It was the NFL's worst nightmare: A key player in the Super Bowl suffering an apparent brain injury, staggering around on the field in plain view of the biggest television audience ever, per Deadline.com, and receiving no treatment.
It came true. Julian Edelman, the Patriots' No. 1 receiver, got his block knocked off in the fourth quarter by Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. Edelman was visibly woozy after the hit and for several plays after.
"I thought he was going to go to sleep the way he was running," fellow Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell told Matt Pentz of The Seattle Times.
Not only was Edelman not taken to the locker room for concussion evaluation, as Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril had been earlier in the game, it seemed like everyone on the field looked the other way.
Edelman went on to catch the game-winning touchdown after juking Seahawks defensive back Tharold Simon clear out of Maricopa County. That was Edelman's ninth catch, tying Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews for a game-high 109 yards. He and tailback Shane Vereen were the centerpieces of the Patriots game plan; they were the targets of 20 of MVP quarterback Tom Brady's 37 completed passes.
Let's pretend for a minute that none of the coaches, assistants, trainers or staff saw Edelman wobble on the field.
Not only did the players on the field see Edelman struggle to stay upright, Twitter erupted with fans and media wondering why he wasn't getting help. Here's a Storify of a small sampling of writers and fans who saw, in real time, something very disturbing:
In the aftermath, we found out something shocking: Edelman was tested, and cleared, for a possible concussion.
Dr. David Chao, a former NFL trainer with 17 years' experience and current columnist for the National Football Post, clearly saw Patriots doctors and an independent neurologist screen Edelman:
After the Danny Amendola touchdown, head Patriots ATC [certified athletic trainer] Jim Whalen was already waiting for Edelman as he jogged back to the sideline box. I watched through binoculars as two physicians, one from the Patriots and the UNC [unaffiliated neurological consultant], spent several minutes speaking to Edelman (presumably checking for concussion). The two then headed straight for the sideline injury monitor where the "eye in the sky" had tagged the play or plays in question which typically includes the player being hit and his on field reaction immediately post collision. After several minutes of video review, they walked back to speak to Edelman again. After that, Edelman returned to the bench with his teammates and returned to fair catch the next punt and play the entire next series including catching what would ultimately be the Super Bowl winning touchdown.
Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, from his seat in the press box, was able to confirm the independent medical spotters saw Edelman's behavior and notified the Patriots sideline:
In theory, the system worked.
In reality, millions of NFL fans around the world went to bed thinking Edelman won the Super Bowl with a rattled brain dangerously susceptible to Second Impact Syndrome.
Edelman's Sunday-night stonewalling of the media—"we're not allowed to discuss injuries," he told Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke—didn't help that perception. Neither did late-edition headlines at Sports Illustrated, Pro Football Talk, Sporting News, ESPN.com, The New York Times and just about every media outlet that covers sports.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick ducked the issue during his Monday morning press conference, per Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic:
If the proper protocol was followed to a T, why the information vacuum?
How could Patriots coaches be neither aware of the possible concussion nor of the subsequent screen? How could none of this get to the hordes of credentialed media broadcasting, covering or writing about the game? How could none of the thousands of fans in the stands or millions upon millions of TV viewers be told not to worry so we could all enjoy the end of the game without thinking the player who scored the winning touchdown had milkshake for brains?
During Roger Goodell's debacle of a state-of-the-NFL address, the one unquestionable positive was the league's medical data showing concussions were down 25 percent. If so, that's either proof the NFL's penalties and fines are incredibly effective reducing dangerous hits or symptomatic of a really big problem.
If concussion screening, assessment and reporting is getting better—and, with the implementation of spotters and independent neurologists, it had better be—the number of reported concussions should be up. Perhaps increased awareness of brain injuries among players also increased their awareness of avoiding detection?
As Dr. Chao wrote, current NFL screening tests like the one Edelman passed rely on honest self-reporting. As long as a player insists he's fine and can easily pass the screening questions, current protocol allows him to return to the game.
"Is it possible that Edelman underplayed how he felt and fooled the doctors to stay in the game? Certainly," Chao said. "But only the player himself would know that and I am not accusing him of that."
Perhaps Edelman really was fine. Perhaps he woke up the next morning with splitting headaches and light sensitivity—and perhaps that's partially due to too much time spent on the Gronk party bus celebrating the biggest win of his career. Without more rigorous sideline testing and stringent withholding protocols, we'll never know.
Avril, in contrast, was swarmed by doctors almost immediately; something they saw gave them reason to believe he had a brain, head, spine or neck injury. Even if Avril had popped up quickly and passed a screen, he would have been taken off the field.
This is information fans need to know—and broadcasters and media need to know it in order to pass it along. Why all the secrecy from the NFL? Why are we relying on reports from outside observers and anonymous sources to find out the NFL's concussion protocol was followed to the letter? Wasn't this policy created to appease fans' fears of watching players wantonly destroy their own minds?
Going forward, the NFL not only has to make sure fans know exactly what the protocol is and how it's been followed, the league needs to decide its level of commitment to detecting and treating possible concussions.
It could allow the spotters to signal to the officials that play must be stopped. It could insist any player suspected of suffering brain injury be pulled off the field for the rest of the game, regardless of screen or evaluation results. They could deal with reducing the competitive quality by pulling players off the field after every big hit—effectively eliminating big hits.
Is that really what the NFL wants? Is that really what fans want? Probably not—but they also don't want to watch a player stagger around the field and not know he received appropriate care.