Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman gets a collection of 300 or so documents put on his desk each week.
They detail the happenings around the league in each NFL city, and provide aggregations of media reports, team reports and more that are then streamlined into sections containing injury reports.
As the 2016 season progressed, Gettleman began to see a disturbing trend in those documents – and it was happening just a few feet from his office.
He was looking specifically at concussion numbers, and noticed that the injury was especially sidelining his own players.
“I was charting it. There were weeks where 28, 29 guys (around the league) are missing (because of ) concussions,” he said last week in Mobile, Ala., as he monitored 2017 Senior Bowl practices.
“We obviously unfortunately led the league,” he said. “It’s, to a certain degree, team to team. I think it’s gonna be cyclical.
“This past year was our turn.”
According to data compiled by the Charlotte Observer, the Carolina Panthers tied for the most players forced out with a concussion (seven) and the most total games missed because of a concussion (22). That number does not include the three games Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was held out of at the end of the season despite being cleared from the protocol.
Left tackle Michael Oher missed the third-most games of any player in the league (13) after suffering his concussion early in the year. And Kuechly’s hyperventilating, tearful reaction after suffering his on national television in a prime time “Thursday Night Football” matchup drew national concern and then curiosity as head coach Ron Rivera, Gettleman and team doctors made the decision to withhold Kuechly from the final three games of the year out of concern for his long-term health. It was Kuechly’s second concussion in as many years.
Around the league, the Observer found that concussions held out more players (84) during the regular season than any other injury, according to teams’ final weekly injury reports. Ankle (81) and knee injuries (80) were the next most prevalent reasons.
These numbers do not include players on the IR or players deemed questionable or doubtful but not activated.
“You can’t not pay attention to it,” said Gettleman. “You encourage players, you talk about safety and you talk about keeping their head out of it and not using their helmet as a battering ram. You know, but it’s a physical violent game and things happen. And it is scary, I won’t lie.”
And after concussions were so dominant a factor in Carolina’s season, Gettleman said that the Panthers have to protect their players – starting from the top.
“I think obviously there is a lot more to be learned about the situation and issue. I mean, this ain’t easy. This is not easy,” he said. “And we’re going to be careful with guys’ lives. I’m (even) careful with ankle injuries! We’re not pushing guys out until they’re ready. I really believe in that.
“When it comes to injuries, you have to take the long view. It’s our philosophy, it’s the way Ron and I have always done it.”
Safety Colin Jones told the Observer after suffering his concussion that he felt the NFL concussion protocol “exists to protect players from themselves,” because players are more likely to adhere to the “play through it” mentality so prevalent with injuries to, for instance, knees and ankles.
That may hold a player out longer than the player would like. Kuechly made it clear he would have liked to play after exiting the protocol despite coaches’ decisions to sit him.
“If a guy’s got a whatever and we think he’s ready to go, a lot of times we’ll give him one more week. We talk to (head trainer Ryan Vermillion) and a lot of times we’ll give another week,” Gettleman said. “So when it comes to the concussions, we do the same thing.”
Rivera has said he would like to spend more time this offseason becoming more educated about concussions, and looking for solutions with team doctors. Panthers team physician Robert Heyer said on a conference call this week after the NFL released its own set of concussion data that the conversation is already starting to change – that players are now more likely to self-report concussion symptoms.
Whether that is statistically sound remains to be seen. The league was not able to provide self-reporting statistics. The NFL’s executive vice president of health and safety policy, Jeff Miller, said that the league is working on trying to provide those numbers.
“Our work with the league regarding concussions and education is not done,” Heyer said. “But I know what we are doing is currently making a difference, and we will and must continue to do more.”