The NFL’s concussion protocol failed again Sunday. And this time it was both obvious and frightening.
Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage took a hit in his own end zone in the second quarter after throwing a pass against the San Francisco 49ers, and his head whipped back onto the turf. He turned onto his side, with his arms bent in front of him, and his hands appeared to shake uncontrollably.
An official was right there, standing over Savage and checking on him. He recognized something was wrong. Yet the Texans allowed the quarterback to return for the next series, which was a three-and-out.
— ObisKanobis (@ObisKanobis) December 10, 2017
Savage was then taken out of the game and replaced by T.J. Yates, but by then the replay of the hit and Savage’s response had gone viral. Many on social media wondered if Savage had suffered a seizure.
Two experts told Yahoo Sports it was not a seizure, however both felt that Savage exhibited a clear sign of a concussion and should have been removed from the game.
“This should never happen in football today,” said Peter Cummings, a forensic neuropathologist at Boston University (and a youth football coach). “We’ve worked hard to improve safety and develop protocols to protect players. This instance highlights one of the major issues and weaknesses we face in sports concussions: testing.”
There’s no good reason for the lapse. The Texans sideline has video review capabilities. There is also a trained spotter in the press box at every game. If coaches can get advice on whether to throw a challenge flag after a fumble, a team doctor or independent experts (or even a referee) can make a better decision after a clear indication of brain injury.
What Savage exhibited was most likely a “fencing response,” or “an unnatural position of the arms following a concussion.” It’s so named because it resembles an “en garde” stance in fencing. The fencing response is a scary sight, but it should have helped protect Savage from further harm.
In other words: Savage’s body gave the entire stadium a loud warning, and it was either missed completely or unheeded. That’s inexcusable.
In the third quarter, the Texans PR staff announced that Savage had sustained a concussion. That was proof, as if it was needed, that the system had malfunctioned.
“He doesn’t want to come out of the game,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien told reporters, “but that’s in the medical people’s hands. They weren’t satisfied with the results of the second test and they decided to pull him. That’s when he went into the locker room.”
It shouldn’t have come to a second test.
Certainly there are times when a player can sustain a hit to the head and get thoroughly examined and return to play. But that can also be tricky, as concussion symptoms sometimes appear later in the day or even into the next day. This is what happened earlier this season to Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who was cleared after a big hit and then developed symptoms after the game. “Lots of things can mask concussion symptoms and affect the sideline test,” Cummings says.
Savage’s response was not hidden. It was obvious. The “better safe than sorry” standard should also be obvious in all of these situations. For some reason, it still isn’t.
More NFL coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Eli returns to standing ovation, Giants still lose
• You be the judge: Did Cam flop on this play?
• Watch: This may be the greatest extra point in history
• Houston makes questionable QB call after scary hit