Someone needs to save the NFL from itself, because the league sure as hell isn't going to do it.
Sunday, the Carolina Panthers made a mockery of the concussion protocol — yes, that newly toughened concussion protocol that was rolled out less than a month ago following the last incident to expose it as a farce, I might add.
After being sacked with 9:12 left in an NFC wild-card game, Cam Newton was hit hard in the head by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata. Newton was slow to get up and then, as he jogged off the field, stopped and dropped to his knees.
He was examined on the sideline, and it was announced he was being evaluated for a concussion. But, lo and behold, four minutes later, Newton was back in the game after missing one play.
The Panthers claimed afterward that their former MVP hadn't actually had a head injury, but that his helmet had slipped forward and pressed into his eye.
“My helmet had came down low enough over my eyelid and it got pressed into the player's stomach, I believe,” Newton said. “I thought maybe somebody stuck his finger in my eye.”
Aside from that being about as believable as “the dog ate my homework” — “Didn't he look a little dazed? A little fazed? He definitely wasn't unfazed,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said — it didn't matter. Once Newton dropped to his knee, he had to be taken to the locker room, according to a new provision in the concussion protocol.
Here's the exact language: “Require 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).”
What part of this is so hard to understand? I get that “sustained vertical instability” is a mouthful, but “stumbling or falling to the ground” ought to clear that up. Better yet, use your eyes. Anyone who watched the play and its aftermath could see that Newton wasn't right.
But it's obvious the NFL doesn't care.
Oh, it'll talk a good game when put on the spot. Like the toughened protocol it implemented following the travesty with Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage, who was allowed to re-enter a Dec. 10 game despite exhibiting the “fencing position,” an established reaction to a brain injury, at the feet of an official.
Until the NFL starts following its own rules and cracking down on teams who flout them, it's all lip service.
If the NFL is sincere about protecting the long-term health and safety of its players — or even just wants the appearance of it — it needs to dock the Panthers a draft pick. Send a message to them and every other team that keeping a player's brain intact matters more than anything.
Yes, even during a playoff game.
Better yet, put all this in the hands of someone else. Outsource medical decisions during games to athletic trainers and physicians who are not beholden to the league or any of its teams. The spotters in the booth, the neurotrauma consultants, the physicians on the sidelines — all of them should come from an independent group with full, unassailable authority to make decisions on player health and safety.
Cam Newton was hardly the first player failed by the NFL. What's worse is that he won't be the last.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour