I write frequently about concussions and brain trauma in football. I’ve discussed football helmet technology, getting players to admit that they are having symptoms of a concussion, not letting athletes return to play in the same game and more. As I watched the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos play a few nights ago, I couldn’t help but wish that there was a way to eliminate intentional blows to the head of football players. It might only help decrease long-term risk a small amount, but I think it’s important enough that I made it the focus of my latest newspaper column.
Not even one game was in the books before the issue of head trauma in the NFL emerged again this season.
Cam Newton received at least 4 helmet-to-helmet hits
During Thursday night’s Super Bowl rematch between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton took at least four helmet-to-helmet hits from Broncos defenders. Only one resulted in a personal foul penalty – a shot from Darian Stewart on the game’s final drive. Newton was slow to get up but remained in the game. The following day, the NFL released a statement claiming a Panthers team doctor and the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant requested video of the Stewart hit. They felt there was no indication for evaluation of Newton or removal of the quarterback from the game.
The NFL and the NFL Players’ Association are currently investigating whether the Panthers followed the league’s concussion protocol.
From my perspective, the bigger concern involves the referees allowing those blows to Newton’s head in the first place.
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Penalties for hits to the helmet
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera believes some of the shots leveled at Newton deserved penalties. He sent tape of several of those hits to the NFL. A league source told ESPN that a second hit – one in which Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall launched himself at Newton – deserved a penalty as well.
The father of the quarterback agreed with Rivera, concerned more about Cam’s long-term health. “It starts with the guys who control the behavior on the field,” Cecil Newton argued to ESPN. “I think the culprit is the mere fact that they allowed the game to get out of control. They allowed players to push the envelope to the very edge. That’s my ultimate concern.”
Newton himself declined to criticize the officials. “I really like this officiating crew, so I know it wasn’t something they did intentionally. … But it’s not fun getting hit in the head.”
Blows to the head of quarterbacks
The NFL has two rules regarding helmet-to-helmet hits. The first prohibits them against players in defenseless positions, such as quarterbacks in the pocket. If the quarterback is running out of the pocket, then these blows are permitted. If a defender uses his helmet to ram or spear a player violently or unnecessarily, however, then that hit is supposed to be penalized as well.
The Panthers run a read-option offense that depends on the quarterback’s ability to run when needed. Factor in Newton’s willingness to take on defenders to help the team, and it’s no surprise that he takes a lot of hits.
Cam Newton and hits from defenders
In fact, since 2011, Newton has taken more hits while passing or running than any quarterback in the NFL, according to ESPN’s David Newton. Seattle’s Russell Wilson is second on that list, having taken over 300 fewer hits.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen believes referees are treating Newton as a running back, not calling penalties for hits that they would flag if they were instead delivered to smaller, less mobile quarterbacks.
The need to protect quarterbacks
Olsen is probably correct in that the referees are intentionally, or even unintentionally, treating Newton differently. I would argue that the league needs to protect all quarterbacks against helmet-to-helmet blows, regardless of whether the player is in the pocket trying to pass or running the ball. But I would go one step further.
Eliminating helmet-to-helmet hits in football
The NFL should try to eliminate all helmet-to-helmet hits – to all players. I understand that in real time, referees probably won’t see every hit. They can’t judge a defender’s intent. They could call penalties when they do see these head shots. Then officials in the league office could fine players after-the-fact. If players start getting $25,000 to $50,000 fines, even if no penalties are called on the field, these hits will quickly go away.
I realize that making rules about helmet-to-helmet blows and strictly enforcing them is only one small part of a larger concern about concussions, CTE and overall brain health for NFL players. If the NFL continues to allow these hits, it defeats the notion that the league really cares about player safety.
How could we eliminate helmet-to-helmet hits from football? Or should we eliminate them? Please share your thoughts below!
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the September 13, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.
“How many carries are too many for Cam Newton? It’s a ‘fine line.’” By David Newton. ESPN.com. September 12, 2016.
“Brandon Marshall hit to helmet of Cam Newton should have been penalized, NFL determines.” ESPN.com. September 10, 2016.
“Cecil Newton ‘grossly disturbed’ by hard hits on son, refs’ lack of flags.” By Jim Trotter. ESPN.com. September 10, 2016.
“The officials blew it, but so did Cam Newton’s team on Thursday.” By Ian O’Connor. ESPN.com. September 9, 2016.
“Cam Newton’s night ran counter to NFL push on safety.” By Kevin Seifert. ESPN.com. September 9, 2016.