Current and former Eagles discuss football, future amid 'alarming' CTE study

Current and former Eagles discuss football, future amid 'alarming' CTE study

This is the time of year usually reserved for folks to get excited about football. Training camps around the NFL are back and it won't be long before the 2017 regular season starts. 

This week, though, the beaming sun of training camp was put on hold as the NFL's black cloud came back into focus. 

"That's the elephant in the room that a lot of people don't want to talk about," Brandon Graham said on Wednesday. 

More troubling results about the correlation between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) were published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association

The study examined the brains of 202 deceased football players and showed that 177 of them suffered from the brain disease. Of the 111 brains from former NFL players, 110 of them were diagnosed with CTE. 

It's necessary to remember that many of the families of players submitted their brains because of symptoms shown while they were still living. So the study wasn't just a random one of a cross-section of football. 

Still, it's scary. 

It's scary for those players who have already retired and are either starting to feel the effects or are morbidly awaiting their arrival while hoping they don't come. And it's scary for current players who wonder what their quality of life will be like in 25 or 30 years. 

On Wednesday, as the Eagles' veterans began to arrive at the NovaCare Complex, several were asked about the study and about their thoughts on CTE and the NFL. 

Malcolm Jenkins hadn't yet read the study by the time he entered the locker room on Wednesday afternoon, but was quickly filled in about its results, about the 110 out of 111 NFL brains to show CTE. 

"That's probably what I assumed anyway," Jenkins said. "But at the end of the day, everybody who puts on a helmet, puts on shoulder pads, has to kind of weigh their own options, weigh the risk-reward. As long as you can make that educated decision, I think it's up to the individual."

Jenkins said he "100 percent" thinks about how long he wants to play in the NFL. For him, it's all about weighing the risk vs. the reward. Jenkins' goal is to play at least 10 years in the NFL — this will be Year 9 — and then analyze it year to year. Jenkins, who has other interests outside of football, most notably his foray into fashion, said he tries to take steps to ensure his body is taken care of. The scary part about CTE, though, is that the symptoms sometimes show up much later. 

Now 29, Jenkins is a father. Would he let his kids play football? 

"Yeah, I would let my kids play," he said. "Simply because, obviously, that's a huge risk, but the amount of things this game has given me, the amount of lessons it's taught me, I wouldn't change a thing. I think there's definitely value in this game. There's a reason that it's the highest grossing game out there. The amount of things that I've learned playing this game that have transitioned off the field into life itself is something I would always encourage."

Like Jenkins, Lane Johnson's goal is to play at least 10 years in the NFL; this will be Year 5. But unlike Jenkins, Johnson said he might actually want to steer his son to play basketball instead of football. "They get all the guaranteed money nowadays," he said. 

But if his son did want to play football, Johnson wouldn't stand in his way. 

"Yeah, I'm not going to force him into anything," Johnson said. "But if he wanted to, yeah. But there's definitely safety measures, the right way of tackling, the right way of hitting. There are ways around it."

Even knowing what he does now, Johnson said he'd still play football. He claimed to love the game too much to think about doing something else. 

"It's probably not going to affect us so much now, but come back when I'm 50 and do an interview and see if you can tell the difference," Johnson said smiling, before turning serious. "It's definitely concerning. It's alarming." 

The brains of offensive linemen in the study showed the highest percentage of CTE diagnoses, which didn't come as much of a surprise to right guard Brandon Brooks.

Brooks, 27, and entering Year 6, explained: "Because we're hitting our head every play. Running the ball, pass blocking. I think the kind of misconception is that people like safeties, receivers get the big hits, but it's not the big hits. It does have a correlation, but if you're getting your head hit every play constantly, whether it's practice from when you're a little kid up until now, or in the games, obviously, it's going to have some type of effect."

Brooks has had one documented concussion in his career but admitted he doesn't know how many other times he's had one and shaken it off. He said as players get older, they start to think about if the risk outweighs the reward a little more. 

But it doesn't change the outlook for his career now. 

"Nah. I'm six years in now," Brooks said. "It is what it is. I look at it like if something were to happen to me, it's more of like a sacrifice for my wife and kids for the future. An opportunity for them to change their life and their futures. As grim as it is to say, I've played long enough that it's either going to happen or it's not. I don't look at it like I'm going to change my career path. I chose to play the game I love."

Graham, like the others, loves football, too, but if he knew everything he knows now about the connection between football and CTE, he'd at least think about it more. 

"I'd probably play baseball," he said. "You're right. I probably would have thought about it a little bit. I don't know. I think the way my attitude is, the way I like hitting people and going out there, man, I don't know. It's kind of tough."

While the players in the locker room have to think about their distant futures, some Eagles greats have to think about the next few years and wonder if CTE will hit them the way it has their former peers. 

Brian Dawkins, Harold Carmichael and Mike Quick all answered questions on Wednesday about the new CTE study. 

"No, it does not [concern me]," said Dawkins, 43, who was known for his violent style of play. "I did everything I could as far as the things that I put in my body to help hopefully offset some of those things. If something happens later on in life, I'll deal with it. But as of right now, I'm a blessed man, being able to still be around football and still help this organization out."

All three men seemed to agree that today's game is safer than when they played. The NFL has taken strides in an attempt to limit heavy blows that could cause damage.  

Carmichael, 67, remembered his playing days when clotheslining players was legal and defenseless receivers were just easy targets. 

"I'm not taking anything away from these guys," he said. "They're still hitting hard, guys are still playing hard. They're real pros out there still. The rules have changed a lot and I agree with some of the stuff. It helps the guys and protects the guys from really being seriously injured."

Quick, 58, also acknowledged the rule changes the NFL has implemented, but noted there doesn't seem to be any way to completely eliminate the concussion danger in football. It's always going to be a physical game. 

Quick was asked how lucky he felt to not feel any CTE symptoms. 

"Well, who knows? I don't know if I can say I'm not dealing with it," he answered. "I think my life's pretty good. But I don't know what it's going to be like five years from now, 10 years from now. Of course, I had concussions like many other guys. I played in the league for nine years. Don't know what the long-term effect is going to be on me. I don't know."

No team has built a CB group quite like Eagles

Photo: Dave Zangaro/NBCSP

No team has built a CB group quite like Eagles

For generations, the Eagles couldn't find one promising young cornerback. Now they have a whole stable of them.
And in the NFL, young means cheap.
The Eagles were able to allow 30-year-old Patrick Robinson to leave via free agency after an extraordinary season for five reasons: Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, Ronald Darby and Daryl Worley.
To win consistently in the NFL, teams have to draft well because having a significant number of talented players on bargain-basement rookie contracts is the only realistic way for a contending team to stay under the salary cap.
The younger players essentially subsidize the high-priced stars.
And the Eagles' five young corners — Jones is 21, Douglas is 22, Worley and Mills are 23 and Darby just turned 24 — are all talented but most importantly, they're all still on their rookie contracts.
Jones, Douglas, Worley, Mills and Darby have a combined 2018 salary cap figure of $4,529,400.
Or less than Robinson's $5 million signing bonus with the Saints.
The Eagles drafted Jones and Douglas in the second and third rounds last year and Mills in the seventh round in 2016. Darby, who came to the Eagles last summer in the Jordan Matthews deal, was the Bills' second-round pick in 2015, and Worley, who the Eagles acquired last week from the Panthers in the Torrey Smith deal, was Carolina's third-round pick in 2016.
Here are the 2018 cap figures for the Eagles' five young corners:
$1,395,475 — Sidney Jones
$1,058,139 — Ronald Darby
$   756,572 — Rasul Douglas
$   670,000 — Daryl Worley
$   649,214 — Jalen Mills
Jones is the Eagles' highest-paid corner but only their 28th highest-paid player.
Darby's deal is up after this year. The Eagles have Mills and Worley under contract through 2019 and Jones and Douglas through 2020.
So they can stay cheap at corner for years.
According to Overthecap.com, the Eagles have the sixth-highest defensive payroll in the NFL but the third-lowest cornerback payroll, ahead of only the Packers and Colts.
The Eagles are devoting just 3.03 percent of their adjusted $177,714,409 salary cap to cornerbacks, per Spotrac.
Only the Colts (2.96 percent) are devoting a lower percentage of their 2018 cap to cornerbacks.
So the Eagles basically have young, cheap cornerbacks to offset the massive contracts they gave players like Fletcher Cox, Malcolm Jenkins, Brandon Brooks, and Zach Ertz.
The Eagles actually have 11 players under contract who, by themselves, have a higher 2018 cap figure than all the Eagles' cornerbacks combined.
None of this works if the young corners can't play. But Mills had a breakthrough season for the Super Bowl champs, Darby proved to be a speedy playmaker (although a bit inconsistent) when healthy, Douglas was solid while Darby was hurt and Jones could be the best of all.
Worley is the new guy and said Monday he can play anywhere — inside, outside, safety — and that's the key. All these corners are versatile, which gives Jim Schwartz (and Howie Roseman) a lot of flexibility.
How will they all line up next year? Too early to say, but it's easy to envision a scenario where Darby and Jones are outside, Mills is in the slot, Worley is the backup to all three spots and Douglas converts to safety, where the Eagles have little depth.
Or the Eagles could dangle Darby — whose contract is up after 2018 — and try to recoup a missing third-round pick.
And get even younger and cheaper.

Daryl Worley was last to know he was heading home

USA Today Images

Daryl Worley was last to know he was heading home

Sometimes Paradise doesn’t have great cell service. That’s one of the reasons it’s paradise. 

So back on March 9, when the Panthers traded Daryl Worley to the Eagles, Daryl Worley was one of the last to find out. See, when the trade went down, the 23-year-old cornerback was on vacation in the Bahamas. More specifically, he was on a short boat cruise over crystal blue water as a wave of messages flooded his phone. 

While his family and friends in his hometown were celebrating his return back to Philadelphia, Worley was blissfully unaware. 

Until the boat got back to shore. 

“My phone just lit up,” the cornerback said on Monday afternoon at his introductory press conference in Philly. “And I read the text messages, and I thought people were joking.” 

They weren’t. The Eagles shipped Torrey Smith and his bloated contract to Carolina and in return, the Panthers were willing to give up Worley, whom they drafted in the third round out of West Virginia in 2016. Worley was inundated with missed calls and text messages, many from loved ones in Philadelphia, still his home in the offseason. But his first phone call was to his father, Kenneth, who was “very emotional about the situation.” 

Worley’s parents still live in the same North Philadelphia neighborhood — near Temple University Hospital — where he was raised and where he grew up as an Eagles fan. 

Playing football as a youngster and then at Penn Charter, Worley was a two-way player; a safety on defense and a wide receiver on offense. So it shouldn’t be too big of a shock that he said his favorite Eagles player of all time is Terrell Owens. Worley was 15 days shy of his 10th birthday when he watched Owens play in — and nearly help the Eagles win — Super Bowl XXXIX. Owens and Worley stand in stark juxtaposition in Eagles history. While Owens was overly outspoken, Worley’s high school coach described his former player as a really quiet guy (see story).  

Still, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Worley to fit into the Eagles’ locker room. He’ll join several of his college teammates in Philly. He was in the same defensive backfield as Rasul Douglas for two seasons at West Virginia. He considers Wendell Smallwood one of his closest friends. And he was freshman roommates with Shelton Gibson; Worley claims he was the cleaner of the two. 

Sure, there might be some hurdles for Worley as he plays in Philly, but he understands that. He’s prepared to be pulled in several different directions.  

“Coming back home to things like this, there’s going to be a lot more asked of me, on the field and off the field,” he said, “but with that being said, I have a great support group around me and I know I have a great group of guys so anything I may need or ask for I know they’ll be able to help me with it.”

Worley isn’t sure what his role will be with the Eagles and he probably won’t know (at the earliest) until offseason workouts begin in April. Until then, he’s going to do as much film study as possible as he settles back into life where he grew up. 

Philly isn’t exactly paradise — it’s about to snow in March — but Worley is home, he gets to play for the team he rooted for as a kid. And besides, cell phones can be turned off.