Does someone have to die on the field before the NFL acknowledges that its concussion protocol is ineffective? That all its talk about “player safety” amounts to little more than lip service?
Because that’s where we’re headed.
Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage was allowed to return to the game Sunday despite a blow to the head that left him in such distress some who saw video of the play mistook his writhing for a seizure. At the foot of an official, no less.
Two trained spotters in the press box. A team doctor on the sidelines. An unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant on the sidelines. All that medical expertise and not one of them could see what millions of fans did: That Savage had no business being on the field and should have been removed immediately.
“We need a different protocol and better training for the medical professionals. No question about that,” said Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, who was among those who wondered on Twitter if Savage had suffered a seizure. “And I think there needs to be fines and punishments when protocols are breached.
“It doesn’t appear they’re trying hard enough to get better.”
It’s hard to argue that, given the disturbing frequency with which players are being left on the field this season despite being obviously impaired.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett clutched the back of his head and was slow to get up after being hit last month, only to be cleared to return. Sure enough, the Colts announced after the game that Brissett had developed concussion symptoms.
Saints tight end Coby Fleener went to the sidelines after a helmet-to-helmet hit during New Orleans’ game against the Rams on Nov. 26, but wasn’t examined for a concussion. He was tested again after dropping a pass three plays later and surprise! had a concussion.
Fleener would go on injured reserve a few days later.
And while Russell Wilson didn’t end up having a concussion, he refused a sideline examination after being sent off by referee Walt Anderson.
But the Savage debacle was the worst of all.
The back of Savage’s head slammed into the ground after he was hit by Elvis Dumervil in the second quarter. As he struggled to roll over, Savage’s hands twitched and he showed signs of the “fencing response,” an involuntary reaction to a brain injury in which the forearms are held flexed or extended for several seconds.
All of this occurred right in front of referee John Hussey.
Savage was taken to the sideline medical tent, where he stayed for less than three minutes before returning to the Texans bench, according to The Associated Press. He was back in for the next series, but team medical personnel examined him again after he threw two incompletions and ruled him out.
“They try and make the best decision for the player,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said after the game. “They weren’t satisfied with the results of the second test, so they decided to pull him.”
Great. But it never should have come to that.
The NFL keeps saying how seriously it takes player safety. How proactive it’s being with head trauma. How comprehensive its concussion protocol now is.
It's true there have been instances where the protocol worked as designed. The response when Joe Flacco was hit so hard by Kiko Alonso his helmet was knocked off comes to mind. So, too, the Saints’ handling of rookie running back Alvin Kamara on Thursday night.
But those are rendered irrelevant when there are still so many horrifying and high-profile failures.
“It seems like this is happening more this year than it has in recent years,” Nowinski said. “This also may be an effect that more fans are attuned to this and they’re posting more video on social media. … Another part of me says we have taken a giant step backward this year and I don’t understand why.”
The NFL did not respond to an email from USA TODAY Sports seeking comment about the handling of Savage’s injury.
Head injuries have to be treated more seriously because they are more serious. Unlike dislocated fingers, sprained ankles or even torn knee ligaments, head trauma can diminish a player’s quality of life when he’s older, altering his personality and robbing him of his memories.
Week after week, the NFL is leaving its players in harm's way. How many more have to be hurt -- or worse -- before something is done?