Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton lives up to his "Superman" moniker every Sunday. Last year, Newton became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns and score 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season, and at 27, he is already among the league's most accomplished - and divisive - quarterbacks.
If you come at the king, you best not miss.
The Denver Broncos certainly didn't miss, as the defending Super Bowl champions delivered no fewer than four helmet-first hits to the league's most valuable player in a 21-20 win on the opening night of the NFL season.
So, does Denver's top-tier defense play too rough, or is the right side of Carolina's offensive line barely above junior varsity level? Maybe both. Maybe neither. Denver's starters haven't played much this preseason, so their collective tackling technique hasn't reached its mid-season form. Carolina's offensive line, on the other hand, hasn't had to contain a pass-rushing tandem as prolific as Von Miller or Demarcus Ware yet this season.
Good offensive line play and solid tackling only do much when it comes protecting the quarterback. The rest falls squarely on the NFL.
Late in Thursday's game, Broncos S Darian Stewart launched himself headfirst into Newton milliseconds (which might as well be minutes in football terms) after the All-Pro quarterback attempted to heave a desperation pass out of bounds after escaping Miller's all-too-familiar grasp. Naturally, flags littered the field post-play.
The officials called penalties on both teams; Stewart for roughing the passer, Newton for grounding (his pass didn't make it past the line of scrimmage).
The fouls offset.
Now, the absurdity of intentional grounding offsetting a helmet-to-helmet hit (one that warrants an immediate ejection at the collegiate level) is a conversation for another day, but it's a great place to make this point: the NFL's concussion protocol is absolutely farcical.
After absorbing a head-to-head hit from Stewart, who happens to be one of the league's biggest hitters, Newton was slow to get back to his feet. This, according to the NFL's Concussion Policy, falls neatly into the "slow to get up following a hit to the head" category, which, I should mention, is a verbatim quote taken directly from the league's own mandate. To curb concussions, the NFL assigns an independent neurotrauma consultant to each team for each game, as well as an independent athletic trainer for both teams who hangs out in the booth and monitors potential concussion-inducing hits on a high definition screen.
In other words, the independent athletic trainer at Thursday's game saw the exact same hit that you did.
Heroically, the NFL defended its stance to keep Newton in the game, according to NFL.com:
"During stoppage in play while on-field officials were in the process of administrating penalties, the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant and team physician requested video from the spotters and reviewed the play," NFL spokesperson Brian McCarty said in a statement. "They concluded there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal of the player from the game."
Now is a probably a good time to mention that the "independent" and "unaffiliated" neurotrauma consultants work in conjunction with each team's medical staff. This is, as we in the professional words-writin' business say, a conflict of interest.
The NFL's Concussion Policy isn't a complete joke, though. In fact, its chief tool, the Sideline Assessment, is an acute, standard assessment that was developed by some of the best neurologists in th...oh wait, what? The Sideline Assessment was adapted specifically for league use from a third-party model? Seems awfully shady.
To further convey the complete lack of knowledge surrounding concussions, NBC commentator Chris Collinsworth, who sincerely believes that man's inherent caveman instincts will save contact football (not a joke), made a statement about the league's adoption of "concussion-proof" helmets after watching Newton get walloped (the first time). Of course, I am not well-versed in neurology, but I did talk to many people who are experts in this field as I constructed my master's thesis. I'll give you two guesses as to where licensed neurologists, neuroscientists, and physical therapists stand on the topic of "concussion-proof" helmets. And yet, the league allows people to believe that Riddell has actually developed some sort of revolutionary device that prevents cerebrospinal from exiting your nose after Von Miller introduces you to the crown of his helmet.
For all the changes that the league has tried to make over the past five or so years, very few of them appear to be even remotely worthwhile. For once, the "Brady, Rodgers, etc. would've gotten that call" crowd actually has a point (even though, technically, Newton did get the call).
Maybe I'm being hyperbolic.The Panthers haven't released any information to suggest that Newton did indeed sustain a concussion, so all of this could, theoretically, be moot. Furthermore, Stewart and the other Denver defenders who delivered headfirst hits will almost certainly receive fines from Roger Goodell and his devious band of minions.
However, this Newton story strikes me as a "thought that counts" type of situation. The NFL had the opportunity to make a huge statement by at least pulling one of the best players in the NFL from the game and going through the motions of sideline testing. Newton is the reigning NFL MVP. Removing him from a prime time contest against the league's defending champions would have been an unprecedented move. More importantly, it would've proven that someone in the NFL actually cares about head injuries. It's fair to put some of the responsibility on Newton or Ron Rivera - Carolina's head coach - when it comes to addressing head injuries. With 37 seconds remaining in Thursday game when the hit occurred, there was zero chance that Newton was going to pull himself from the game. Irresponsible, certainly, but not particularly insidious. Blaming Rivera is fair, and more people should be asking why he didn't step up and say something. But even then, he's a football coach, not a training neurotrauma consultant or athletic trainer. Not like the league-appointed dudes who can order high-definition prints of plays in real time.
The National Football League: protect the shield, not the players.