On the same weekend word leaked that the NFL had made numerous changes to its concussion protocol, the league appeared to be extra vigilant in making sure that protocol was being followed. But will the NFL and the NFLPA continue to insist on enforcing those procedures? That remains an open question, even after the Seattle Seahawks last week became the first team to be fined for violating the concussion policy.
Sunday morning, not long before most of the weekend’s games kicked off, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the league and the players’ union had agreed on Dec. 11 to implement a host of changes to the protocol, which Mortensen identified as follows:
- A central [unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant] will be stationed in the NFL’s command center to assist in oversight of each game via broadcasts;
- Any sign of impact seizure will be considered the same as loss of consciousness and the player will be taken out of the game and may not return;
- A referee who removes a player from the game for suspected head trauma must notify the medical staff;
- A player who exhibits gross motor instability or significant loss of balance must be taken to the locker room for evaluation if it is not diagnosed as an orthopedic injury;
- A player who is evaluated for a concussion must be re-evaluated within 24 hours, even if the player has an off day;
- A third UNC will be on site for the playoffs and the Super Bowl, in addition to the two already assigned to each regular-season game.
Sunday and Monday then brought a handful of examples of the protocol working as it was intended.
1. Jets right tackle Brandon Shell. Shell was slow to get up after making a tackle following an interception on a Hail Mary on the final play of the first half:
Shell got up soon afterward and walked off on his own:
But being “slow to get up following a hit to the head” is specifically listed in the protocol as a potential sign of a concussion that the booth ATC spotters are there to notice. Those spotters are then responsible for alerting the team physician and the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant (UNC) assigned to that team “to ensure that a concussion evaluation is undertaken on the sideline.” Shell was diagnosed with a head injury and did not return.
2. Bengals linebacker Jordan Evans. Evans was hit in the head by teammate Vontaze Burfict while making a tackle late in the second quarter. Burfict’s shoulder collided directly with Evans’s helmet:
Evans did not get up right away:
The new guidelines say that “[a] player who exhibits gross motor instability or significant loss of balance must be taken to the locker room for evaluation if it is not diagnosed as an orthopedic injury.” And once Evans got to his feet, he couldn’t so much as remove his chin strap without assistance:
Evans was taken to the locker room right away. He did not return.
3. Lions cornerback Nevin Lawson. Lawson was injured later in that same game, after what looked like a routine play in which he wasn’t even the primary tackler. Lawson is wearing No. 24 in white. Watch as the crown of his helmet collides with a teammate’s arm right at the end of the clip:
This is a classic example of a brain injury caused by incidental football contact that would have been difficult for a spotter or a UNC or just about anyone else to notice. But, like Evans, Lawson was unable to get up after the play and had to be tended to by trainers. He did not return.
4. Texans quarterback T.J. Yates. Toward the end of the first half, Yates lowered his head and was hit by Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton:
A replay wasn’t conclusive as to whether Yates got hit in the head:
But one of the officials—as per the protocol—took precaution and required that Yates get checked out. NBC’s cameras stayed with this sequence for a bit. It did not look like Yates wanted to get a concussion exam:
Here’s referee Bill Vinovich making sure that medical personnel on the Texans sideline took a look at Yates:
The man in the red hat is the UNC:
4. Texans quarterback Taylor Heinicke. One of the immutable laws of the NFL is that all Texans quarterbacks are doomed to get injured. Heinicke—the fourth Texans QB to play this season—took nine snaps in relief of Yates before going down himself when he hit the back of his head on the turf after taking this third-quarter sack:
Just seconds before this play, NBC’s cameras caught Yates returning to the Texans sideline and putting on his helmet. Yates apparently had passed a concussion evaluation at some point between when he left the game and this moment:
A concussed player passing a concussion evaluation is something that indeed can happen because symptoms don’t always manifest themselves right away. The new guidelines require that Yates be re-examined again today.
Heinicke, meanwhile, showed no visible signs of injury. In fact, he was seen on the sidelines looking at his tablet just after the play concluded. But the video of his head skipping off the turf prompted someone to evaluate him. And even after the sideline evaluation in the tent, Heinicke didn’t seem to think anything was wrong:
He was led to the locker room anyway.
He was also later diagnosed with a concussion and did not return.
It’s not clear what role, if any, the UNC now required to be monitoring these hits from the league’s command center in New York had in making sure the above players were evaluated. But, again, as NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told me on Dec. 14, the ATC booth spotters assigned to each team are supposed to be assisted by video replay booth techs who have access to the broadcast video. Today, McCarthy assured me that those booth techs were required to be there even before the protocol was updated on Dec. 11.
Why is this important? The day before—Dec. 10—was when Texans quarterback Tom Savage was re-inserted into a game after television cameras caught him experiencing a fencing response following a hit to the head. The league and the union added specific punishments to the protocol before the 2016 season, and this offseason they tweaked some of the language in the protocol itself. The new guidelines added two weeks ago state that “any sign of impact seizure” like Savage’s will result in a player being removed from the game with no chance to return. Which is a good thing. But the question remains: Why, if the requirement that a spotter and a video tech with access to broadcast footage was already in place, did no one notice that video of Savage writhing on the ground? McCarthy told me the NFL’s and NFLPA’s investigation into that was ongoing.