The cloud cast by the Aaron Hernandez tragedy has become menacingly darker.
The life of the 27-year-old which hurtled into a nightmare of murder charges and violence ended last April with the use of a bedsheet in a prison cell.
While the sporting world was shocked at such a brutal ending, little was made about the NFL’s role in his demise.
Questions were rightly posed about the inability of the Patriots to see the warning signs despite the alarm bells shrieking.
Yes, professional athletes are adults but was protecting such a vulnerable, impressionable man who clearly had deep rooted problems a burden too far?
Yet following stunning revelations last week that Hernandez was severely affected by CTE – the degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head – this story, which the families of the victims thought had reached its conclusion, has suddenly started to move in a new direction.
And for commissioner Roger Goodell and his attempts to brush aside the concussion crisis which is threatening the future of American football, it makes extremely uncomfortable reading.
Medics at Boston University, who have become the leading voices in the battle to heighten awareness of the sport’s dangers, revealed Hernandez was indeed suffering from Stage 3 CTE – a level of damage only seen in ex-players around the 60-year-old mark. No-one this young has ever been affected so badly.
Of course, Hernandez clearly had severe mental issues. He wasted a multi-million dollar contract by gunning down defenseless Odin Lloyd, who was dating his fiancée’s sister, following an argument.
There were other scrapes and gangster-like behaviour. Not the actions of someone whose faculties are fully intact.
So while the debate over whether CTE – which is known to cause unduly aggressive, violent and wild behavioural swings – actually caused him to act so recklessly is a tremendously difficult one to navigate, it’s undeniable that his time in the NFL wreaked havoc with his head.
A recent study found signs of the disease in 110 of 111 NFL players whose brains were inspected.
Not all of them became psychopathic murderers.
In fact, in the similarly tragic cases of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, the only shots fired were fatally at themselves.
Though who’s to say that it didn’t play any part at all in his shocking demise? His injuries were caused by football so it’s fair to speculate that his death was also linked.
Hernandez’s attorney Jose Baez is certainly playing that card.
He accuses the NFL of hiding the true dangers of the sport.
“Defendants were fully aware of the dangers of exposing NFL players to repeated traumatic head impacts,” Baez said in the lawsuit. “Yet, defendants concealed and misrepresented the risks.”
The concussion timebomb has been ticking for a while – it’s already cost almost $1 billion in lawsuits though President Donald Trump stupidly accused referees of “ruining the game” at the weekend with their clampdown on dangerous challenges – yet could now be ready to explode.
Science is working hard to unearth more harsh truths but isn’t there yet.
Those in the game will point to those ex-players who are totally fine. They will stress the stats mask the realities. Just like boxers, NFL players know the risks when they sign on the dotted line.
This gruesome new chapter, however, must be the start of more preventative measures.
Better helmets have been introduced. Supposedly safer ways to tackle have also been brought in to not only safeguard today’s stars, but those of tomorrow as well.
The Canadian Football League recently announced full contact practice sessions are to be banned during the season.
The NFL currently have 14 per season which was agreed in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement so don’t expect any major overhaul right now.
The legal battles will continue to rage as will the debates about player safety.
Yet with all these new gruesome details being laid bare, how can the NFL survive without making drastic changes?
The answer, if Goodell is listening, is it surely cannot.
Talent has never been a question for Sam Bradford.
The same abilities that made the quarterback the number one overall pick in the 2010 draft were on full display in the Minnesota Vikings’ 29-19 win over New Orleans, in which he carved up the Saints in arguably the greatest performance of his career.
It may have been the zenith of what Bradford’s capable of, but it was also the latest in a long line of tantalising efforts that have teased, yet never fully satisfied his potential.
Maddeningly, these types of games by Bradford have been wildly inconsistent during his eight-year career, but not necessarily because of what he’s able to do, but rather what he chooses to do – throw safe, short passes.
Even in his first season with Minnesota last year when he set an NFL record by completing 71.6 per cent of his passes, Bradford averaged just 7.02 yards per attempt and an even worse 6.2 air yards per pass.
The quarterback who picked apart New Orleans on Monday was a far cry from ‘captain checkdown’, averaging 10.81 yards per attempt en route to totalling 346 yards and three touchdowns for a career-high passer rating of 143.0.
After being constantly hit and sacked 37 times last year (tied for fourth-most in the league), Bradford’s offensive line kept him relatively clean against the Saints and he leveraged the time to complete 9-of-10 intermediate and downfield passes for 234 yards and two scores, according to Pro Football Focus.
“They gave me plenty of time to really sit back there and evaluate things and find the open receiver,” he said of his offensive line.
While Bradford was impressive, he was facing a pass defence that ranked dead last in the NFL last year in yards allowed per game (274.0) and fourth-worst in passer rating allowed (98.1).
But with Bradford still only 29 years old and in an offensive system he had an entire offseason to get familiar with (after being traded to the Vikings days before the start of the 2016 season), it’s not inconceivable that this time, he may finally be becoming the quarterback that fulfils the loftiest of expectations.
“We were very confident in the progress we were making, from OTAs to training camp,” Bradford said. “I saw it in our guys, every day. I think [Monday] was really the first time it translated onto the field. I think we have the capability of doing that on a regular basis.”
The absence of Odell Beckham Jr gave the New York Giants enough of an excuse in their sluggish season opener, but the reality is their offensive woes have extended to when their star receiver has been on the field as well.
Facing their NFC East rivals on the road to open their campaign, the Giants looked stuck in preseason mode as they were dominated 19-3 by the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night in a contest that exposed their offensive deficiencies of late.
It was the seventh straight game, dating back to 2016 (including playoffs), in which New York failed to score at least 20 points – the longest such streak since 2003.
While Beckham’s presence would have helped in Week 1, he played in six of the seven aforementioned games, proving the Giants’ issues on that side of the ball are far too multi-faceted for the playmaker to cover up on his own.
“Obviously he’s a tremendous player, but we have players and we have to play better than that,” quarterback Eli Manning said.
“We have to do a better job finding completions on third [down] and converting those third downs. We just have to do a better job.”
It starts at the offensive line, where New York are relying on shaky tackles Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart to give Manning enough time.
On Sunday, the Cowboys recorded three sacks and even when Manning did throw against limited pressure, he and his receivers often couldn’t get on the same page.
“I hung in the pocket, moved around. I wasn’t looking at the rush,” Manning said. “My eyes were downfield. I did an okay job moving around and trying to extend a couple of plays.”
Eli Manning has thrown an interception and been sacked three times by the Cowboys 4-man pass rush. pic.twitter.com/3OZKdT6Vf1— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 11, 2017
The timing was particularly off between Manning and newcomer Brandon Marshall, who came over from the New York Jets in the offseason as a free agent.
Marshall grabbed just one of the four passes thrown his way as the veteran receiver, who was brought in to complement Beckham, was a non-factor in his debut.
For too long, Ben McAdoo’s play calling has leaned on Beckham’s ability to turn simple slant routes into monster gains, and the Giants have struggled to diversify as the rest of the league has caught up.
As a result, New York’s defence has been forced to carry a bigger burden and stay on the field longer, as they did on Sunday against the Cowboys when they faced 71 snaps.
The unit, which allowed the second-fewest points in 2016, was a major reason for the Giants’ 11-5 record last season, but if New York hope to reach the playoffs again, the offence will have to start doing their fair share.
“The thing I thought about after the game was we’ve just got to start faster. We’ve got to be more efficient,” Marshall said. “If we do that, who knows how the game goes, right? (Maybe then) there are opportunities for other guys.”