Fencik, Wilson discuss head injuries at Health and Safety Forum

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Fencik, Wilson discuss head injuries at Health and Safety Forum

It would have been so easy for former Chicago Bears Otis Wilson and Gary Fencik to give the politically correct answers to reducing head injuries.
Sure, players will take themselves out of the game if theyre woozy after a hit. Sure, players will readily tell team doctors and coaches when theyre not feeling right. Sure, the cautionary tales of those suffering lingering concussion issues and those whose premature deaths may have been related to those problems will get through to todays players.
But Wilson and Fencik know a football players mentality.
They know that pride, fear and uncertainty will keep most players from admitting something might be wrong. Still, the two former Bears know that the message still has to be delivered. And the more they and others talk, the more players will listen.
The Bears, with the U.S. Army, hosted a Health and Safety Forum prior to Sunday nights game against the Houston Texans. The session focused on the work the NFL and army are doing together to promote a positive culture change and reduce the stigma related to head injuries.
And all parties know its going to take some time to do that.
You talk about warrior mentality. We dont want to get rid of that. But we want to talk people through everything the league is doing, this type of forum, Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips said. Its going to take years to really get the culture change were looking for.
Wilson used the term dinged when talking about how he felt after some of those hits in his playing days. Players didnt know the affects of concussions as much then. Sometimes they didnt even know they had a concussion. Answer a couple of questions correctly and they were back in the game.
The lingering affects havent hit me yet, said Wilson. When asked if he was sure about that, he said, I remember how I got here and how to get home. My closest friend Dave Duerson, he couldnt remember how to get downtown, couldnt remember a lot of things. When I compare myself to that, Im doing OK now.
Duersons tragic story resonates with Wilson and Fencik, for certain. Duerson committed suicide in February of 2011. In a text to family, Duerson asked his brain be donated for research; three months after his death, neurologists at Boston University confirmed Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.
Still, the cautionary tales, even tragic ones like Duersons, dont always resonate immediately. Players may think itll never happen to them, that theyll bounce back quickly if they do suffer a concussion and they could lose their job if they do come out of the game.
You go down for a play, and a guy (behind you on the depth chart) is making 200,000 less, maybe they give him a shot. And you lose your job, Fencik said. Its very difficult for that player. Its a tremendous challenge because its your job. Its something theyve done their entire life.
Still, the message will continue. You cant eradicate concussions completely. You can take out illegal hits, sure, but head injuries are caused on the perfectly legal ones, too. The research is better now than it was in Wilson and Fenciks playing days, and improves every day.
Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth, a consulting clinical neuropsychologist at NorthShore Medical Group, said education is key.
One of the biggest misconceptions?
That you need to be knocked out to have a concussion. You dont, she said. Only 9-10 percent (of head injuries) result in loss of consciousness. You still hear, He wasnt knocked out, so doesnt have concussion. Thats bothersome. Theyre brain injuries. Theyre not just seeing stars for a few seconds.
So the message will keep being delivered. The culture is going to take time to change. Perhaps a suffering player heeding that message wont save his career. But hed be saving something more precious.
We as a group have to let (players) know that its OK if somethings wrong with you: stand on the sideline and get yourself some help, Wilson said. We have to keep talking to one another.

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

The adage “play the man, not the board” seems somehow appropriate for what the Bears are doing to prepare for the Detroit Lions behind quarterback Matt Barkley.

“The man” is Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and the Bears have been scouting him as well as his defenses, beyond just Bears games, beyond this season and last, taking in his 2014 Detroit season when Austin prepared defenses for Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

How did Austin scheme for rookie Carson Wentz when the Lions played (and beat) the Philadelphia Eagles? How did he structure is defense to stop a rookie Teddy Bridgewater when Detroit played Minnesota? (Not very well, apparently, since the Vikings won both games and scored 54 points combined in the two games).

While the John Fox Bears staff went against Austin’s Lions defense twice last year, Cutler was the Bears quarterback. When the Bears beat Austin and the Lions two months ago, it was with Brian Hoyer.

Now the Bears quarterback is Matt Barkley, who has fewer NFL games played (seven) than Cutler has NFL seasons (11), Hoyer (eight), too, for that matter.

“Different defensive coordinators attack young quarterbacks differently,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “Some guys blitz, some guys play a bunch of zone. This group on defense there, they have a really good defensive coordinator, they're really smart, they do a bunch of stuff. On the back end, they run all the coverages.

“As a game, we'll have to make adjustments as the game goes and see what their plan to come out is early.”

Coaches and players may talk about how they prepare for a scheme irrespective of which opposing quarterback, running back, linebacker or whatever they will be facing. But in fact, preparations start with who is orchestrating the opponent’s offense or defense – play the man, not the board.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

A risk can be out-thinking yourself trying to anticipate what a coordinator will do. The first point, Loggains said, is to start with your own strengths.

“We definitely look at that,” Loggains said. “As you go in the league long and longer, you face these guys, you see them in crossover games. We always know how a guy attacks a rookie quarterback or attacks a young quarterback, a veteran, or, in Matt's case, a guy who hasn't played as much.”

Evaluations of Barkley’s performance will broaden, particularly now that he is on tape for defensive coordinators to scheme for and scout. And while they are watching Barkley, the Bears are watching them.