The NFL's concussion protocol has come along way, but it still has a ways to go before it’s as successful as players need it to be.
It’s still flawed enough that players are able to either hide either concussion symptoms, or even pass the test while actually having a concussion. The latter was what happened to Vontaze Burfict in Week 15 this past season.
That’s when the star linebacker suffered a concussion in the first half of the Bengals’ matchup with the Steelers. He would temporarily leave the game to be evaluated for a concussion, but returned in the second half and finished the game.
It was later revealed that Burfict did not only suffer a concussion, but it was bad enough that he missed the final two games of the regular season. Mistakes like that cannot be allowed to happen, and it’s something NFLPA President and Bengals lineman Eric Winston is working to stop.
Speaking with the media Thursday in Houston, Winston made it clear the NFL must use stricter guidelines and testing methods to prevent what happened to Burfict, and more notably Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore in the playoffs, from happening again. Even though he never directly mentions what happened with Burfict and the Bengals, it was clear as NFLPA president, Winston won’t stand for incidents like that happening again.
“Even though it’s a handful of times we’ve had to investigate, we have to get that number down to zero,” said Winston via Newsday.com, while also adding that there were four investigations into concussion protocol during the 2016 season, with one more case pending. “It doesn’t matter what time of the game it is, the docs and trainers and the teams have to be there for us.
“We’re out there competing, [the NFL medical staffs] have to be the ones that step in and strictly adhere to the concussion protocol.”
Winston has been in the league since 2006, far enough back that we were still just beginning to learn the dangers of concussions and CTE when he started playing football at the pro level. He’s pleased with how far the league has come in regards to concussions and how the awareness level has increased, but he’s far from satisfied with the current protocols.
"The culture has definitely changed," Winston said via ESPN. "The way young players coming into the league now view concussions is totally different from what it was like when I broke in. But it's one of those things that's never finished. We'll never be done with the concussion protocol. There are always going to be ways to make it better.
Guys like Burfict will always fight tooth and nail to stay in games, regardless of what injury they have. That’s why it’s up to the team doctors and independent neurologists to keep players from making it back on the field when they have no business being there.
The NFL announced last week that the total number of concussions in 2016, including from practices, the preseason and regular-season games, was 244. In 2015, that number was 275. The NFL is working to make the game safer, and hopefully that count is exemplary of their efforts.
While the NFL has made progress when it comes to concussions, there’s still work to be done.