changed too much than what they fell in love with.

Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson is living proof that concussions and the overall physical nature of football has long lasting health effects. Johnson has been a part of tests, and has both written and spoken out about the dangers that come along with football, specifically brain damage. He himself suffers from post-concussion syndrome.

But does he fear for the future of the game?

"No, I don't," Johnson said on Felger and Mazz, in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. "I think the only thing- here's my involvement: I've been thinking about this a lot on my drive up here today. All I ever wanted is for guys to know the risk. What we always say is the blanket statement: football is inherently a dangerous game. We get that. But you know what we know now, that nobody is quite saying it like this: football can cause brain damage. End of story. You can get brain disease from playing football. End of story. Now that everybody knows that, go do what you want to do. Now you know all the risk.

"People say, 'Ted back in the day, come on, you knew the risk. You knew what you were getting into. You signed up for that.' I did to a point. I knew I could tear my bicep, all the things I could identify with that I've seen happen to other guys, I get that. No one ever told me that playing football could potentially lead to having brain damage or brain disease, now that we know it's called CTE."

But Johnson thinks the league is going too far, or doing the wrong things to help the issue. It's not wide receivers taking on huge hits that are ending up with debilitating post-concussion symptoms. It's the ones on the lines doing normal football things, or making normal hits over, and over, and over.

But is there anything those players can do about it? That's the name of the game. And according to Johnson, going to the coaches about it, or being labeled as a guy who can't go in there and take the hits, will get you out of a job fast. After all, coaches have all the say.

"The thing about football that makes it so unique is that it's a coaches league. They have the power. It's not like I'm at Orlando and Dwight Howard can get Stan Van Gundy fired. I can't get my coaches fired. They have all the power. So there's an abuse of power there. The system is set up so that they have an abuse of power, and it's not fair for the guys when a coach can have that much power over if a guy plays or doesn't play, and use his power as leverage to get him out there maybe before he should be ready to play."

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.