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One Week After it Failed Case Keenum, Peter King and NFL Think Concussion Protocol Worked Perfectly

Peter King got access to the NFL's head trauma specialist, so of course we learned nothing.

by Sean Newell
Nov 30 2015, 5:12pm

As Peter King details in his Monday Morning Quarterback column today, the NFL benevolently granted him access to "one of its unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants," Dr. Richard Ellenbogen. Dr. Ellenbogen is the co-chair of the NFL's head, neck, and spine committee, and also serves as department chair of neurological surgery at the University of Washington. The NFL recently gave UW $2.5 million to "start up a new institute to study concussions."

King says the NFL made the unaffiliated Ellenbogen available in the wake of the Case Keenum fiasco, in order to discuss the game-day process that so clearly failed in Baltimore. As you might be aware of by now, at every game there are spotters tasked with looking for potential head injuries; they have the authority to require player evaluations if they suspect an injury and even to stop play to make sure it happens. Keenum was obviously not OK last week, when he had difficulty getting to his feet after his head slammed into the turf. The Rams trainer went out on the field to check him out, which effectively cut off the spotter's ability to do anything.

Game officials reportedly sent the Rams trainer off the field, unaware that Keenum was concussed. Somehow no one on the Rams sideline noticed the injury, even though the trainer went out on the field, and Keenum was allowed to continue playing. Yesterday, the Washington Post also reported that the Rams would not be disciplined for the way they handled the Keenum concussion, according to a person familiar with the events, who said it was "a perfect storm of things going wrong." What does the co-chair of the NFL's head, neck, and spine committee have to say about the Keenum case? "In that game last week,'' he said, "there are a lot of things a lot of people could have done better." Ah.

Coincidentally, Peter King was able to speak to Ellenbogen when the system worked perfectly. In Ellenbogen's words, Sunday "was a very good day for culture change" in how the NFL and individual teams handled concussions. Ellenbogen was on hand at the Steelers game against the Seahawks in Seattle and to hear King relay it, just one week after everything went wrong, everyone involved in Seattle—player, coach, doctors, officials—did everything right. It was the perfect storm of talking points.

Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a concussion and was ultimately held out of the game after an evaluation:

The spotter upstairs noticed that Shazier appeared woozy after a mid-second-quarter play. He was escorted to the sideline, and an athletic trainer took his helmet. Shazier told Ellenbogen and Steelers doctors he was OK. Ellenbogen watched the video of the play in question and saw helmet-to-helmet contact, and also saw Shazier's head hit the ground. That was enough for both a sideline exam and a more thorough exam inside the locker room. Shazier insisted he was fine, and at one point, according to Ellenbogen, coach Mike Tomlin came over and said to Shazier: "You will listen to these doctors, and you'll do it now."

Miraculous. And yet it somehow got better. Not only did the system work perfectly for Shazier and provide great dialogue like, "You will listen to these doctors," but later in the game, Ben Roethlisberger self-reported a concussion of his own. The one flaw in the system—or the one flaw pointed out by the NFL, anyway—is that it can be susceptible to a player's desire to stay in the game. Ellenbogen gushed about Roethlisberger: "Then we had a player self-report in the middle of an intense game, which is exactly what we want. He put health and safety over the competition."

Roethlisberger had to be helped to his feet after this hit, which was flagged for roughing the passer. Referee Walt Anderson announced to the stadium that the personal foul was for making contact with the head of the quarterback. The trainer did not come on the field. The spotter did not stop play, and Roethlisberger drove the Steelers down to the Seattle three-yard line, where they settled for a field goal. The Seahawks then scored on an 80-yard touchdown pass to take a 39-30 lead with two minutes left in the game. We don't know when Roethlisberger self-reported the concussion, but he did not go back into the game.

So, sure. Maybe the system worked perfectly, or as perfectly as it can. It is great that the Steelers seem to be on board with player safety, and that Mike Tomlin is supportive of his players' health. It is great that Ben Roethlisberger is smart enough to (eventually) temper the macho gladiator perception because he A) doesn't want to kill himself playing football, and B) knows that the team is better when he can play at a high level, anyway.

But Case Keenum was not a great thing. That was a fucked-up thing. Peter King had access to The Guy on these matters and all he got out of him on Keenum was "there are a lot of things a lot of people could have done better." What are those things? What are the things that are supposed to happen in the first place? If the spotter has the ability to stop the game for a medical timeout, why is he instructed not to do so once a trainer sets foot on the field? How is that independent? Why can't the trainers and spotters overrule an official who kicks them off the field because he missed the injury? What is the spotter looking for if he or she misses helmet-to-helmet contact that was announced as a penalty?

Peter King could have asked these questions, but that's not what he does. That's why he was given the access in the first place.