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Colt McCoy’s quick return leaves unanswered questions about NFL’s concussion policies

There's been a lot of talk about the hit put on Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy in Thursday night's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. When linebacker James Harrison led with his helmet into McCoy's facemask in the fourth quarter of that 14-3 game, McCoy left the game for just two plays before returning to action.

Hidden in that narrative was what happened to McCoy when he came back in the game — it was clear that the kid got his bell rung pretty good, and that's where the story becomes confusing.

After the game, McCoy told reporters that he couldn't remember the hit, but Browns coach Pat Shurmur said that McCoy was "fine to go back in." After the game, the media was asked to turn the lights off in their cameras. Why? Well, sensitivity to light is one of the most obvious concussion symptoms.

[Related: James Harrison flagged for vicious hit on Colt McCoy]

McCoy's father Brad, a longtime high-school coach, said on Friday that his son remembered virtually nothing of the game after the fact. "I talked to Colt this morning and he said, 'Dad, I don't know what happened, but I know I lost the game. I know I let the team down. What happened?'

"He never should've gone back in the game," the elder McCoy continued. "He was basically out [cold] after the hit. You could tell by the ridigity of his body as he was laying there. There were a lot of easy symptoms that should've told them he had a concussion. He was nauseated and he didn't know who he was. From what I could see, they didn't test him for a concussion on the sidelines. They looked at his [left] hand.''

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The question here is obvious: When was Colt McCoy deemed "okay" to go back in the game? During some sort of concussion test that takes less than it takes an offense to run two plays? The protocol for in-week concussion testing is generally so stringent and time-consuming that players who are suspected to have suffered one on a Sunday game generally won't be medically cleared in time if they have a Thursday game that week. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll found that out a couple weeks back, saying early in the week before his team's Thursday win over the Philadelphia Eagles that the suspected concussion suffered by receiver Sidney Rice in the previous Sunday's loss to the Washington Redskins would put him out for the next contest.

"Well, it doesn't give him much of a chance [to return],' Carroll said of Rice in late November. "There's no recovery time here. You need to get all the way to Thursday on the testing cycle of it to have a chance, so he doesn't really have a chance to get through all of that. He won't practice today. He won't do anything today. This format basically rules him out."

In the end, the Seahawks placed Rice on injured reserve, but the more specific point was clear — concussion testing is supposed to be more than "How many fingers am I holding up?" and if you believe the NFL's supposed emphasis based on recent events, the Browns could be in some trouble here.

[Related: Ben Roethlisberger's amazing comeback: 'I thought my leg was broken']

When San Diego Chargers guard Kris Dielman suffered a very obvious concussion on the field on October 23 against the New York Jets, he was able to wave off the officials and keep playing. Bad move, as Dielman later suffered a seizure on the plane home from New York.

"I've looked at the play at least a hundred times," said Dr. Thomas Meyer, the NFLPA's medical director of the Dielman indicent, "and not only does the broadcast footage provide a clear visual record, you can hear the collision loud and clear on the audio. It really was an unfortunate event, but this is a process and an opportunity to further strengthen our protocol. There are a lot of lessons to be learned here."

"You can see on the video when Dielman wobbles backwards that the umpire [Tony Michalek] is concerned and the referee [Ron Winter] notices something, too. Dielman waved off the umpire. I know he's one tough dude, but this is what we're trying to avoid. We can educate the officials to treat this like a significant injury, stop time and call for medical attention. When Dielman continued to play in the game, he was subject to further collisions by the nature of the sport and his position."

After that, the NFL put two questionable rules into effect: First, game officials were told to be more aware of possible in-game concussions, and to do as Dr. Meyer instructed if a player was obviously affected. "Our game officials will receive concussion-awareness training and will remain alert to possible concussions during games," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said when the policy was implemented 10 days after the Dielman incident. "If an official believes a player may have suffered a concussion, he should take appropriate steps to alert the team and get medical attention for the player."

Then, in late November, it was announced that there would be a "booth observer" in every press box for every game — the purpose of that person's placement would be to watch for injuries that might be missed at the field level, including concussions.

[NFL video: Week 14 locks to win]

We're not aware who the booth observer might have been at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field for the McCoy hit, but if Ed Hochuli's crew was supposed to keep a sharper eye on McCoy's condition — especially given the fact that McCoy didn't get up from the hit right away — something may have been lost in translation. (Then again, Hochuli may have been too wrapped up in one of his windy penalty explanations to notice McCoy — remember that Harrison was penalized on the hit, which takes the focus away from any sort of concussion diagnosis).

The bottom line is this: The NFL has said that it wants a concussion policy in which players are to be removed from the game if there's room for doubt as to their status at any given time. Goodell has been vocal enough about it to make most people believe that he's either serious about it, or that he's throwing a P.R. blitz at a problem that's grabbed much more national attention over the last few years.

The extent to which the Browns' handling of their quarterback is investigated, and the level of public transparency that follows, will go a long way to telling us whether the league believes its own lines about player safety.

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