<
>

What are injured NFL players worth?

It won't make big headlines right away, but the story of Eric Shelton will be one to file away for future reference. You can bet that a few hundred former NFL players and a few thousand attorneys will watch it very closely.

As is the NFL, which might be facing its worst fears if it has to send its lawyers into a courtroom to defend the case of the former Carolina Panthers running back who filed a suit against the league Monday. Shelton's suit claims that the 27-year-old suffered permanent and immediate damage from a helmet-to-helmet hit during an intrasquad scrimmage during training camp with the Washington Redskins in 2008.

Every sane human understood the potential damage caused by helmet-to-helmet hits long ago. There is no mystery to the equation: Fast, large humans running at full speed and colliding with plastic-covered heads can cause severe injury.

But the NFL didn't open itself up to the type of lawsuit Shelton filed until it acknowledged the issue. Once the league accepted it and took steps to change it -- in other words, once it lost the ignorance defense -- its greatest fear became a whole line of Eric Sheltons lining up to claim disability for injuries sustained from hits that the league knows are debilitating.

The minute the posters went up in the locker rooms and the edicts were handed down to the officials, Eric Shelton became inevitable.

The details of Shelton's situation are somewhat esoteric to everyone but him, his lawyers and the NFL, but here goes: He was injured in a helmet-to-helmet hit that left him with temporary numbness from the waist down. The hit ended his career, but Shelton's attorneys will argue that was only the beginning. The suit claims that the injury was incorrectly classified as degenerative rather than catastrophic by the pension plan (run jointly by the league and the NFLPA), causing Shelton to be denied the maximum benefit of nearly $225,000 per year. Instead, because his injury was ruled to have been one that causes impairments six to 12 months after the initial injury, he is currently receiving about $110,000 per year. The lawsuit is intended to rectify that perceived injustice.

Here's where it will get nasty: The league's public response to the suit -- by its lawyers through The New York Times -- cites a job that Shelton held in a Walgreens pharmacy as proof that he can hold down a job. Shelton's lawyers claim that he tried to work but couldn't because he couldn't stand for long periods of time.

You can see where this is headed. It will be incumbent upon the league's attorneys to belittle the education and the postfootball earning potential of many of its players. Shelton's Walgreens experience undoubtedly will become the league's baseline for what he could have done with his life after he was finished with football. To defend the "degenerative" nature of his injuries and keep his disability compensation where it is, the NFL will point to the pharmacy job as proof that Shelton was able to find gainful employment.

Cy Smith, one of Shelton's lawyers, countered that claim by telling the New York Daily News, "Eric Shelton is a proud man, and he'd rather be earning a paycheck than a disability check. He tried to work, and he can't work."

In essence, this suit and any that follow will force the NFL to determine the worth of its former players. That has the potential to take this well beyond the important issue of head injuries.

Given the players' growing distrust for the league, based on the potential labor dispute and what they perceive as selective fines for on- and off-the-field behavior, it's a safe bet that every current and former player will be listening closely to the words the league uses to describe Shelton's value as a human being.

NFC West and playoff inequity

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might want to take a cue from the TCU Horned Frogs when it comes to solving another problem: the disastrous NFC West. ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden is suggesting that Goodell simply discard the league's established rules of engagement and deny the division a playoff spot if none of its teams manages to finish the season at least 8-8. Instead, Goodell should give Green Bay the option of buying its way out of the NFC North to join the NFC West and thereby make the playoffs.

If the season were to end today, the 7-4 Packers wouldn't qualify for the playoffs, but the 5-6 Rams would.

TCU found a way out of its problem by buying its way out of the Mountain West Conference and into the Big East, where Connecticut's spot in a BCS bowl is as ludicrous as an under-.500 team making the NFL playoffs.

No team under .500 has ever made the playoffs. There's a good chance that will change this season, and that under-.500 will earn the right to host a playoff game.

It could be the Rams, or it could be the 49ers. Based on Monday night, how bad would that be? It's not often that a team wins by blowout when its quarterback throws for 129 yards, but the 49ers pulled that one off against the even-more-dreadful Cardinals. It was like 1963 all over again.

The game was never in doubt, and the 49ers were playing with half an offense, which -- it must be stated -- is 50 percent more than they played with in last week's 21-0 shutout loss to the Buccaneers.

How far the Cardinals have fallen. This has nothing to do with record and everything to do with aesthetics. To go from the Kurt Warner-led offense of last season to the travesty we saw Monday night is nothing less than historic.

The Cardinals are getting roasted for their lack of effort, and justifiably so. Derek Anderson blew up after the game when he was asked to explain why he was caught belly-laughing on the bench late in the game. It was kind of hard not to feel sorry for Anderson as he screamed and swore and acted as though sheer volume could make everyone believe that he wasn't laughing on the bench. It was such a pathetic attempt to deflect attention that it quickly became sad.

"You think this is funny?" he screamed at the reporter who asked the question, even though the reporter was the one asking Anderson why he was laughing. Then Anderson pulled the oldest trick in the book: He yelled "I'm done!" and stormed off in a huff. It was a great piece of bad theater, and it beat anything that happened on the field.

So it's widely accepted the Cardinals didn't put forth much of an effort, but what about their coach? Here's what I don't understand: After Troy Smith threw an interception with 1:13 left in the second quarter, the Cardinals ended up with a fourth-and-10 at the San Francisco 42-yard line with 53 seconds left. The Cardinals, who employ Larry Fitzgerald even though they apparently forgot what to do with him, were trailing 21-6. Less than a minute remained in the half, and they were a first down from being in field goal position.

They punted. They simply punted.

Think about it: Even presuming the worst-case scenario -- a sack, an incompletion or even an interception downfield -- the 49ers were not going to try to score. They tried that, and Smith threw an interception. This was a freebie, one of the few times in the NFL when a coach could forget about field position and try to get his team back in the game. You know, give it some momentum going into halftime knowing you'll get the ball first in the second half. Give the sideline reporters something happy to ask as you trot toward the locker room. But Ken Whisenhunt decided to punt.

Hard to believe, but true. And fitting. Maybe Whisenhunt was doing everyone a favor. There's no reason for him to want to watch that offense any more than the rest of us.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

MORE COMMENTARY »