Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took a hit to the head with less than 10 minutes to play in Sunday’s loss to the Saints. While walking to the sideline, he stopped and went to a knee. After spending some time on the field, Newton went to the sideline.
He missed one play (a third-down that was unsuccessful and led to a punt) before returning on the next drive.
So what happened? He received a concussion evaluation in the medical tent, but he was quickly cleared to return.
“We are in contact now with the Panthers’ medical staff and we will not comment further until those conversations are completed,” the NFL said in a statement issued on Sunday night.
The Panthers offered an alternative explanation to the possibility that Newton suffered a concussion.
“He actually got poked in the eye,” coach Ron Rivera told reporters after the game. “They took him in there as a precautionary [measure] just to make sure, but when he was sitting on the ground, they were trying to wipe whatever when he got popped. So that’s what that was.”
If that’s what it was, then there was no need for a concussion evaluation in the medical tent. And if there was need for a concussion evaluation at all, the fact that Newton ended up on the ground means — based on a changes to the protocol announced late last month by the NFL and the NFL Players Association — that he should have been taken to the locker room for an evaluation.
The new procedures, according to the joint statement, “[r]equire a locker room concussion evaluation for all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand).” The language has no exception for eye pokes or other head injuries that aren’t brain injuries.
For the play resulting in the injury, the broadcast footage shows Newton spin away from one Saints player. Before Newton can straighten himself out, Newton takes a chest to his helmet. He then lays on the his left side with his right arm in a fixed position, motionless for a second or two. As teammates help him up, Newton squints with his left eye, then with his right.
Next comes Newton’s inability to walk off the field. He takes a knee, and then he takes a seat. After removing his helmet, he blinks his eyes but he never rubs them or otherwise behaves the way most would when actually poked in the eye. Instead, he sits there, periodically blinking either eye, with no clear sign of trauma to either of them. (Minutes later, he’s seen holding a towel over his right eye.)
And, yes, it’s hard to understand how he was poked in the eye at all, given that he wears a plastic eye shield inside his face mask.
Based on the things that happened in the immediate aftermath of the hit, and in light of the recent changes to the policy, Newton’s behavior was enough to compel a locker-room concussion evaluation — especially if the league’s routinely-stated concerns for player safety causes the league to resolve any doubt in favor of ensuring that the player is fit to continue.
But here’s the problem the NFL faces in playoff games that have progressed to crunch time. By being excessively (and appropriately) concerned about key players who possibly suffered head injuries in those moments, there’s a chance that a key player will be kept from playing for 10 or 15 minutes of real time while he undergoes a locker-room evaluation, only to eventually be cleared.
Without Newton, the Panthers wouldn’t have cut the New Orleans lead from 31-19 to 31-26. Without Newton, the Panthers wouldn’t have had a chance to drive the field and win the game in the final minute. And if Newton eventually had emerged from the locker room without a concussion, someone would have argued that an overly cautious doctor or trainer or whoever directly affected the outcome of a playoff game.
That’s why, no matter what the league does to create the impression for parents, pundits, and politicians that the game is safe, key players in key moments will be more likely to be allowed to assume the full range of risks that comes from playing football — including but not limited to the risk of suffering a concussion, and then suffering another only minutes later.