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A Huge Hit on Cam Newton Put the NFL’s Concussion Protocol Under Scrutiny Again

The Panthers lost to the Saints on wild-card weekend, but Newton’s health and the league’s ability to assess it dominated discussion after the game

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

This story was updated after publication with more information.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took a hard hit to the head during Sunday’s 31-26 loss to the New Orleans Saints, and the impact and ensuing events once again put the NFL’s concussion protocol in the spotlight.

With the Panthers down 24-19 on their own 20-yard line with just more than nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, Newton scrambled in the backfield to escape a sack attempt from Saints defensive end Tyeler Davison. As Newton tried to escape, he spun right into oncoming defensive end David Onyemata. (Newton was ruled down while escaping from Davison, so the hit occurred after the play had technically concluded.)

Newton stayed on the ground and appeared to be in pain before getting up and jogging toward the sideline, but before he got there, he stopped and fell to a knee as a staffer braced his arm.

Newton was granted a medical timeout and was eventually taken into the medical tent. Fox’s Chris Myers reported on the broadcast that Newton’s plastic visor was dislodged on the hit and affected Newton’s eye, which Newton confirmed after the game.

Newton was also evaluated for a concussion. According to new guidelines that the NFL announced on Christmas Eve after the league received heavy criticism in early December for allowing Texans quarterback Tom Savage to re-enter a game after suffering a gruesome hit that left him concussed, players who fall while trying to stand should be evaluated in the locker room.

“A player who stumbles and/or falls to the ground when trying to stand, unrelated to an orthopedic injury, should be sent directly to the locker room to undergo the standard locker room exam,” according to NFL.com. “If he passes all phases of this exam and is cleared by the [unaffiliated neurological consultant] and the team MD in charge of concussion care then the player could return to the game.”

Newton did not go to the Panthers locker room, but was instead evaluated in the tent. He missed just one play, the third and 17 that occurred after he was sacked, and was cleared to return in time for the Panthers’ next series and nearly led them to a dramatic comeback. He connected with Christian McCaffrey for a 56-yard passing touchdown that cut Carolina’s deficit to five with just more than four minutes left. On the next series, he was called for intentional grounding with less than 45 seconds left, all but ending the Panthers comeback. He finished with 24 completions on 40 attempts for 349 passing yards (8.7 yards per attempt) and two passing touchdowns.

Newton’s stat line was not the story of the game, though. On Monday, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the NFL and NFLPA were reviewing the Panthers’ handling of Newton after the hit, and if protocol was not followed, the team could be disciplined. Newton is the latest starting quarterback to suffer a frightening hit in a high-profile game, putting the league’s concussion evaluation process under the microscope. In Week 10, referee Walt Anderson ordered that Seattle’s Russell Wilson be checked for a concussion, but Wilson returned to the game before being evaluated, a violation of league concussion policy. Though Wilson was not concussed, the Seahawks were later fined $100,000 for violating protocol. That same week, Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett suffered a concussion, but passed his evaluations and returned to the game. After the game ended, though, he reported concussion-like symptoms and entered concussion protocol. The Colts were not punished in that case, but the incident raised serious doubts about the thoroughness of in-game concussion evaluations.

The most controversial case this season involved the Texans’ Savage, who was allowed to return to the game after suffering a brutal hit against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14. The league also declined to discipline the Texans in that case, but they began their rule revision shortly after. The NFL released a joint statement with the NFLPA after reviewing the incident, concluding that “while the medical staff followed the Protocol, the outcome was unacceptable and therefore further improvements in the Protocol are necessary.”