Last offseason, the NFL world was rocked when a slew of players decided to retire early rather than continue on with their careers. That pattern is continuing this year.
After two months of rumors, Detroit Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson officially retired on Tuesday before the new league year began. Johnson said he was "at peace with" his decision to retire at age 30 following a prolific career.
Last month, running back Marshawn Lynch announced his retirement during the Super Bowl and linebacker Jerod Mayo posted on Instagram about his decision to hang it up as well. Though their retirements aren't completely analogous to Chris Borland, the former San Francisco 49ers linebacker who walked away last spring after his rookie season, their decisions serve as a reminder that an increasing number of football players are now opting to quit a couple of years too early rather than a couple of years too late.
There's little doubt Lynch would've had multiple suitors in free agency. Even though he missed nine games this season due to injury, the 29-year-old running back is just one year removed from a 1,300-yard campaign. Lynch's days as an All-Pro were probably behind him, but he almost certainly could've stretched out his career a couple of more seasons. He just didn't want to.
Mayo, who turned 30 on Feb. 23, likely would've had to fight his way onto a roster, considering he's ended each of the last three seasons on injured reserve. But the two-time Pro Bowler was a bruising force at middle linebacker in his prime, recording a career-high 114 tackles in 2010. If Mayo wanted to go through the rigors of another training camp, the opportunity probably would've been there for him.
But like Lynch, Mayo decided to walk away on his own terms. Johnson, who was owed nearly $16 million, dealt with nagging injuries but was still just a few years removed from totaling an NFL-record 1,964 receiving yards in a single season. Despite showing up frequently on the injury report, Johnson played in all 16 games in 2015 and led the Lions with 1,214 yards and nine touchdown receptions.
It's been 14 years since forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu posthumously diagnosed Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain condition known as CTE. More than a decade later, the evidence that links playing football to brain damage is indisputable. Boston University researchers have now discovered CTE in 90 out of 94 brains that deceased former players have donated to the school's CTE center.
Almost every decision in life comes to down to a risk/reward proposition. And for some NFL stars, the option of continuing their careers just doesn't seem to be worth it.
"I mean, if it could potentially kill you -- I know that's a drastic way to put it, but it is a possibility -- that really puts it in perspective to me," Borland said to ESPN's Outside the Lines last year. "To me, it just wasn't what I wanted to do."
That's not to say the dangers of CTE and head trauma are the driving force behind every player who chooses to retire early. Former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, for example, said last year his balky feet were the reason he decided to leave the game at 30.
Players give their all to NFL teams, often surrendering their bodies for the chance to obtain fleeting superstardom. But the league doesn't always give back. Last April, a federal judge approved a final settlement between the NFL and more than 20,000 ex-players who say the league masked the dangers of concussions and other injuries to them. The NFL will pay out at least $1 billion over the next 65 years, but CTE, which is mentioned 14 times in the case, isn't covered in the agreement. NFL lawyers say the science is too inconclusive to include it.
Dr. Robert Stern, the director of clinical research for BU's CTE center, wrote a 61-page declaration opposing the settlement two years ago, saying it will deny compensation to some of the most disabled players.
Perhaps Johnson, Lynch and Mayo's best days are past them, meaning their top earning years are behind them as well. It takes an ungodly amount of preparation to play in the NFL into your 30s, and often for diminishing paychecks.
Much like Borland, Willis, Jake Locker, Justin Smith and Jason Worilds, they decided it wasn't worth it to keep playing.
If something happens often enough, it becomes a pattern. With star players deciding to walk away early for the second consecutive year, the NFL is close to seeing this trend become the new normal.
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