Seau, Dorsett, McMahon, Easterling: Harry Carson’s drumbeat is getting louder

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Harry Carson. (nfl.com)
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A weekly column about what the Giants are doing when they're not playing football.

When I interviewed Harry Carson last September after the publication of his book, Captain for Life, which covers his own cognitive problems and suicidal thoughts he believes were brought on by football, he said the following about his longtime advocacy about the issue:

“I sort of see myself as this sort of little guy, way out somewhere, banging the drum, talking about concussions. But people aren’t really listening. Not until it affects them.”

With grim regularity over the past several months, there have been revelations about former N.F.L. players that would seem to compel people to start listening, at least for a moment.  

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Tony Dorsett joined a lawsuit against the N.F.L., then gave an interview and showed a scan revealing that the left lobe of his brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen.

Another plaintiff was Jim McMahon, who not so long ago was mooning television cameras and swaggering around in sunglasses as the Bears countercultural antihero quarterback. McMahon gave an ESPN interview in which he admitted, midway through, that he didn’t remember what had been discussed at the beginning of the interview.

Two weeks ago, Ray Easterling, a former safety for Atlanta and another member of the lawsuit, committed suicide. He had been suffering from dementia and depression in recent years, which, the widely circulated AP article says, caused him to lose “the ability to focus, organize his thoughts, and relate to people.”

That last point, about relating to people, was something Carson addressed in some depth during my interview with him. He told me about his failed first marriage, and how, because of whatever damage football had caused his brain, he didn’t know whether it was just a run-of-the-mill failed marriage or was instead attributable to his cognitive problems.

“In times of frustration, she’d say, ‘You don’t listen to me.’ And I’d be like, ‘I do listen. But I don’t hear it. Or I’m not taking what you’re saying and analyzing or storing it,’” he told me.

“It causes me to think a little deeper about the cause and effect of certain things. You look at some of the relationships that people who I know have had, and reasons why these relationships have failed. Now, it could be just ‘guys being guys.’ Or it could be guys that truly don’t understand that they’re having some neurological things.”

Then he told me that he had gotten a call from his sister just a couple of hours before I arrived, informing him that his childhood friend had died.

“One of the things that bothers is I’m sort of at a point where I don’t feel emotion about certain things, like when people die. I feel very sympathetic, but I don’t get emotional.

“And I don’t know if it’s just a fact of life of being where I am. This age where you’ve seen so many people pass away. Or if it’s a neurological deal where you’re unable to feel certain emotions. And so I get back to thinking about the brain: The brain controls everything.”

Later, he added, “There are certain things that people will never understand. It’s very hard to put into words.”

Junior Seau played for the New England Patriots in 2007. 

There’s something deeply unsettling now about his role as a foil in Eli Manning’s ongoing, glorious saga. That Super Bowl victory was the greatest moment that many Giants fans have ever known, a moment, which, because of Eli and Coughlin and Bradshaw and Tuck and Osi, is still fresh and very much alive, while Seau is dead.

Tony Dorsett’s spectacular highlights are in grainy, non-HD quality, back when the players wore those boxy pads and tear-away jerseys. McMahon was quintessentially ‘80s, back when sunglasses were a statement of rebellion and bad-assness. That decade and its edgy, futuristic brand of coolness was so long ago that it itself has been mocked for going on 20 years now, ever since VH1 came out with “The Big ‘80s.” As for Easterling, I would be lying if I told you I had heard of the man before he was dead.

There is no shortage of ways for us to distance ourselves from these guys, to render Carson’s drumbeat faint background noise. As Carson himself put it, we listened, but we didn’t hear it or process it.

But Seau, whose family has agreed to donate his brain to researchers at Boston University, who will determine if and to what extent his brain was damaged when he committed suicide, seems different. That drumbeat isn’t so distant anymore. For most football fans of this generation, this one hit closer to home. We’re starting to get it. This affects us.

WITH THE BULK OF THE PLAYER ACQUISITION BEFORE the 2012 season over and done with, the always-excellent Bill Barnwell of Grantland takes a look at ten teams that got better and ten teams that got worse, based purely on the needs they had last year and how well they addressed them.

For a very good reason, the Giants offseason wasn’t especially drastic, and thus they didn’t make either list. But all of their other division rivals were listed among the ten teams that got better by addressing needs.

The Cowboys upgraded at cornerback, replacing the oft-injured and ofter-ineffectual tandem of Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins. They released the over-the-hill Newman, the victim of one of Victor Cruz’s most memorable, improbable, hugely important plays last year. And they’re trying to trade Jenkins, who’s coming off a major shoulder surgery and has generally disappointed since being a first round draft pick in 2008.

In their place, at one corner, they signed Brandon Carr, an ascending 26-year old who allowed quarterbacks who threw in his direction an outstanding 61.7 rating last year, compared to the league average of 82.5. To fill the other corner, they traded up to draft L.S.U.’s Morris Claiborne, who apparently was the Cowboys’ front office’s highest rated draft prospect at cornerback since Deion Sanders. Claiborne was the fifth pick in the draft, and as such, he’ll be in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.

These moves will allow Orlando Scandrick to move back to slot corner, a position he’s better suited for than the outside position he was forced to play for much of last year.

The improvements at cornerback will go a long way toward improving the Cowboys pass defense, which finished 23rd in the league last year in net yards per passing attempt and 19th in the FootballOutsiders’ DVOA ratings. Their generosity in the defensive backfield certainly helped the Giants: Eli Manning passed for 746 yards and five touchdowns against the Cowboys last year in the Giants’ two victories, in which a loss would have meant a ticket home instead of the playoffs.

Barnwell credits the Eagles for addressing a longtime area of need by trading for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans of the Texans. Ryans was one of the game’s best middle linebackers until he tore his Achilles tendon in 2010. Last year, in his first back from the injury, the Texans changed from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, thus neutralizing Ryans’ “see ball, chase ball” game. This, combined with his injury the year before, led to an off-year for Ryans, which allowed the Eagles to get him for a fourth-round pick.

He’ll move right back into a 4-3 this year and be one year further removed from his injury. If he returns to his old form (he made the Pro Bowl in 2007 and 2009) he’ll give the Eagles a marquee player at a position that has long been an afterthought.

Still, as disappointing as the Eagles were last year, the defense wasn’t really the problem: They allowed the 10th-fewest points and the 11th-fewest yards per play.

Really, the scary thing about the Eagles is that despite last year’s mediocre 8-8 record, there’s no reason they shouldn’t bounce back to being the team that has always challenged for the division title, and has always given the Giants a hard time: Including a playoff game in the 2008 season, the Eagles have beaten the Giants seven of their last eight games.

The Eagles were better than an 8-8 team by every indication last year other than won-loss record. Their point-differential of 68 was much more consistent with that of a 10-6 team, and point differentials from the previous season are more predictive of won-loss records the following year than a team’s won-loss record. The Eagles FootballOutsiders DVOA efficiency rating, which is more predictive of a team’s future performance than both its won-loss record and its point differential, was 10th in the league, compared to 12th for the Giants. (Of course, this rating does not include the playoffs, which changes the calculation fairly drastically.)

The Redskins, of course, upgraded with one of the most exciting draft prospects to come around in years: Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

Griffin will replace Rex Grossman, who has a reputation as being bad but not altogether awful. This reputation is kind. In reality, it’s hard to do much worse than Grossman, who was one of four quarterbacks last year to throw more interceptions than touchdown passes. His rating of 72.4 was as close to that of overmatched Jacksonville rookie Blaine Gabbert (65.4) as it was to that of Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who actually deserves his reputation for minimal adequacy.

Griffin might not be that much better, but adequate quarterback play could possibly elevate the Redskins from a bad team to an average team. At the very least, he’ll give the dysfunctional and unlikable Redskins an appealing presence and a dangerous player.

ELI MANNING WILL HOST "SATURDAY NIGHT Live" tomorrow. These promos are pretty unpromising, truth be told: Eli doesn’t exactly bust out of his benign dorkiness with any previously undiscovered charisma. Sweetly endearing, always. Awesomely funny, no.

Then again, the problem with the promos might have been the guy Eli was teamed up with: Keenan Thompson, whose ability to maintain his spot on the show since 2003 is rivaled only by Matt Dodge’s improbable hold on the punter’s job throughout the entire 2010 season.

The Giants offensive line in Eli’s rookie year of 2004 allowed 52 sacks, the second-most in the league. As was the case seven years ago, the hope on Saturday is that Eli will flourish if surrounded by a better supporting cast.