On November 1st, 2015, Seattle Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette suffered a career-ending injury in Dallas. A big hit from Cowboys safety Jeff Heath led to severe neck damage.
Yesterday, Lockette wrote a fabulous piece in The Players' Tribune about the injury and his subsequent retirement. Every football fan should take a moment to read it, because it gives the game we love some oft-needed perspective.
We should never lose sight of the tremendous risk that these players take on for our entertainment.
Yes, they are well-paid for that risk. But as Lockette put it so well in his article, it's all "temporary." Especially in the NFL where contracts aren't fully guaranteed, the timing of an injury can be just as financially devastating as the physical damage.
Players can be left in tremendous debt, having taken on luxuries and expenses that they thought would be covered by many more years of football income. They may have spent their first windfall rewarding family and friends for years of support, leaving little for their own future security. It's a common mistake, hence why the term "broke athlete" has been covered in several documentaries and other media.
The lifetime of physical problems that comes from football can't be forgotten, either. Even those who avoid major injury face early onsets of everything from severe arthritis to ruinous dementia. Imagine turning 40 but having the body of a 60-year-old. That's the price for many of these athletes.
Obviously, I don't know anything about the future of Lockette's finances or personal health. All I know is that he's paying a far heavier toll for being a football player than any guy ever should.
Cowboy or not, we should never stop appreciating these players. All the money doesn't exist without us, the consumer, and our ongoing desire to watch and follow the NFL. Ultimately we have the power in the relationship; all professional sports would die without the buying and viewing support of the spectators.
It's easy to get jaded about players' motivations. Just always remember that they wouldn't have a choice without you.
The word "violence" comes up in football a lot. Some detractors use it as a form of moral judgment; an activity that spits in the face of human decency.
I've never felt that way about the game. Yes, it's violent, but I see it in the way that a windstorm or other natural force is violent. For all its destructive potential, the windstorm isn't looking to hurt anyone. It simply is, and you can either risk getting close or do your best to avoid it.
Granted, there are plenty of violent men in the NFL. Without even getting into some well known off-field issues, the sport itself gives violent individuals an outlet for those feelings. There's no question that notorious villains like Bill Romanowski or Ndamukong Suh have their issues.
Cowboys safety Jeff Heath isn't one of those guys. Heath wasn't looking to hurt anybody that day against the Seahawks. He was just playing football.
Sadly, Ricardo Lockette got caught in the windstorm.
The modern climate of concussions and CTE concerns has already changed the way many look at football. Drops in Pee Wee and public school participation have been reported. Even some current and retired NFL players have said they won't allow their own children to play.
I have no doubt, at least in my lifetime, that football will still exist. There will always be more than enough players willing to take risk. More importantly, there will always be a ready and willing audience.
My hope is that, no matter how insatiably we hunger for games to watch and fantasy stats to track, we as fans never lose sight of the risks the players take. I don't see it as a moral dilemma, but it is a situation that demands our respect and consideration.
I will never forget that October game in 1999 in Philadelphia, when Cowboys legend Michael Irvin went down with a neck injury and never returned. The Eagles fans, who are often the height of classlessness, cheered his injury even when it was clearly serious. To this day it remains the most disgusted I've ever been watching football.
That is when the moral judgment can come into play. That's when the violence becomes something more sinister; our reaction to and delight in it. Again, we as the audience dictate the terms of the relationship.
I'm not trying to soapbox you here. But reading Ricardo Lockette's piece made me think about my own relationship with football. It was a good check for how I think and feel about the players I watch, and especially those on the 31 other teams outside of Dallas.
As the 2016 season draws near, it's a welcome reminder. We hear this often when it comes to players but we as fans need to be under the same obligation.
Respect the game.
2018 Draft Class Season Review: LB Leighton Vander Esch
As the first round draft pick of America's Team, any player would be under a ton of pressure from all angles. Whether it's from the fans on the outside or the organization on the inside, the expectations around being a first round pick for the Cowboys are immense. But the pressure placed upon linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, from the second he was announced as the 19th overall draft pick, was second to none.
It felt like Cowboys Nation let out a collective groan when Vander Esch was taken, with fans hoping for a more glamorous first round selection. Someone like wide receiver Calvin Ridley or edge rusher Harold Landry would've done the trick, but after Vander Esch's rookie season it's hard to imagine either of those players would have had the impact Vander Esch did in 2018.
Though he didn't start a game until week 4, and didn't become the unquestioned full-time starting WILL until week 10, Vander Esch earned Pro Bowl honors for his rookie season. Tallying 140 total tackles and 2 interceptions, Vander Esch made his presence felt week in and week out.
No counting stats can fully measure Leighton Vander Esch's impact as a rookie, however.
Prior to the 2018 season, the Cowboys defensive success often came down to the health of Sean Lee. When available and playing at his best, Lee led an overachieving Cowboys defense to solid performances each week. But, when Lee went out (as he often did), the entire Cowboys defense seemed to fall apart.
This year, though, that all changed. When Sean Lee was out with injury the Cowboys defense got better. Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith became a versatile, hard hitting tandem the NFL immediately feared, and helped to direct the Cowboys defense to signature wins throughout the 2018 season.
There are arguments against taking any off-ball linebacker in the first round, as the value of the position has been questioned due to the new style of offense in the NFL. Nowadays linebackers are relegated to two-down players, taken off the field in favor of faster defensive backs on critical passing downs.
Leighton Vander Esch is athletic enough to be both an old school run stopper, but also a three down linebacker in today's fast paced NFL.
Despite the doubts which surrounded the pick, the Cowboys absolutely nailed their first round selection in 2018. And Leighton Vander Esch made Dallas' front office look like geniuses each and every Sunday.
What Is The Cowboys Most Pressing Offseason Need?
Finishing their season with a Division Round loss, Dallas Cowboys fans are getting a somewhat late start on the 2019 offseason. Of course, we'd much rather a later start, but the results are what they are.
Now Dallas must get better, and re-tool before heading into Dak Prescott's fourth season, and the Cowboys' 2019 campaign. Though they didn't feel all that close to a championship this season, looking around the roster, it's actually tough to identify one key need the Cowboys must address.
They are filled with young, talented players that they have high hopes for across the board. And in the places they are "older," such as across the offensive line, they have established veterans who aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
So what is the Cowboys' most pressing offseason need?
Well, despite already using their 2019 first round pick to address it, the answer very well might be wide receiver.
Adding Amari Cooper midseason provided a massive jolt to the Cowboys previously anemic passing attack, but on his own he is not enough to take this passing game to where it needs to be to compete in this new NFL.
Third round pick Michael Gallup is going to be a very good pro, and progressed really well as his rookie season went on. I think he can play opposite Amari Cooper nicely, and be the number two option in the passing game going forward.
Though arguably their best wide out against man coverage, Cole Beasley is a free agent, and if the reports are true about Scott Linehan returning in 2019 it could very well mean Beasley will not be opting to sign back with Dallas.
Regardless of Beasley's decision, however, the Cowboys need to seriously evaluate their pass catchers heading into next season.
This is a passing league. The rules have dictated that you must be able to pass the ball efficiently if you want to compete with the best of the best around the NFL. To take the next step in their progression, and reach an NFC title game and/or Super Bowl, Dak Prescott will need to have as explosive a group of pass catchers as possible.
The Cowboys have already taken solid steps to making this a reality, but another move or two this offseason could go a long way to putting Dallas in the conversation with teams like the Rams and the Saints in 2019.
3 Things We Learned About The Dallas Cowboys In 2018
Coming into the 2018 season, loads of questions surrounded the Dallas Cowboys and the future of their roster.
Could their defense stay intact when the annual Sean Lee injury occurred? Was Kris Richard going to lead the Cowboys young secondary to places we thought they could be? And would Dak Prescott earn a contact extension and become the official franchise quarterback of America's Team.
Of course, there are tons of other questions that may have gone unanswered, but these three critical areas seem to find clarity in 2018.
Leighton Vander Esch And Jaylon Smith Are Legit
The Dallas Cowboys caught a lot of flack for their selection both of these linebackers, each for different reasons.
When they snagged Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft, it was still unknown to the public if Smith could ever even play football again. When they took Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall last April, fans questioned how valuable an off-ball linebacker would be on a defense that already had Sean Lee.
Well, after their first full season together, it's easy to say that both Vander Esch and Smith are the linebacker options of the future in Dallas. Named to the Pro Bowl during his rookie season, Vander Esch took the world by storm in 2018. When Lee went down, he was there to not only fill his shoes, but to outplay the veteran all year long.
What is fun to consider is that as good as Vander Esch was this season, Jaylon Smith might be even better. Both posses insane sideline to sideline pursuit ability, and are some of the surest tacklers in all of football.
Watching these two grow together will be a pleasure over the coming seasons.
Their Young Secondary Is Coming Together
Like their linebackers, the Dallas Cowboys secondary is a young group, who fans are excited to watch grow throughout the years. It seemed like more pressure sat on the shoulders of young cornerbacks Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie than of Smith and Vander Esch, however.
With Kris Richard joining the staff and making the decision to move Jones to cornerback full time, it was do-or-die for the former first round pick. Byron Jones answered all the doubters, earning not only a Pro Bowl selection but also First Team All Pro honors for his performance.
Opposite him, Awuzie had a rough start to his sophomore campaign. While typically right there in coverage, wide outs too often made contested catches over him. Over the final few weeks of the year, however, that changed and Awuzie played some of the best football yet.
Xavier Woods, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis (in much fewer snaps) all had fantastic seasons as well, giving the Cowboys great hope and confidence in their secondary moving forward. They may need to add another safety during the offseason, however, though Jeff Heath remains more than just a viable option.
Dak Prescott Is Here To Stay
Whether or not you think it's justified, Dak Prescott is the quarterback of the future in Dallas. And he earned that right the back-half of 2018 and during the postseason. After a shaky start to his 3rd season, Prescott turned things around nicely, leading the Cowboys to a 7-1 finish to the regular season.
Prescott played the best football of his young career down the stretch, and showed just how valuable he is both on the field and in the locker room. It seemed like every game he made 2-3 winning plays that put the Cowboys over the top that afternoon.
Dak is going to get a contract extension, and will be locked in as a Cowboy for the foreseeable future, and with the way he played the final 10 games of his season, I can't second guess this decision much at all.
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