A lot of people have ideas about what’s best for Damian Swann.
Their ideas are rooted in good intentions. The Saints’ second-year cornerback saw his rookie season cut short by three concussions suffered in a span of nine weeks, a streak of injury that has left some wondering if the long-term implications of concussions could force Swann to think about taking off his helmet for good.
Swann gets it.
“A lot of people just want to see me healthy,” Swann said. “A lot of people want to see me do things and be OK beyond football. Everybody has their concerns, everybody has their worries, but at the end of the day, the decision is going to be pretty much my own.”
Swann hasn’t changed his mind about the game yet.
Shortly after a hard collision against Tampa Bay forced the Saints to put Swann on injured reserve with three weeks left in the regular season, he returned home to Georgia and spent a month fully recovering.
During the recovery, Swann talked to “a couple” of doctors and came away satisfied that simply returning to the football field did not automatically guarantee that he would experience the same susceptibility to concussions. Nobody in his family or medical team has told him to give up the game.
But Swann has been asked enough questions about his long-term plans that he knows there was some speculation among media and fans about his future.
“We’ve been playing this game a long time, so just telling a guy to stop is not going to work. If a guy can physically play this game, in order for him not to play this game, they’re going to have to carry him off,” Swann said. “And then it’s a lot of outsiders looking in. A lot of people don’t understand why people do this. This game takes care of a lot of people, so sometimes you’ve got to make those sacrifices to take care of the ones you love.”
Swann’s concussion issues came out of nowhere. Up until his head struck the ground in a game against Philadelphia in October, he’d never had a concussion at any level of football.
New Orleans followed the NFL’s concussion protocols in bringing Swann back with each injury; Swann’s symptoms were always gone within five days to a week after the injury, but per NFL protocols, he missed two weeks before his first return, then a full month before he got back on the field against Tampa Bay.
At one point, the Saints held Swann out of a game after he’d passed the final stages of the concussion protocol because of precautionary concerns about possible symptoms.
Swann now wears a Riddle Speed Flex helmet, a model designed to better protect players from head injuries, and the Saints were cautious with him during summer workouts even though his symptoms haven’t been present since January.
“I know he’s confident. It’s a great question because, in the back of your mind, it’s something he cannot control,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “In the meantime, every step we can take and look at: strengthening his neck, making sure the headwear he’s wearing is the newest and best. But he’s doing well.”
Because of the limited amount of contact in summer practices, Swann will get his first real chance to prove he’s fully recovered when the Saints start practicing in full pads in training camp, but he has no plans to change his style of play.
Swann’s concussions all happened in freak fashion; the first two were inflicted by his head hitting the ground, the third came when a knee struck his helmet in a freak collision in the red zone.
But that doesn’t mean he’s completely in the clear. According to the Sports Concussion Institute, research indicates that a player who has had multiple concussions is more likely to suffer another, but Swann believes it’s a matter of getting past a freakish period in his career.
“I’m not any more prone to concussions more than any other guy on this team,” Swann said. “I think my luck has been a little bit worse than everybody else’s, but I’m here. This is what I want to do. This is what I’m going to continue to try to do. So I think eventually, in some kind of way, last year will be behind me, and everything else will sort of fall into place.”
If Swann is healthy, he’s a promising player for the Saints’ secondary.
A capable cornerback who was given some snaps outside in place of Brandon Browner during his first return to the field, Swann is versatile enough to shift back into a safety role, and his skill set is perfect for covering in the slot.
A great nickel has to be able to hold up in man and deal with a lot of traffic from crossing receivers, concepts where multiple receivers flood the same zones, and a wide variety of option routes.
Swann, who made 22 tackles and broke up four passes in 230 snaps as a rookie, has shown a sixth sense about what teams are trying to do to him.
“Damian is probably one of the smartest guys that we have, not just in the secondary but on the defense,” cornerbacks coach Aaron Glenn said. “A lot of that stuff you can’t teach. It’s just something he has. ... And that’s why he does such a good job inside. A lot of guys can’t play there because a lot of things are moving. But his instincts, and he has a calm presence about him, he’s able to sort things out and make plays.”
Swann’s skills make him a prime candidate for what he wants to do when his career ends: He wants to coach.
For the moment, though, he hopes those days are still far in the future, although he understands that another rash of concussions might change his plans.
“One or two more, and you’d be looking to shut it down,” Swann said. “That’s anybody.”
That day hasn’t arrived yet. Until it does, Swann plans to keep chasing his dream.