The NFL and NFLPA are reportedly investigating the circumstances surrounding that massive hit to the brain Cam Newton took in the fourth quarter of yesterday’s loss to New Orleans. Newton was slow to get up after it happened. He fell to the ground as he left the field. He was tested for a concussion on the sideline—and supposedly passed. But was this a breakdown in procedure involving a star player during a crucial moment in a close playoff game? Or were there mitigating factors at work?

The league’s and the union’s joint concussion protocol was beefed up less than a month ago to account for perceived loopholes in procedure. Right away, it became clear those enhanced guidelines could work, at least when they involved relatively anonymous players toiling in meaningless games. Then came Newton, a former league MVP who’s been at the center of protocol breakdowns in the past. With the Panthers trailing the Saints 24-19 and roughly nine minutes remaining in the game, Newton ran headlong into Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata, the crown of his helmet connecting squarely with Onyemata’s chest. It would later be claimed that Newton merely got hit in the eye, and that he faked falling to the ground as he left the field to allow backup Derek Anderson to have time to warm up. It’s a plausible explanation, but how should all of that have factored into what happened? Let’s break it down.

Shortly after the play ended, Newton lay on the turf and blinked his eyes a bunch:

He was slow to get up, which his teammates helped him do after just a few seconds:

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His subsequent reaction:

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Here is Newton going to the ground as he left the field:

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told reporters that Newton went to his hands and knees not because he was concussed. “We wanted him to sit down [short of the sideline] to give [Anderson] a chance to warm up,” Rivera said after the game. “I mean, he was injured. Instead of trying to bravely walk off, we wanted him to take a knee to give our guy a couple of throws.”

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ESPN analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Jeff Saturday doesn’t think this was bullshit:

“That’s 100 percent true. When he’s walking to the sideline, everybody should know—coaches, players on the sideline are telling you, ‘Get down, get down.’ The backup quarterback has to warm up. You want the center to be able to go over there and take [practice] snaps [with the backup]. If he walks off, they set the play clock, and all of a sudden you’re being hurried up. So I understand. ... That’s the truth [for] every football team.”

This creates a problem. One of the enhancements made to the protocol in light of what happened last month to Texans quarterback Tom Savage calls for a mandatory 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).” This rule was added because Savage was re-inserted into a game after experiencing a visible fencing response even though he passed the initial sideline concussion evaluation, just as Newton passed his. But Newton was never taken to the locker room.

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While still on the field, Newton appeared to get his eyes checked out:

Moments later, he walked off the field on his own, and a trainer took another look at his right eye:

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After a commercial break, Fox ran footage of Newton entering the sideline medical tent, with the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant in the red hat following him inside:

Shortly after that, the Panthers made this announcement:

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Right around this time, Fox’s Chris Myers reported from the Panthers’ sideline that the plexiglass visor Newton wears on his helmet got “pushed sideways and did affect one of his eyes.” Myers also reported that Newton passed his concussion evaluation. As he said this, a Fox camera showed Newton applying a towel to his right eye. On the Panthers’ next series, he would re-enter the game. It had been 11 real-time minutes since Onyemata’s hit.

After the game, Rivera told reporters that Newton had been “poked in the eye,” and that the concussion evaluation he received was simply precautionary. But Newton was required to have a sideline concussion test. The specific warning signs for a potential concussion that ought to trigger a sideline evaluation are laid out in the protocol as follows (emphasis mine):

  • Slow to get up following a hit to the head (“hit to the head” may include secondary contact with the playing surface);
  • Motor coordination/balance problems (stumbles, trips/falls, slow/labored movement);
  • Blank or vacant look;
  • Disorientation (e.g., unsure of where he is on the field or location of bench);
  • Amnesia, both anterograde and retrograde;Clutching of head after contact; or
  • Visible facial injury in combination with any of the above.

So even if the eye was the real reason Newton went to the sideline, the protocol was properly followed because of the nature of the hit and his immediate reaction. But the fall to the ground is what matters, since that’s supposed to trigger the more advanced locker-room evaluation—a process that likely would have kept Newton out of the game for more than one play. If Newton was indeed faking that part, how was anyone supposed to know in real time, especially the independent spotters who are on-hand specifically to look for the warning signs listed above? And if faking it—or even just claiming to have faked it—provides a way for players and teams to skirt this provision of the protocol, what’s to stop that from becoming a go-to explanation any time a team or a player wants to circumvent the protocol? No matter how many loopholes the league and the union try to close, teams that want to keep their star players in important games will probably find another.