Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle sits in his home in Florida and wears a neck brace. In 12 years in the NFL, he has never seen so many players at one position with a similar injury.
During the past two seasons, starting safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry, starting cornerback Fabian Washington and Rolle, who had been expected to play nickel back, have all had major neck injuries.
Rolle had surgery a couple of weeks ago and is out for the season. The other three players remain on the roster, but the secondary has struggled in 2009, giving up big plays and missing a lot of tackles.
Landry won't attribute being a step too slow or hesitant to the neck injuries, but Rolle and former Ravens starting guard Wally Williams indicate it might be a factor.
It's all part of the game inside the game.
"I've been up and down, did a couple of things wrong in the losing streak," Landry said. "I can't point to anything about the neck. It's all about us staying on the same page, keeping with our assignments. You can't worry about the injury. When you do, you become susceptible to getting hurt again. You block it out. You just go out there and play your game."
Williams calls that kind of bravado "football talk." He used to talk like that about 10 years ago when he was playing guard for the Ravens and then the New Orleans Saints.
In 1998, his final Ravens season, Williams missed the last three games because of a bulging disc. He was diagnosed with ruptured disc in the C-4, C-3 vertebrae in his neck, which caused him to miss extensive playing time with the Saints.
Once Williams learned of his condition, his football career was never the same.
"We're not talking a torn Achilles or a torn ACL, we're talking neck, possible paralysis if you hit that thing wrong again," said Williams, now an NFL analyst for 105.7 FM radio in Baltimore. "When you are told that you might not be able to walk or function again, it changes the dynamic of how you play, how you approach the game, and it changes your strategy."
"The first couple of years I was in the league, I was reckless. I didn't mind going out fighting with Orlando Brown, Jeff Blackshear and Jonathan Ogden every week," said Williams, who retired in 2003. "But once I found out about my condition, I became more of a technician."
Rolle agrees with Williams. Rolle won't evaluate his teammates but says there are certain positions that are more physical than others and that players with neck injuries have to be careful.
During the past two seasons, the Ravens have been careful using Reed. Earlier in his career, Reed would hang around the line of scrimmage and blitz off the corner. Few teams could come across the middle because Reed was one of the most vicious tacklers in the NFL.
Reed can still deliver the big hit, but it has to be at the right time and right angle. Landry was a force against the run in 2007 when he made 91 tackles. He hasn't had that kind of presence since he was carted off the field with a neck/shoulder injury in Game 2 last season. Landry missed the Ravens' final 14 games.
"In the secondary, we're not used to hitting guys on every play," Rolle said. "As cornerbacks, we're not used to hitting 6-4, 235-pound fullbacks. When you hurt your neck, reality sets in. My whole attitude changed. If I knew then what I know now, I would have never went back out there.
"When you're out there, you're trying to avoid getting hit," Rolle said. "The only problem is when that happens, that's when you get hurt."
Landry concedes that it's not easy to come back. He said he struggled first in training camp, but once he got an initial hit, the flow of the game returned easily.
His family is more concerned about him reinjuring the neck than he is, and he said he wanted to return last season but couldn't get approval from team doctors.
According to Landry, there aren't many conversations between him and the other defensive backs about the neck injuries.
"Every once in a while we'll ask each other how the neck is, but I'm a football player," Landry said. "Even last year, I always wanted to be out there. I always wanted to be part of the winning."
Landry is only 27, and, according to Williams, a lot of players his age feel that way. They believe they are invincible and have very little regard for the future.
Rolle and his wife, Danisha, are expecting their fourth child. Williams is coaching his son's recreation football team in Ohio.
"Fans can say whatever they want about Ed Reed and Dawan Landry, why they aren't coming up to blitz," Williams said. "There is no way you can play that type of position of aggressiveness once you have that type of surgery. It's always in the back of your mind, one play, and it's over."
"I know about being the gladiator on the field and how coaches question your toughness," Williams said. "They pay you to be tough, but they don't pay you to be crazy. It all comes down to your quality of life after football, and when you have a neck injury, you think about it when you're playing the game. It's reality."