In Week 11, the NFL’s current system for spotting a concussed player and getting him off the field failed, badly. Rams quarterback Case Keenum, clearly in distress, remained in the game when he shouldn’t have, due in large part to a too-many-chefs system that allows the buck to be passed like the salt and pepper when it fails.
But despite the periodic mishaps (and even one mishap per season is far too many), the NFL has truly made strides when protecting players from themselves. Peter King of TheMMQB.com explains that, in the same game that saw Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger self-report concussion symptoms (a headache), Steelers coach Mike Tomlin ensured that linebacker Ryan Shazier would submit to the concussion protocol, against his wishes.
Richard Ellenbogen, the co-chair of the NFL’s head, neck, and spine committee, told King that the ATC spotter noticed that Shazier was woozy in the second quarter. Video showed a helmet-to-helmet hit, with Shazier’s head also hitting the ground. As doctors attempted to evaluation Shazier, he insisted he was fine. And then Tomlin intervened, telling Shazier, “You will listen to these doctors, and you’ll do it now.”
Shazier was later ruled out for the game, and he now resides in the league’s concussion protocol.
“This was a very good day for culture change,” Ellenbogen told King. “The team was all-in. The coach was involved, and he was fully supportive of what the medical people were doing. He couldn’t have been more supportive. Then we had a player self-report in the middle of an intense game, which is exactly what we want. He put health and safety over the competition. Concussions sometimes can take a few minutes to appear, as in this case. Today the system worked. The humans worked.”
It was a fortuitous turn of events for the NFL, which only six days earlier saw the ESPN Monday Night Countdown crew properly chastising the league for its handling of the Keenum situation — with a commercial for the new movie Concussion playing during a break later in the show. And it was smart for the league to ensure that a positive story regarding the handling of concussions has made it to light.
But even before Keenum, the system worked in Houston, where quarterback Brian Hoyer was removed from play not because of anything the ATC spotter saw or anything Hoyer said but because others noticed Hoyer wasn’t right.
“I think the guys just recognized on the sideline I wasn’t acting normal and then you get checked out,” Hoyer told PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio. “I think it was a little bit of everything teammates, coaches, trainers I mean it’s kind of a collective thing where I think for me you know I was lucky they spotted it. . . . [Y]ou’re kind of so used to playing and you get dinged a little bit. . . . [A]drenaline is carrying you, autopilot I guess you would call it. You can still function, but I think when you’re missing certain things some of those guys around kind of notice and did the right thing.”
It’s important that the league has plenty of eyes watching for signs of concussions. But unless the lines of responsibility and accountability are clear and unambiguous, it remains possible that a player from time to time will fall through the cracks.