The Denver Broncos took the NFL season opener over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, 21-20, after Panthers’ kicker Graham Gano botched a potential game-winning kick with five seconds left in the fourth quarter.
The outcome of the game, however, was overshadowed by the fact that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton repeatedly took nasty hits to the head, only one of which was called (on an offsetting penalty, no less), and that Newton remained in the game.
There are two issues here, neither of which is particularly good news for the NFL after its season opener.
First: Denver defenders repeatedly targeted Newton in the head, including some textbook helmet-to-helmet hits that were not penalised.
This, for example, was not a penalty:
Newton, the reigning NFL MVP, endured several hits that were equally nasty, and the refs only flagged one. As Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said afterward, the refs need to still treat Newton like a quarterback:
“Treat him like a Quarterback. I know he’s the biggest guy on the field, but he’s still a QB.” Greg Olsen on hits to Cam’s head
— Omar Ruiz (@OmarDRuiz) September 9, 2016
That Newton is bigger, more mobile, and often takes more hits than an average quarterback should not mean he is not protected by the NFL’s rules. By not penalising the Broncos, the refs failed to protect Newton.
The second — and perhaps worse — issue here is that despite these ugly hits, including several on the final drive, Newton stayed in the game. This raises familiar questions about the NFL’s concussion protocol.
Last season, after a visibly concussed Case Keenum remained in a game, the NFL implemented more stringent rules related to concussions — namely, that independent spotters now have the power to halt the game if they believe a player may have suffered a concussion. Spotters missed several concussions last season, and the league’s explanation for why Newton went unchecked leaves many questions.
The NFL said in a statement Friday that medical personnel reviewed video of Darian Stewart‘s final-minute hit on Newton and “concluded there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal of the player from the game.”
It’s unclear whether Newton actually suffered a concussion, though he did receive treatment immediately after the game. But whether or not he actually suffered a concussion is almost besides the point. He was clearly in pain during the final drive:
This is the moment Greeny and Golic are referencing after Cam was not tested for a concussion late in the 4th Q. pic.twitter.com/eArydAHEWi
— Mike & Mike (@MikeAndMike) September 9, 2016
Yet Newton was never even examined, providing more evidence that the NFL’s concussion protocol still needs work, particularly when it comes to star players in key moments. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk called this the biggest glitch in the league’s policy on concussions:
It’s the latest example of the biggest glitch in the NFL’s overall approach to concussions. Key players in crunch time rarely ever get removed for an evaluation, probably because the ATC spotter doesn’t want to be blamed for creating a competitive disadvantage if, for example, Cam Newton had been unavailable to the Panthers for the final drive if, as it turns out, Newton didn’t have a concussion.
If the NFL is as serious about player safety as it says, then it needs to enforce the concussion protocol at all times — no matter how important the player might be to the outcome of the game.
Until that happens, more star players will continue to get injured. That, in the long run, could make the NFL even less competitive than if that star player is removed from a game during a possible game-winning drive.