While the NFL's concussion protocol is supposed to be set in stone, it doesn't always appear to be so on gameday. This was never more apparent than in the Houston Texans' 13-6 win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night. With 2:56 left in the first half, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw a pass to receiver Devin Hester just across the 50-yard line, which got him penalized for an illegal forward pass. To add injury to insult, Cutler was absolutely hammered by Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins with a helmet-to-helmet hit after he released the ball. Dobbins was penalized as well, and the fouls offset, but the drama had just begun.
Though the hit was clearly to Cutler's head, the Bears left him in the game until the half, when he was replaced by Jason Campbell. After the game, Bears head coach Lovie Smith tried to explain the team's thought process.
"We had a break since the play was being challenged. Our trainers talked to him then. When I say concussion protocol, that's a part of it. It's not like he showed symptoms but we had a break in between. Our trainers talked to him, evaluated him, he was fine from there. Players in the huddle didn't see anything wrong with him, at the time ... we just continued to talk to him all the way out, even through to halftime.
"When I say normal protocol for a concussion, that's what I'm talking about. We're constantly talking with him. If you look at his play, it's not like he was light on his feet or starry eyed, anything like that. We felt he was in control of everything, just like the rest of our players, at the time."
There was a great hue and cry at the time, because players who are believed to be experiencing "concussion-like symptoms" (to use the NFL's favorite term) are supposed to undergo some sort of evaluation beyond the one given by team trainers.
"We have arranged for a certified athletic trainer to be at each game to monitor play of both teams and provide medical staffs with any relevant information that may assist them in determining the most appropriate evaluation and treatment," the NFL said in a memo delivered to all 32 NFL teams last December. "This athletic trainer will be stationed in a booth upstairs with access to video replay and direct communication to the medical staffs of both teams. In most cases, the athletic trainer will be affiliated with a major college program in the area or will have previously been affiliated with an NFL club."
However, the certified trainer not under team employ has no specific authority to insist that a player be removed from a game -- that's still the team's call. After reviewing the Bears' process, league spokesman Greg Aiello said that the NFL had no issue with Smith or his staff.
"Our office reviewed it with the [Bears] medical staff, and it was properly handled," Aiello said. "The team followed the correct protocol."
But if Cutler was concussed on that play -- and it certainly appeared as if he was -- why the delay? That's what NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith would like to know, not only with Cutler's injury, but with the concussions suffered on Sunday by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports that DeMaurice Smith will once again call for independent concussion specialists to man the sidelines and be in charge of the in-game protocol. The idea is not to castigate a certain team or medical staff, but to make sure that the protocol is uniform around the league on a no-matter-what basis.
"NFLPA sources said the union wants the league to accept responsibility for creating a disciplined, prompt and safe environment for players who are injured during the course of a game," Mortensen wrote on Wednesday. "They said the union wants concussion specialists, paid not by the teams but by the league, to assume the duties of caring for players, in accordance with normal employer workplace oversight."
The NFL's increased awareness of its own on-field protocol happened after Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was allowed to return to play despite an obvious concussion following a hit by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison in a 14-3 Cleveland loss. The Browns tried to engage in doublespeak when queried about McCoy's status, but were eventually forced to admit that the debacle was "total system failure."
Nearly a year after that total system failure, concussed quarterbacks are still allowed to play in games after team trainers deem their guys OK to get back in there. At least, that's what it seems, and if that's the case, the NFL needs to work with Smith and the NFLPA to tighten up the protocol as soon as humanly possible.
This is not an issue to table until the owners meetings, or whenever people feel like it. This is an issue that needs to be corrected right now. We're not just talking about player safety -- we're talking about human beings who will go on long after football is over for them.