Investigations by the NFL and the NFL Players Association concluded the Carolina Panthers followed the league’s concussion protocol after a hit by a Denver Broncos defender left quarterback Cam Newton woozy on the final drive of the Sept. 8 season opener.
The investigations were the first conducted by the league and players union since the two entities announced a new policy in July to enforce the NFL’s game day concussion protocol and discipline teams that violate it.
The Panthers could have been fined or lost a draft pick had the league found they had failed to follow protocol for competitive reasons.
But in a joint statement released Wednesday, the league and union said the Panthers’ medical staff and the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant (UNC) acted appropriately. Had the league and union disagreed on their findings, the review would have gone to an arbitrator.
Newton, the reigning league MVP, took at least four helmet-to-helmet hits during the 21-20 loss to the Broncos in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.
The hit in question was the final one absorbed by Newton – a violent collision with Broncos safety Darian Stewart that left Newton on his hands and knees while teammates checked on him.
Stewart’s hit happened in front of umpire Bill Schuster, who watched as Newton initially writhed on the ground and rolled over on his back. During a two-minute delay while officials sorted out offsetting penalties, Panthers trainer Ryan Vermillion came on the field to check on Newton.
According to Wednesday’s joint announcement, the Panthers’ medical staff and the UNC were unable to see where Newton was hit from their spot on the sideline. They contacted the booth spotter and asked for the video of the play, although the transmission to the sideline was slowed by a “technology glitch.”
Newton eventually walked slowly back toward the middle of the field. A player who is slow to get up after a hit to the head area is among the observable concussion symptoms detailed in the concussion protocol. Newton was on the ground for about 30 seconds before being helped up.
But based on their review of the replay and observing Newton from the sideline, team doctor Robert Heyer and the independent neurotrauma consultant agreed no further evaluation was necessary because they didn’t see any signs or symptoms of a concussion.
Stewart’s hit came with 36 seconds left and the Panthers driving for a potential winning score.
Had game officials or any member of the medical team requested an evaluation of Newton, he would have been sidelined at least one play. Had he been taken into the locker room for a more comprehensive check, Newton would have missed the rest of the game.
League and union officials also reviewed how the protocol was followed in the Bills-Jets game that was played a week after the Panthers-Broncos opener.
Referee Ed Hochuli removed Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor from the game after Taylor sustained a big hit that left him unsteady on his feet. Hochuli walked Taylor to the sideline, where he missed two plays while being evaluated in what Panthers coach Ron Rivera said was a direct result of Newton’s situation in Denver.
“And good for Ed,” Rivera said last month. “We’re so reactionary. Let’s be honest about it. Something happens. The media reacts to it. Then we get public sentiment [reacting] to it, then the league overreacts.
“But the league has to. And so everything filters down to the coaches, to the refs, to the players, to the doctors. So now we’re all on high alert. Ed Hochuli did it the way you’re supposed to now, and kudos to him for doing it.”
In their findings, the league and union also help up Hochuli as an example of how game officials can be proactive when noticing a player with a possible concussion.
As a result of what happened in Denver in Week 1, the NFL also will:
▪ Require the booth spotter to stay in contact with the team’s medical staff and provide video support until a player is done being checked for a concussion.
▪ Consider putting an unaffiliated neuro consultant in the booth with the two spotters, who are certified athletic trainers.