Carolina Panthers officials say quarterback Cam Newton passed four concussion tests after absorbing at least four helmet-to-helmets hits Thursday in a 21-20 season-opening loss to the Broncos at Denver.
But it was the test that was not administered to Newton that put the NFL’s concussion protocol under widespread scrutiny.
Newton was allowed to stay in the game after a big fourth-quarter hit by safety Darian Stewart left Newton on his hands and knees while tight end Greg Olsen checked on him.
The league said Panthers team doctor Robert Heyer and an independent neurotrauma consultant requested a replay of the collision from the certified athletic trainers in the spotters' booth.
“They concluded there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal” of Newton from the game, the league said in a statement.
The NFLPA could launch an investigation to determine whether proper protocol was followed. A spokesman for the union said Friday afternoon the situation was still being reviewed.
After telling Olsen he was OK, Newton walked slowly back to the huddle and proceeded to drive the Panthers into position for a game-winning field goal attempt by Graham Gano.
“My understanding is the doctor, the independents, they collaborated, talked about what needed to be done, as far as whether he was coming in or out, and they determined based on what they saw when they reviewed the tapes during the game that he was OK to continue,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday.
“And remember, there’s people up in the box looking down and there’s the head referee. None of them felt that he was under duress at that time and they allowed him to continue.”
After the game Newton said he’d been evaluated for a concussion in the locker room.
Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond said Newton also was checked three other times – on the bus en route to the Denver airport, on the team charter and again when the team arrived in Charlotte around 6 a.m.
“My understanding is he had several exams by the doctor. All of them he’s passed,” Rivera said. “So as far as my knowledge, he’s no longer in the protocol, or he never was in the protocol.”
Heyer, through a team spokesman, declined to comment.
The series of helmet-to-helmet hits against Newton brought claims from a couple of his teammates that Newton receives unequal treatment from officials. Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis said he doesn’t think the 6-5, 260-pound Newton is extended the same protection as other quarterbacks because of his size.
“That’s nothing new. They didn’t do anything different that hasn’t happened all along,” Davis said of the Broncos’ hits. “It’s just something that the league is going to have to police and they’re going to have to do a better job of and start treating him like the quarterback that he is.”
Stewart, a former South Carolina standout, made no apologies for his hit, which drew a personal foul penalty that was negated by a grounding flag on Newton.
That was the only hit that drew a penalty, although USA Today reported that NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino determined a third-quarter hit by linebacker Brandon Marshall also should have been flagged.
For his part, Newton took the high road when asked about the officiating.
“It’s not my job to question the officials. I really like this officiating crew. It wasn’t something that I know they did intentionally,” Newton said. “But it’s not fun getting hit in the head. We didn’t lose the game off that; I know that for a fact. We’ve just got to find ways to put more drives together.”
A gray area
Rivera believes a prejudice exists because of Newton’s stature, but also agreed that Newton’s penchant for running outside the pocket sometimes can create a gray area.
“I think his style of play is different as far as quarterbacks are concerned. And I read what one of their players said that it’s so hard to tell whether he is running or going to throw,” Rivera said. “So that makes it tough.”
During a September game against New Orleans last season, Newton said referee Ed Hochuli told him he wasn’t “old enough” to get certain calls, which Hochuli denied.
Rivera seemed to reference that Friday when he said he would love for the reigning league MVP and six-year pro to “start getting some of that veteran favoritism.”
Rivera hopes the fact that the Broncos’ apparent targeting of Newton in the NFL’s kickoff game with a TV audience of 25 million will spur action.
Rivera, an NFL linebacker for nine seasons, believes questionable hits on quarterbacks should be added to the league’s instant replay system.
“If there is a questionable call, you have to go to replay just to make sure,” Rivera said. “Again this is about player safety at the end of the day. So we have to find a better solution to keep these things down to a minimum.”