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NFL should go beyond suspending Harrison

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

The NFL suspended Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison one game for his helmet-to-helmet hit of Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. It's a tough, but not unexpected punishment.

While it should close the book on Harrison's role here, it shouldn't be the end of the issue; the league needs to follow up with another substantial move. The NFL needs to use this situation to rewrite its rules to either start sanctioning teams that send concussed players back on the field, as McCoy's father claims the Browns did, or take the decision out of the teams' hands and place it into that of an independent doctor.

Harrison has a career full of fines for illegal hits (six total the previous two seasons). He needs to stop leading with his helmet, as he did in Pittsburgh's 14-3 victory on Thursday night when he blasted McCoy in the facemask right after the quarterback scrambled and threw a pass.

The NFL is adamant about this. It's changed what is and isn't legal even as many former players turned analysts (not to mention current players) have railed about it.

In the year-plus since commissioner Roger Goodell et al began cracking down, the game, however, hasn't descended into flag football as some doomsday predictions claimed. It looks about the same, just hopefully with less brain damage. That said, Harrison, even with his history of similar actions, is making a split-second decision in the heat of a wild football game. McCoy was out of the pocket, with the option of running down field in a tight game with playoff implications.

Harrison had to answer for the helmet-to-helmet hit, and being forced out of next's Monday’s showdown at San Francisco is a considerable penalty. It doesn't mean the league should absolve itself for the situation, though.

If it's going to drop the hammer on a heat-of-the-action decision such as that, then what to make of the Browns trotting McCoy back onto the field after a hit that just about anyone in real time had to suspect induced a concussion? The Browns reportedly didn't even use the league's standard SCAT2 concussion test (Sport Concussion Assessment Too) on McCoy because the QB didn't complain of having his bell rung. He sat out two plays that the Cleveland Plain Dealer said took 80 seconds of real time.

Then McCoy was sent back in.

[ Related: Browns defend Colt McCoy concussion procedures ]

"If he would have shown symptoms of a concussion, then I wouldn't have put him back in the game, absolutely not," Browns coach Pat Shurmur told reporters. "We go through the strict protocol to evaluate whether there are concussion-like symptoms."

Well, apparently they didn't go through a strict protocol. It's been since determined that McCoy had, in fact, sustained a concussion.

McCoy's father, Brad, told the Plain Dealer on Friday that his son didn't remember anything after the hit and the Browns never should've sent him back into the game.

There are a few obvious holes in the NFL's current system. You can't wait for a player to complain about a possible concussion because McCoy is well aware that he might be taken out of the game and players never want to come out. This was a huge, open-field hit. It was a red flag that produced a yellow flag.

The team can't place the responsibility on the player. And no one should count on a coach to make such an important call in the chaos of an NFL sideline. Shurmur is trying to win a football game and has neither the time nor the training to make the decision on his quarterback. This is a next-man-up kind of sport. That's why each NFL game needs to have an independent medical staff waiting to properly judge these things. They can't work for the team. They shouldn't even work for the NFL – it'd be better if they were regulated by the state or federal government, as is the case with boxing or mixed martial arts doctors.

Anytime someone is flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit, let alone one as ugly and obvious as Harrison's, then that player on the receiving end needs to be tested. The dangers of brain damage, especially stemming from untreated concussions, are too well known for this to be ignored another week.

"Players, coaches and team medical personnel struggle in the heat of the moment," Browns linebacker Scott Fujita wrote in an email to ProFootballTalk. "The game-day sideline is intense. … We can't always count on everyone to make responsible decisions."

Fujita, a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee, thinks the union missed a chance to demand independent medical professionals during the recently certified collective bargaining agreement. The NFL shouldn't drag its feet on this though and point to the CBA.

It's worth remembering the NFL has, of late, shown determination to come to grips with this issue. It has taken relentless criticism for tightening its rules too much. Dealing with the problem is an ongoing process and there's no reason to believe the NFL won't consider it seriously.

This is that obvious next step.

The other option is to punish the Browns as an organization. Yes it's wild on a sideline. Yes the game never stops. Yes players can be deceptive, information inconsistent and at times you just react to what's in front of you.

It's a tough job for team personnel. They need the stakes for sending a player back in too soon (fines, suspensions) to be greater than sending him back in too late (potentially losing a game).

As uncertain as the sideline is, it's still a slower and more controlled environment than James Harrison has to react under.

If the linebacker can get fined and suspended for making the wrong choice on the health of Colt McCoy, then why not the team employees who did McCoy even worse? If the long-term goal of sitting James Harrison to make him (and all other players) think twice on the field, then someone needs to get punished so they start thinking twice on the sideline too.

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