December 8, 2013 Updated: December 9, 2013 at 5:29 am
DENVER - During the second half of yet another Denver Broncos demolition, I felt pity for the Tennessee Titans secondary. Yes, that's right.
Under current NFL rules, the Titans faced an impossible task. They were asked to defend Peyton Manning under modern restrictions that favor offense over defense.
They failed, of course.
Cornerback Alterraun Verner shook his head in a quiet Titans locker room.
"It's tough on defensive backs," he said. "It seems like after 5 yards we're basically helpless and you just hope the quarterback makes a bad throw or something."
On a mind-numbingly cold Sunday afternoon, Verner's hopes failed to come true. He watched Manning complete 39 of 59 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns.
Verner and his Titans comrades are prohibited from physically hassling receivers beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. Verner grew up watching the 49ers Ronnie Lott, who hassled here, there and everywhere.
"Watched him wreak havoc," Verner said of his football hero. "He could hit whenever, where-ever, but now you have to be careful where you're hitting."
Verner glanced a few feet away at strong safety Bernard Pollard, who suffered through an eventful afternoon. He earned two personal fouls and stumbled into a confrontation with a Denver trainer and several Broncos.
Praying over the fallen frame of Wes Welker.
I'm serious. In the final minute of the first half, Welker ventured across the middle to catch a short pass. Welker's has long shown immense courage on these routes into the NFL's danger zone.
But his courage carries a hefty price tag.
The Titans George Wilson wasted Welker with a hit to the head. As Welker reclined on the field, victim of yet another concussion, Pollard kneeled beside him and prayed.
"I was just asking God to heal him," Pollard said. He was sincere in this request. Pollard packs a well-worn, light-brown leather Bible in the black suitcase he carries to games.
But God is not the only higher power on Pollard's mind. After the game, he talked with emotion about the NFL's restrictions.
"When you see certain things happen in a game . the higher power wants to play like that," Pollard said.
The higher power? What exactly are you talking about, Bernard?
"I mean, it's just out of our hands, out of our control," he said. "That's how they want it, the higher power. That's what we call it, the higher power."
Pollard was talking about a league seeking to remove violence from a sport primarily about violence. When Pollard came close to breaking Eric Decker into multiple pieces, there was no doubt the hit would have inspired criminal charges in the real world.
But this was a legal football hit, even if it inspired a mystery flag.
Wilson, the safety who left Welker's mind in a jumbled haze, talked softly in front of his locker. He understands the NFL's emphasis on player safety. He also understands the difficulty legally hitting "a moving target."
"It's tough," he said. "It's tough."
It also was tough for Wilson to realize what he had done to Welker. You might scoff at his regrets, but I believe him. Wilson is similar to virtually every NFL defensive back. He wants to terrify, and he wants to continue to earn his massive paycheck.
He does not want to injure.
"The way he laid there, I knew there was something wrong with him, with his head," Wilson said, lowering his volume even more. "He didn't move around a whole lot.
"You don't want to see one of your brothers in your fraternity go down, regardless of whether you're competing with him or not. . You hate to see somebody go down like that."
The oppressive rules. The worries about injuring yourself and/or others. The quarterbacks with those magic arms. When looking for the worst job in professional sports, start with defensive back in the NFL.
You might as well end your search there, too.