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The Panthers Sent Cam Newton Back on the Field Because the NFL’s Concussion Protocol Is Optional

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers is checked on the sideline after a tackle during the game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 7, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Cam Newton after falling to the ground.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s wild-card game between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton got hit. Hard. The play occurred on second down, and Newton tried to walk to the sideline after getting up off the ground. On the way there, he fell to the ground and had to be assisted by team staff.

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson filled in for third down, and Newton was taken into the blue medical tent on the sideline for an evaluation. Shortly thereafter, the Panthers announced he had been evaluated and cleared for a concussion. According to Panthers officials, Newton’s injury came when his visor poked his eye.

This is confusing. According to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, the NFL’s revised concussion protocol “require[s] a locker room concussion evaluation for all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand).” That sure seems like it describes what happened with Newton on Sunday. Nonetheless, he wasn’t taken to the locker room for a full evaluation.

The blue tents are new this year in the NFL. Before the season started, the NFL’s chief medical officer told the Washington Post that “[the tent] basically just creates a medical exam room on the sideline where privately you can conduct the type of evaluation that normally we were doing just out on the sideline. There are still plenty of conditions, including some concussion situations where the player will be taken to the locker room for a full evaluation.”

According to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, that rule about a player needing to go to the locker room if he displays “sustained vertical instability” was announced nine days ago. It’s entirely possible that Panthers officials didn’t skirt the rule on purpose. It’s also possible that, given that this was the fourth quarter of Carolina’s biggest game of the year, they didn’t want to lose their star quarterback for the rest of the game. Either way, the NFL’s concussion protocol has left enough gray areas for issues like this one to persist.

Newton returned for the next set of downs and played extremely well for the remainder of the game, almost leading the Panthers to a come-from-behind victory. (They lost 31-26.) It was almost enough to make you forget he had ever suffered from “gross or sustained vertical instability” in the first place.

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