NFL fails concussion test in way it handled Cam Newton

DENVER – The fourth time a Denver Broncos defender slammed his helmet into Cam Newton’s head, the Carolina Panthers quarterback wound up sprawled face down on the turf here. He remained that way, motionless, for a couple of seconds before rising to his hands and knees and eventually back to his feet.

This one finally earned a flag (Darian Stewart, roughing the passer), although it was negated by Newton’s own intentional grounding violation, an inglorious quirk to the rules.

Cam Newton took four head shots in Thursday's loss to Denver, the last one the most damaging. (AP)
Cam Newton took four head shots in Thursday’s loss to Denver, the last one the most damaging. (AP)

As the refs sorted things out, Newton never spoke to an athletic trainer or doctor, let alone put through even a rudimentary concussion protocol. Newton, as you’d expect, wasn’t going to pull himself. No one on the Carolina sideline bothered to look into the situation. Neither did the refs or even the so-called “independent certified athletic trainers” who sit in boxes above to catch such things, either live or on video replay. The NFL has empowered them to declare a “medical timeout.”

Cam Newton just stayed in there, running four more snaps in a furious attempted game-winning drive. It proved futile as Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal and Denver won the season-opening Super Bowl rematch 21-20.

This was a heck of a football game, and part of it was because of the at-times uncomfortable character of the sport – the violence, the viciousness. Denver’s defense went hard at Newton who went hard back at them. There were rough plays everywhere, from both teams. This was football.

“A very physical game,” Newton himself said.

No one wants to see a sport lose part of its base appeal, but what was clear, particularly on that final hit, is Newton was failed by a system that should have forced him out of the game and put his well being above a final-minute drive or a satisfying revenge victory or massive TV ratings.

It’ll be great if he avoided a concussion, but that isn’t the issue. The hit to Newton’s head, and the ensuing laying out of a 6-foot-5, 245-pounder should’ve been enough for someone to at least check on him. There was enough smoke there to look for a fire.

Newton’s postgame news conference was delayed while he was “getting some treatment.” The league MVP acknowledged he was asked a couple questions in what appears to have been some kind of concussion test, although he couldn’t recall what was asked or who did the asking.

“I don’t remember,” Newton said. “Too much going through my head right now.”

As for all the hits that didn’t draw a flag, Newton just shrugged.

“It’s not my job to question the officials,” Newton said. “I really like that officiating crew, so I know it wasn’t something they did intentionally, but it isn’t fun getting hit in the head.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

No, it isn’t. It also isn’t fun being the ref who pulls a star player out of a critical moment of the game. Or the athletic trainer or doctor on the sideline who steps up and possibly costs their team the game. Sometimes the hits aren’t obvious in real time from the sideline. That’s why, in 2011, the NFL began having independent athletic trainers sit above and look for dangerous plays. They can stop the game. Yet the criteria is strict, too strict perhaps. They need “clear visual evidence” of “a player who displays obvious signs of disorientation or is clearly unstable,” according to the league’s game operations manual.

Did that apply to Newton? Should that really be the standard? It’s a two-way street. If defenders think any helmet-to-helmet crack will get a player pulled for a check-up, then it might actually incentivize such hits. Fines and suspensions would have to be increased. That said, Newton is very good at looking fine when he most certainly isn’t.

“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with,” center Ryan Kalil said. “Whether he was hurting or not, I couldn’t tell.”

“He was fine,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Fortunately, he’s a tough guy.”

Was he fine? If the other players can’t tell, then how would an athletic trainer all the way up in the press box? That’s what doctors are for, because being tough is one thing, but it won’t do anything to protect against a brain injury.

This is the unfortunate reality of the NFL these days. The league has taken significant steps to protect the players from their own hyper-competitive selves. There is still a ways to go.

Newton should have been pulled from Thursday’s game. The refs should have been on top of the earlier head shots and set a tone of zero tolerance. They need to be as on-guard for attacks on Newton as they would a smaller player. “We’ve got to treat Cam like a quarterback,” Olsen said. “I know he’s the biggest guy on the field, but he’s still a quarterback.”

On the final hit, the one that finally felled the mighty Cam Newton, the one that didn’t even get him any yards, he should have been checked, talked to, evaluated, something. That’s the test, not so much for concussions, but for the league’s commitment to it – in the worst and most unpleasant moment possible for an MVP to get yanked to the sideline.

“I feel [expletive],” Newton said. “I just don’t like to lose.”

Here’s hoping that when he awakes on Friday morning, losing a game is all that is making him feel bad. Even if he is that fortunate, though, the system designed to protect him and improve the great sport of football, failed.