The Chicago Bears could be without the services of quarterback Jay Cutler when they take on the San Francisco 49ers next Monday night. While this is a concern for both the Bears and their fans, it pales in comparison to the concern all NFL players should have regarding the league's so-called "concussion protocol."
Most of you are no doubt familiar with the hit that more than likely caused Cutler's concussion during Sunday night's game against the Houston Texans. Cutler was hit by linebacker Tim Dobbins with 2:56 remaining in the first half.
Dobbins was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play. Bears team physician Mark Bowen ran onto the field to check on Cutler.
Now, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, nearly five minutes elapsed from the moment Cutler was hit until the Bears took their next snap. To Briggs' eyes, it looked as though no one from the Bears staff evaluated Cutler for possible signs of concussion.
After illegal hit on Jay Cutler, 4 minutes, 57 seconds passed before #Bears next snap w/o concussion evaluation. 10 Thoughts column coming.— Brad Biggs (@BradBiggs) November 12, 2012
However, when speaking to the media on Monday, Bears head coach Lovie Smith threw water on the notion that Cutler had not been evaluated during the extensive delay. Via ESPN Chicago:
Our trainers talked to him then. When I say concussion protocol, that's a part of it. It's not like he showed symptoms, but we had a break in between. Our trainers talked to him, evaluated him. He was fine from there. Players in the huddle didn't see anything wrong with him at the time. Not just then. We continued to talk him all the way out, even through halftime.
After that lengthy delay, and with the Bears contending that Cutler showed no signs of a concussion, the quarterback went back into the game.
This sequence, to me, points out a glaring hole in the NFL's sideline protocol.
Regardless of what the protocol actually is, the fact that we can have someone watching the player in question from the press box determine that said player had not been evaluated, only to have the team turn around and contend that, "Oh no, we talked to him. In fact we did more than we were supposed to!" just doesn't seem right.
The players union, specifically their executive director DeMaurice Smith, has asked in the past that the NFL have a “sideline concussion expert” at every game. This seems self-evident, doesn't it? But the league has resisted this idea, for whatever reason.
Of course, adding another league-appointed body to the sideline of every game would cost money, and if the NFL's standoff with the referees earlier this year taught us anything, it's that NFL owners have no problem nickel-and-diming for as long as they can no matter how badly the product on the field suffers.
I seriously can't for the life of me think of a single reasonable argument against a $9 billion business not having an independent neurologist at every game. I'm more than willing to listen, but I have yet to hear one that isn't close to laughable.
The NFL wants teams to handle it on their own in-game and then turn to an independent neurologist, in which players diagnosed with concussions are required to get clearance from before being allowed to practice again, during the week.
This makes no sense to me.
The time for an "independent" voice to be heard is during the football game. Teams want to win and most will do whatever is necessary to do just that, even if it means letting a player who may or may not be suffering from a concussion back onto the field. And especially if that player is one of the stars of the team.
I understand having someone outside the team telling players what they can and can't do as it relates to the football game would most likely drive coaches crazy, but here's the thing: How serious is the NFL about addressing head injury problems?
It's one thing to treat us to funny, feel-good commercials featuring Tom Brady and Ray Lewis, giving us all sorts of information that is meant to make us feel better about the violence in the game we're trying to enjoy. But it's quite another to seriously address the problem, whether actual or perceived, of teams allowing players to continue playing when they are in no condition to play.
The NFL, dealing with a growing number of ex-players signing on to lawsuits brought against the league for its handling of head trauma over the years, has been accused of doing mostly cosmetic things like producing commercials and over-protecting quarterbacks and other players with punitive rules on the field.
Something that would help a player who has suffered a concussion? Making sure that he is not allowed to re-enter a football game.