While Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison has been suspended for one game for his helmet-to-facemask hit on Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy last Sunday, the way the Browns handled McCoy's concussion symptoms and testing is the narrative that won't seem to stop. After ESPN's initial report indicated that McCoy's return to the field two plays after that hit indicated a "total system failure" on the part of the Browns' coaching and medical staff, Browns head coach Pat Shurmur tried to put the fire out in his Monday press conference.
"We followed all the proper medical procedures," Shurmur said about the decision to put McCoy back in the game, and whether he was given any concussion tests on the sideline. "I don't know what got reported other than what you're telling me now, but we followed all the proper medical procedures and that's where it's at … "There's a process that you go through when he has concussion-like symptoms. The specifics of that are probably better asked to our medical people."
The Browns' "medical people" have not yet spoken about what they tested McCoy for on the sideline, but team president Mike Holmgren went before the media on Wednesday morning to try and further explain just what happened in a situation where what appeared to be a clearly concussed player went back in the game. Where was the straight answer? Was McCoy tested, or was he not?
Holmgren started on the defensive. "Our medical staff and our training staff, they are the best in football," he said. "These guys are really good. So one of the things that is troubling to me in this whole process is that they're getting slammed a bit, along with the head coach. . . . And it's unfair."
Holmgren then explained, from his perspective, exactly what happened. And the longer the explanation went, the deeper the hole. First, Holmgren admitted that the team's trainers — the ones responsible for deciding whether McCoy should go back in the game or not — didn't actually see the play in which McCoy was concussed.
"When the injury took place on the field, at that time the question came up, did the doctors see the impact on the play? They did not. And our trainers did not. They were all working, as is typical in a game. They were working on other injured players in the bench area or behind players. So they did not see the play. They heard the crowd reaction, and someone said, 'Colt's down.'"
Between admonishments to the media that "this is not business as usual with the Cleveland Browns," Holmgren admitted that McCoy was not given the standard SCAT concussion test on the sideline. "Why wasn't a SCAT test administered at that time? Their reaction to the way Colt was reacting did not dictate that. They did not see the play … If you see the hit, you'd say, 'Goodness gracious.' But they didn't see the hit."
And that's the problem. If you see the hit — or if anyone saw the hit and knew enough to relay the information to the training staff that this might be more than your average tackle, it's clear from what Holmgren said that the training staff may have acted differently. As Holmgren himself put it, "You people in the press box have the luxury of seeing the replay."
So … just to get this straight ... your quarterback's laying on the ground after getting poleaxed, looking concussed enough to get at least one former NFL quarterback (Kurt Warner) to wonder what he was doing in the game based on what he saw on TV. And nobody saw enough to act on the potential for injury?
"That came up in the meeting yesterday," Holmgren said of the Browns' meeting with the NFL to determine if and when things fell apart. "It seems inconceivable but nobody alerted anyone. So how do we do this so that the doctors get the information they need? The best thing we could come up with is putting in a process to have somebody say something."
Well, that would be a good start. The Players' Association has become involved, as well. "The NFLPA met with officials from the Browns yesterday and we collected information related to the treatment of Colt McCoy," said DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA's Executive Director, said on Wednesday. "We will review the findings with our team and take into consideration the public comments made by the Browns today."
When asked whether Shurmur did the right thing in allowing McCoy back in the game, Holmgren was absolute. "I'm not going to second-guess Pat. Pat's in the front lines. He's got to make the decision. [As a coach], if I feel the quarterback's good to go, then he's back in the game. That's his call."
That's another point, and another place in which the goalposts seem to move in this story. Holmgren was a longtime coach, and a very successful one. He took the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks to Super Bowls, and he's certainly had to deal with concussions as in-game concerns. But as team president, it's more about moderating the message, it would seem. And Shurmur, as a first-year head coach, may have had no clue how to deal with this particular situation, and what the protocol should have been.
"We're trying to be better, far as transparency and dealing with [the media] ... Sometimes, unlike years past, when you needed two sources, stuff comes out immediately. In our rush to judgment on things, I would ask you to believe me a little bit and trust me on how we're doing things around here. I'm not going to lie to you. We will try to get you the proper message at the appropriate time."
And we'll say this for Mike Holmgren — he was forthright enough to tell us, three days after the fact, that his quarterback was not officially tested for a concussion in a situation where the potential for head injury was obvious.
Whether the NFL will impose any discipline on the Browns is another matter. You'd think that the player safety arm of the league would want to do something about that. It could be argued that by putting McCoy back in the game with a sketchy (at best) testing system, the team actually did as much to put him harm's way as James Harrison did.
"I don't expect anything to happen in a punitive way," he said What could we have done differently? They followed protocol. We did what we had to do."
There is no good way out of that statement. Either the Browns were following the rules; in which case the protocol needs to change immediately. Or they ran afoul of a policy so nebulous, nobody seems to understand just how problematic violations can be. The next step, if there is one, is for the NFL to make it very clear just what that protocol is, and how teams are supposed to deal with these situations.
Oh, and make it clear to the media what the protocol is, as well. That would be appreciated. I've asked half a dozen people in the league, and I still don't have a straight answer.