Kurt Warner knew, as he walked to see the Arizona Cardinals team medics last Sunday morning in Nashville, that playing against the Titans was not up to them. It was up to him. His words would determine whether he'd go out on the field with his sore neck and an odd, sharp sensitivity to light.
And for a moment he thought: I can lie*, and they'll let me play.
*For those of you who only know Kurt Warner from the two-minute post-game interviews you've seen over the past decade, trust me implicitly on this one: There is no more honorable person in the game. Once, when I was looking for him in the Rams' locker room a few years ago, one of his teammates said, "The Pope's in the shower.''
"So I thought about it,'' he told me, driving home from practice Wednesday evening. "And I had to say to myself, 'What are you doing! What are you thinking!' First, it's not my character to lie. That's not me. But it's also in this case just not the right thing to do. I have seven kids, a wife. A life. I want to win as much as anyone. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to take a step back and realize what you're talking about. It's a football game, versus the rest of your life.''
He told the doctors about his sore neck, a leftover from taking a blow to the head seven days earlier in St. Louis, and about the light sensitivity, which they, and he, knew could be a remnant from a minor concussion. They told him he wasn't playing. The neck's fine now, and any headaches are gone, but there's still sensitivity to light. Not as bad as it was, but it's there, and though he thinks he'll play Sunday night in one of the coolest football games of the year -- Battle of the Football Geezers, 40-year-old Brett Favre versus Warner, 38 -- he still has some gnawing doubts about whether he should.
Warner had just heard about the league's new return-to-play edict before we spoke. In 2007, the NFL said players who sustained concussions could not return to play in the same game. On Wednesday, the NFL's awareness to head injuries was underscored when the league said players who are disoriented, exhibit any memory loss or confusion or signs of a concussion will not be allowed to return to the game. But for the program to work, players are going to have report their own symptoms and those of teammates. They're going to have to make the same decision Warner did -- even when it goes against the suck-it-up-and-play grain of football ethos, and even when they're going to get suspicious looks from coaches and teammates, players have to report when they're disoriented or think they've suffered a head injury.
"There's no question I was self-conscious about it,'' Warner said. "I can't say definitively that guys were thinking that, but I noticed a few things. Maybe a coach didn't talk to me the same way, or a player walked by without talking to me. We're conditioned to think one game can mean everything. So you do wonder, yeah. You wonder if they're thinking, 'Yeah, he wimped out on us. Yeah, he wasn't tough enough. Yeah, he wouldn't come to battle with us.' ''
Three weeks ago, Cardinal special-teamer Sean Morey -- the co-chair of the NFL Players Association concussion and traumatic brain injury committee -- admitted he played with a concussion against Chicago and didn't tell team doctors about it. Morey says he's going to donate his brain upon his death for study on the affect of repeated trauma. And so I wondered: If Warner thought for a moment of lying about his symptoms, and if Morey hid a concussion, how in the world is this great new program going to work?
"If we lie,'' said Warner, "it's not going to work. Players have to be honest, organizations have to be honest, for this to work over the long haul. We're so conditioned to think the toughest, most courageous player plays with an injury like that. What I found out is the most courageous player is the one willing to tell the truth. Do you know how hard it is to say, 'I don't know if I'm ready?' We're conditioned to play hurt. I've played injured in my career. As long as you can be out there, any way you can be out there, you play. Everybody's going to appreciate it, and everyone will talk about how tough you are. It takes a lot to be able to step away and say, 'It's just a game.' People get fired for not winning. Players get cut.
"I am convinced players have to be continually protected from themselves.
"Look, I'm toward the end of my career. I don't think about one more game defining me, or them throwing me out. I'm thinking about the 50 years with my family after this part of my life. Football takes a huge backseat. I'm going to have 12, 13 years in this game, and 70 out of it. When I think about it that way, it makes the decision a little easier.''
Warner was told last week that the light sensitivity he felt was related to the blow he took in St. Louis, and doctors told him symptoms could persist for a few weeks. "My injury is very minor,'' he said. "Beyond the symptoms, they really don't know what it means. They don't feel if I go back on the field I'm taking a risk, but no one can guarantee it. No one knows what it would mean if I took another hit this week. So that's the gray area. What would another hit mean 10 years down the road? And no one can answer that question.''
He still has some sensitivity to light, but he said headaches and the neck pain are gone. He's splitting practice snaps with backup Matt Leinart this week, and either could play against Minnesota. You could hear the indecision in Warner's voice. Should he play Sunday night? Or should he play it safe?
It's the same voice scores of players are going to hear every week in the NFL from this day forward ... if players are honest with themselves, and honest with team doctors.
"I don't know,'' Warner said. "I am moving forward like I'm going to play. But I go back and forth. We'll decide late in the week. I don't know.''
Offensively, the Jets are a fifties football team. In the wake of the 19-13 win over the Bills in Toronto last night, the Jets are doing something very rare in recent NFL history: contending for the playoffs with more rushing yards than passing yards. Last night, they made the Bills regret ever letting nose man Pat Williams go in free agency, mashing the Bills for 249 yards on 43 carries. For the year, the 6-6 Jets are averaging 168.6 yards per game running, 156.3 passing. What makes this more impressive is that they've done it for the past five weeks without changeup back Leon Washington, lost Oct. 25 at Oakland with a broken leg. The Jets will need to keep it up to have a prayer to make the playoffs, seeing that their passing game is woefully inconsistent and may have to rely on Kellen Clemens for a couple of weeks with the knee injury suffered by Mark Sanchez on his ill-fated dive.
Chris Johnson, running back, Tennessee.
Let's see: Which stat is more important? That Johnson, the NFL rushing leader, had a forgettable nine-carry, 34-yard game -- his worst of the season -- against the Colts in their first meeting this year? Or that he's rushed for 228, 135, 132, 151 and 154 yards in the past five weeks? The heat will be on Johnson to keep the clock moving and keep the possessions long for the Titans. It's not a prescription for automatic victory to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands Sunday (just ask the Dolphins about limiting Manning's touches and how much it matters), but there's no question it'll help -- especially if Johnson is able to turn those possessions into three or seven points consistently. Tennessee needs a 150-yard, two-touchdown day from Johnson to win this game.
1. The MVP race might be the best ever. I've been an MVP voter for 15 years or so; I can't recall my first year, though I do recall getting a funny look from Deanna Favre when I voted for Carnell Lake in 1997, meaning Brett and Barry Sanders tied for the award that year. And I don't recall a year this challenging. Favre might be having the best year of his life at 40, and he may not win it. Drew Brees is having the best year of his life, and he just got finished strafing the Patriots, and he might not win it. Peyton Manning could throw for the most yards of his life, while breaking in two new receivers and compensating for a bad running game, and he might not win it. And Philip Rivers and Chris Johnson and ... well, lots of interesting angles in the MVP race. Glad I don't have to decide till a month from today.
2. How 'bout them Titans? Five wins in a row, and now they invade the den of the almighty 11-0 Colts. When I asked the wide-eyed Kenny Britt about the challenge facing his team in Indianapolis the other day, he said: "I believe that's not a problem.'' Memo to Jim Caldwell: Before you go plastering that on the bulletin board or the grease board or whatever board you have for inflammatory quotes from opponents, understand that Britt was chuckling when he said it. But this game, which looked worse than Detroit-Cleveland a month ago, now is a fascinating matchup.
3. Whether the Cowboys really are frightened of the 12th month of the year. This is somewhere south of ridiculous: The last time the Cowboys had a winning record in December, Tony Romo was a sophomore at Burlington (Wis.) High. Records in the last 12 Decembers: 1-3, 2-2, 2-3, 2-3, 2-3, 2-2, 0-4, 2-3, 1-3, 2-3, 2-2, 0-3. The Giants haven't been very giant lately. Might be a good idea to turn the calendar page, Cowboys. Literally.
4. Chris Redman, season savior. Redman's 4-6 as a starting quarterback in a, shall we say, checkered NFL career as a backup in Baltimore and Atlanta. This is his first start in two years, and all that's in the balance is Atlanta's flagging playoff hopes.
5. The Redskins, with nothing to lose. Remember when the sad-sack Giants hosted the 13-0 Broncos 11 years ago, and Kent Graham played passably and the Broncos kept making one mistake after another, and the Giants eked one out. Not saying that'll happen here. But the Redskins have been justthisclose to winning in Dallas and Philly the last two weeks after beating Denver -- combined score of the last three Washington games: 'Skins 57, Foes 51 -- and those are three teams that might end up in the playoffs. In other words, it might be interesting at FedEx Sunday, if Rock Cartwright can rock the Saints.
6. Cameras on the sidelines, watching for woozy players. All TV directors should tell their camera people to have antennae up for the walking wounded on the sidelines. This is the first week of the new NFL regulations requiring anyone knocked into next week to not return to the game even if he feels fine later in the game. It's not quite the National Head Trauma League yet, but there's no doubt this could be a different era in the NFL, with more players taking the rest of Sunday off if they get dinged.
7. Favre. On Sunday night in Arizona, Favre will try to continue the kind of mistake-free season we never thought we'd see him have. He's trying to become the first player in history to have an 8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. (In fact, Cold, Hard Football Facts had a good stat this week that there's never been a 7-to-1 TD-to-pick ratio in NFL history; the best is Tom Brady's 6.25-to-1 mark in 2007.) Favre's at 8-to-1 now (24-3). No way he can keep it up. Is there?
8. The battle for NFC homefield. Saints 11-0, Minnesota 10-1. Both could run the table. Imagine a 15-1 team on the road for a league title game. Never happened before. Imagine a 16-0 team only marginally favored in the league title game. What a season.
9. The battle for the AFC second seed. Cincy and San Diego should handle Detroit and Cleveland, respectively. That'd leave both teams 9-3. It sets up nicely for a winner-takes-second Dec. 19 showdown, Bengals at Chargers ... with one little asterisk. After that game, San Diego has a short week, then flies cross-country to Nashville for a Friday (Christmas night) game against a team that could be incredibly hot then. Which means the Chargers can't afford to slip on the Cleveland banana peel Sunday.
10. Ben and Hines. They've kissed and made up, I see. But I will be looking very closely Sunday, late afternoon, at the column in the official play-by-play boxscore that shows how many times Ward was targeted by his quarterback against Oakland. If Santonio Holmes and Mike Wallace or Heath Miller have more than Ward (unless Nnamdi Asomugha covers Ward every snap), my eyebrows will be raised.