When the American flag is unfurled before the Carolina Panthers’ home opener against San Francisco on Sunday, all eyes will be on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is expected to continue his protest of racial inequality and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.
Once the game starts, attention will quickly shift to another quarterback and a different type of flag.
Ten days after taking four helmet-to-helmet hits in the second half of a loss at Denver, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton returns to action at Bank of America Stadium.
Despite exhibiting at least one sign of a possible concussion, Newton was allowed to stay in for the Panthers’ last series in the final minute of the 21-20 loss.
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The NFL and the NFL Players Association continue to investigate the Panthers’ handling of Newton, while teammates and former NFL game officials question why the refs didn’t do a better job protecting Newton by throwing more penalty flags last week at Mile High.
The firestorm brought a new wave of awareness to the issue of player safety and raised speculation that officials will be on high alert for questionable hits on quarterbacks, particularly Newton.
“It comes from the top. So if somebody at the top of the league office says this needs to be taken care of, then it’s going to trickle down to the referees,” Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said. “And the referees are going to take care of it because they don’t want to get chewed out.”
If that’s anybody else’s quarterback, if that’s a (Tom) Brady or Peyton (Manning) when he was here, that’d be called 100 percent of the time.
Panthers tight end Ed Dickson, on Denver Broncos’ hits to Cam Newton’s head
The controversy involving Newton appears to have already had an effect on the way games are officiated.
Late in the third quarter of Buffalo’s loss to the New York Jets on Thursday, veteran ref Ed Hochuli escorted Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a concussion screening after Taylor was sandwiched between several defenders.
Taylor missed two plays while being checked out before returning. Bills coach Rex Ryan was supportive of Hochuli’s decision.
Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson anticipates more medical timeouts in coming weeks.
“This league is like that,” said Anderson, in his 12th season. “If there’s a point of emphasis, it goes to the extreme until it comes back to normal. It’s been like that for 12 years.”
‘A different beast’
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said after the loss to Denver that the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton isn’t offered the same protections as other quarterbacks because of his size. That sentiment was shared not just by Newton’s teammates, but outside observers, as well.
They might have a point.
830 Times Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been hit, including sacks, since he entered the league in 2011, according to ESPN Stats and Info, 303 more instances than the next most for a quarterback.
23 Roughing the passer calls involving Newton since 2011, according to nflpenalties.com.
14 Number of those penalties that Cam in Newton’s first two seasons.
9 Number of those calls that came in the past three seasons.
0 Roughing the passer calls involving Cam Newton in 2015.
According to nflpenalties.com, Newton has been the beneficiary of 23 roughing the passer calls since entering the league in 2011. Officials called 14 of those roughing penalties during Newton’s first two seasons, the most in the NFL over that span.
But he has only gotten nine roughing calls in three-plus years since, including none during the Panthers’ Super Bowl season of 2015.
“He’s a different beast. And I think sometimes you get lost in the fact that he is a quarterback,” said Anderson, the Panthers’ backup quarterback throughout Newton’s career. “He’s the biggest guy on the field and the most physical in a lot of games. I don’t think they go into a game thinking they’re going to officiate him one way or another. I just think he gets in situations that are different than most other guys.”
From the moment the Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011, they’ve tried to take advantage of his unique skill set by incorporating the zone read as part of their offense.
Newton also has never been shy about running when the pass protection breaks down. As a result, he gets hit – a lot.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Newton has been hit while throwing or rushing (including sacks) 830 times during his career. That’s 303 more than any other quarterback since 2011.
Russell Wilson, who didn’t enter the league until 2012, has the second-most hits over that span (527).
While many of the hits on Newton occurred when he was a runner, it’s the shots he’s taken in the pocket that concern the Panthers.
“Cam’s tough and he deserves to be taken care of as a quarterback, when he’s doing quarterback action,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “If that’s anybody else’s quarterback, if that’s a (Tom) Brady or Peyton (Manning) when he was here, that’d be called 100 percent of the time.”
Tough part of referee’s job
Jim Daopoulous, a former NFL game official who spent 12 years as the leagues’ supervisor of officials, was glad to see Hochuli stop the Bills-Jets game Thursday to get Taylor checked.
Daopoulous said it’s a tough, but necessary part of a referee’s job given the emphasis on trying to protect players from the long-term effects of head injuries. There are a lot of outside forces pulling on the refs in those situations, beginning with the player himself.
“You see players that get their bells rung out there and they want to stay in. Their instinct is to stay in there,” Daopoulous said. “When you start moving guys and taking them out of games, you can imagine there’s hell to pay, especially if we’re wrong.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said there’s no question that Hochuli’s handling of Taylor was a direct result of what transpired with Newton in Denver.
“We’re so reactionary. We really are, and let’s be honest about that,” Rivera said. “Something happens. The media reacts to it. Then public sentiment reacts to it, then the league overreacts. But the league has to. So everything filters down to the coaches, to the refs, to the players, to the doctors. So now we’re all on high alert.”
But Rivera also was quick to praise Hochuli for following the concussion protocol.
“Hochuli did it the way you’re supposed to now,” Rivera said. “And kudos to him for doing it.”
Never show you’re hurt
But the protocol also is designed to protect players from themselves. As Daopoulous said, most players don’t want to leave games.
Rivera said Newton never wants to “show he’s hurt” while on the field.
It turns out Newton did not sustain a concussion during the Broncos’ game. But the fact that he wasn’t evaluated for one until afterward in the locker room prompted the NFL and NFLPA investigations.
The concussion protocol advises the medical team – comprised of a team’s medical and training staff, unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants, booth spotters and on-field officials – to require a concussion test for players displaying a host of symptoms.
Among them: Players who take a long time getting off the ground after a hit to the head. Newton stayed on the ground for about 30 seconds after Broncos safety Darian Stewart laid him out with a hit that drew a roughing flag.
Anderson figured Newton would come out for at least one play after the Stewart collision “because it just looked bad.”
But Anderson said Newton was lucid when they spoke a short time later.
“If you’re really screwed up, they’ll figure it out like that,” Anderson said, snapping his fingers.
Stewart’s hit was the only one that drew a penalty, and that was offset by a grounding call on Newton. In addition to fining Stewart for his hit, the NFL admitted officials had missed a helmet-to-helmet hit by linebacker Brandon Marshall, who also was fined.
“You’re in a situation where you’re in a close game ... I think those were just misses,” Daopoulous said. “Those were just flat-out missed.”
Newton not dwelling on past
Newton, the reigning league MVP, refused to be pulled into the concussion discussion, despite his place in the center of it.
Newton said his focus was on the San Francisco defense, and allowed others to lobby on his behalf.
“I can’t mourn or dwell on things that happen – from the statistics of me being hit or the types of hits I’m taking. My job is to win football games. That’s why I’m here,” he said. “I’m not here to worry about retirement plans. I’m not here to worry about pensions. I’m not here to worry about workers’ comp. I’m here to win football games, simple and plain.”
But the Panthers’ chances of winning depend greatly on a healthy Newton, who has only missed two games in six seasons.
Newton’s teammates aren’t the only ones who think Newton is treated differently than other quarterbacks. Other quarterbacks do, too.
“I think there are certain times Cam doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt because he is such a physically imposing player,” the 49ers’ Blaine Gabbert said on a conference call.
‘Those should have been called’
While Gabbert was answering a question on Newton, the sports highlights show he was watching aired a clip of one of the Broncos’ hits on Newton.
“It was an unfortunate hit, but Cam is such a competitive player. He wasn’t going to let those take him out of the game,” Gabbert said. “But definitely, I believe those should have been called. I think they were addressed here this week.”
To a man, Panthers players say they don’t want Newton to change the way he plays. With one glaring exception – when he failed to jump on his fumble at the end of Super Bowl 50 – Newton has not shied away from contact to avoid injuries.
“I’ve seen him keep running when he has little nicks here or there. And I’m like, how’s he still running? He just keeps playing,” Anderson said. “He’s got an ability to kind of just shake things off and go on. I’m sure he never feels great. But he is what he is.”
Tolbert was even more adamant about Newton staying true to his playing style.
“The way he’s played is what got him to be the reigning MVP. He can’t change the way he’s been playing,” Tolbert said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of protecting and keeping guys off of him. And if he gets hit the wrong way, we expect the flag to be thrown.”