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Column: 'Not like we signed up to play tennis.'

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Column: 'Not like we signed up to play tennis.'

Super Bowl week is beginning to resemble one of those family reunions where your crazy uncle says something outrageous, but just true enough to spark a discussion worth having.

Two years ago, it was Steelers linebacker James Harrison ripping the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell for excessive fines on the violent hits that were his specialty, and generally trying to make the game too safe. ``We'll lay a pillow down where I'm going to tackle them,'' he said mockingly at one point, ``so they don't hit the ground too hard, Mr. Goodell.''

This time around, the provocateur was Bernard Pollard, the Ravens' notoriously punishing safety. Covering much of the same ground Harrison had, Pollard said he didn't think the NFL would be around in 30 years because rule changes designed to make it even safer would eventually drive away fans - if something tragic didn't hasten the game's end even sooner.

``The only thing I'm waiting for ... and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen ... is a guy dying on the field,'' Pollard told CBSSports.com.

It may be easy to dismiss a handful of players' exaggerated views, but the notion that the NFL is in real trouble - as well as football at every level from Pop Warner up - isn't as hard a sell as it seems.

Sure, the game has never been more popular. The league is taking in nearly $10 billion annually, breaking its own record TV telecasts almost on a weekly basis, and could repeat the feat again Sunday in New Orleans, when the 49ers tee it up against the Ravens. But just a few weeks later, arguments are scheduled to begin in Philadelphia in one lawsuit brought on behalf of former players and their families contending that the league failed to warn them about the dangers of concussions and then concealed those risks even in the face of mounting evidence. And that's just one of several pending legal actions piling up outside Goodell's office door.

Yet even all those lawsuits combined may not represent the most serious threat to the NFL's existence long term.

``The plaintiffs are facing a huge uphill battle, and that's me speaking as a lawyer,'' said attorney Robert Boland, who teaches sports law at New York University's Tisch Center, and has worked previously as an agent. ``Obviously, the publicity generated by the concussion issues is big, but I don't think the same is true in terms of legal liability. This is a collectively bargained issue for the most part and while the NFL is the biggest target - it has the deepest pockets - courts are likely to take a very narrow view of what responsibility it's facing. It may well be the case where the NFL wins in the courts very quickly, then has to find a way to be sensitive to the very real dangers that exist as part of the game.

``The concussion issue is forcing people to choose sides and yet the real challenge, I think, will be holding together the coalition that made the game so popular - players, coaches, parents and fans. There's already a bar for young players to get into the game; the cost of equipment, the staffing it requires, and if the insurers get nervous and drive up the costs even further, that might be the biggest short-term threat. Nothing has shown up yet,'' Boland added, ``but anybody taking the long view has to be looking at the present and saying, `It could.' ``

President Obama tackled that issue in a recent interview with The New Republic, saying that he anticipated the less exciting pro game that guys like Harrison and Pollard envisioned as safety concerns change the way it's played. What really worried him, though, was whether those changes at the top would filter down to the lower levels of the sport soon enough.

``I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football,'' Obama said.

``I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union. They're grown men. They can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies,'' he added. ``You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about.''

Don't expect action from the NCAA anytime soon, but the NFL and its players' union may not have the luxury of time. A quick sampling of comments during media day showed many players still favor the status quo, risks and all.

``That's what we all know coming into the game,'' 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith said. ``We all signed up for it. It's not like we signed up and thought we were going to play tennis, you know?''

His coach, one-time NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, took that cavalier attitude a step further, when asked to respond to the president's remarks.

``Well, I have a 4-month-old - almost, soon-to-be 5-month-old - son, Jack Harbaugh, and if President Obama feels that way, then (there will) be a little less competition for Jack Harbaugh when he gets older,'' Harbaugh chuckled. ``That's the first thing that jumps into my mind, if other parents are thinking that way.''

Keep in mind that the NFL's nightmare scenario played out on a football field an hour from Boston only a few months ago. In a Pop Warner game between longtime rivals, five kids between the ages of 10 and 12 were concussed, all on the losing team, three in the first quarter and the last one on the final play. Not everyone is convinced there's enough time to wait for Goodell and the union to sort out the legal battles and work together to advance the safety issue.

``I think it's being taken seriously, but as far as young people starting to play, we need better and smarter instruction than ever before,'' said former Saints quarterback Archie Manning, who's enlisted his famous sons, Peyton and Eli, to help run his annual quarterbacking camp. ``We've got to bring some attention to bear right away, especially how we teach tackling and the rest of the physical components of the game.

``You only get so many chances and we've let a lot slip past. We can't afford too many more misses,'' he said finally, ``We've got to get it right.''

---

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

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AP Images

Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Don Martindale wondered if he would ever get a second chance to be an NFL defensive coordinator after his one-and-done disaster with the Denver Broncos in 2010.

The Broncos went 4-12 that season and gave up more points (29.4 per game) and yards (390.8) than any team in the league. Those miserable numbers, not surprisingly, cost Martindale his job.

He latched on with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 as linebackers coach. After working diligently with several stars, including Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley, the 54-year-old Martindale last week was promoted to defensive coordinator.

RELATED: WHO WERE THE RAVENS' MVP'S IN 2017?

To say he's pleased to be in charge of an NFL defense again would be a profound understatement.

"Without a doubt," Martindale said Thursday. "My family knows it. Everybody knows it. My players know it. I can't wait."

His performance in Denver eight years ago is hardly worth putting on a resume, but Martindale believes it was a worthwhile experience.

"Even though the stats were what they were, I was really proud with how we played," he said. "I'm glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It's like I tell my guys: You either win or you learn."

Martindale's new job with the Ravens carries the responsibility of overseeing a unit that has long been among the best in the NFL, thriving under notable leaders such as Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Chuck Pagano and Dean Pees, who retired on Jan. 1.

"I've been preparing for this job all my life," Martindale said. "It's very humbling, but I understand the pressure and I look forward to the challenge."

Martindale takes over a defense that this season ranked 12th in net yards allowed, first in takeaways (34) and sixth in fewest points allowed (18.9). He has no plans to revamp the unit or change the philosophy, especially since head coach John Harbaugh stressed the need to retain continuity before launching his search for Pees' replacement.

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Martindale will, however, put his own stamp on the unit.

"I think personality-wise, and just calls, there's going to be some things that are the same. And then there are going to be sometimes where I'm going to pressure more," Martindale said. "I just think I have a more aggressive personality in calling the game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That's some of the things I've learned from the past."

His most daunting task will be finding a way to make the defense to come up big late in the game. In 2016, a fourth-quarter collapse in Pittsburgh cost Baltimore a playoff berth. This season, a fourth-down touchdown pass in the final minute by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton bounced the Ravens from the postseason chase.

"Our mantra has always been to finish," Martindale said. "We're close. Obviously, the last two years, it's been the last play that's knocked us out of it. We are going to work diligently -- all of us -- with our package and situational football.

"That's going to be the next step, I think, that will skyrocket us. That's the big thing that I see. We were really good. Let's make it great."

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Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

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USA Today Sports

Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

The Ravens' season had it's ups and down, but out of it came some bright spots.

The defense continued to prove dominate and the offense found its groove during the second half of the season, but who stood out the most?

Offensive MVP: RB Alex Collins

Collins was a late preseason pickup after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks and Ravens fans are grateful they let him go. After new acquisition Danny Woodhead injured his hamstring on the first drive in Week 1 and Terrance West injured his calf Week 5 in Oakland, Allen emerged as a saving grace. He finished the season with 973 yards, six touchdowns and 212 attempts averaging 4.6 yards-per-carry. His longest rushing attempt was 50-yards against the Steelers in Week 4, and then in Week 14, rushed 120-yards on their defense. 

RELATED: RAVENS' 2018 NFL MOCK DRAFT ROUNDUP

Defensive MVP: OLB Terrell Suggs

This one was a toss up between Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, but considering the level at which Sizzle is playing at in his 15th season, his 2017 performance is MVP worthy.

The 35-year old finished the season with 49 combined tackles, 12 assist, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. Suggs ranks 11th in the league in sacks and was voted to his seventh Pro Bowl, something that should be expected from the leader of a defense that finished the regular season ranked sixth in points allowed. During the Ravens' Week 12 matchup, Suggs proved he doesn't age when he strip sacked Texans QB Tom Savage with 4:44 remaining in the fourth, shifting the momentum back to the Ravens who were clinging on to a 23-16 win. He's suffered two Achilles tears and a torn bicep over the last 5.5 seasons but has remained Hall of Fame worthy. As of right now, T-Sizzle has no plans of retiring. 

RELATED: FIVE OFFSEASON QUESTIONS RAVENS MUST ANSWER

Rookie of the Year: CB Marlon Humphrey

The Ravens' 2017 first-round pick stepped up to the plate when starting CB Jimmy Smith's season was over after suffering a torn Achilles in Week 13. The rookie out of Alabama finished the season with 34 combined tackles, four assists and two interceptions. Pro Football Focus graded Humphrey the fifth-best cover corner in the league. QBs only had a 53.5 rating when they threw in his direction. PFF also gave Humphrey a 82.7 rookie rating. 

Humphrey will continue to prove his worth during the 2018 season if Jimmy Smith is still recovering come Week 1.

RELATED: IMPORTANT 2018 OFFSEASON DATES

Special Teams MVP: P Sam Koch

Koch is in his 12th season with the Ravens and he's continuing to prove how efficient that leg of his is. He had a season long of 67-yards and placed 40 of 84 punts inside the 20-yard line. Koch's accuracy earned him AFC special teams player of the week not once, but twice this season. The first came in Week 12 against the Houston Texans when he not only placed five punts inside the 20-yard line, but also faked a punt and threw a 22-yard pass to Chris Moore for a first down. The second honor came in Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns after placing four punts inside the 20-yard line, three of them inside the five. While neither Koch or kicker Justin Tucker were named to the Pro Bowl, Ravens fans never break a sweat when the game is in their hands, or should we say, legs.