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NFL's focus protocol, not safety

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Jay Cutler suffered a brain injury and stayed in the game, getting hit in the head again on the very next play. Tim Dobbins was ruled by officials to have cheap-shotted Cutler with a helmet-to-helmet blow, and stayed in the game. Can we try to stay focused on what matters here?

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It won’t be easy, because Roger Goodell and the NFL are working a little magic trick, using smoke, mostly. It has been brilliant: On Monday, Goodell cleared the Bears in their handling of Cutler, saying they had followed the league’s concussion protocol perfectly. Then on Wednesday, the league fined Dobbins $30,000 for the hit.

See the diversion? In the days after the nightmare of Concussion Sunday, when quarterbacks Michael Vick, Alex Smith and Cutler were all knocked out of games, Goodell has decided to go on a PR campaign instead of a brain-saving one.

Let’s break it down: First, the NFL is pointing out that it has a protocol, a safety plan that one of its teams followed. Then, it is blaming Dobbins. Last, it is trying to look tough and proactive with the fine.

We’re doing what we can. We care about the issue. The problem is just Dobbins.

What a cold-hearted approach the NFL is taking. It does nothing to address the two basic problems from Sunday’s Houston-Chicago game.

Again: Cutler was still on the field, getting hit in the head, after suffering a concussion. And Dobbins was still on the field after officials ruled he had caused it unnecessarily.

“I can’t go into detail, or I’m not going to go through every step of the way,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “There’s protocol that we go through, through the NFL and with our team . . . when we determine whether a player can play anymore during that game, and when he comes back, for practice and games. And you just have to kind of go with our history a little bit on it.’’

Smith kept saying that word — protocol — Monday during an oddly defensive news conference. In part, someone apparently asks personal questions to see if a player knows the answers. Smith said that Cutler had not shown any symptoms of a concussion right after the hit, which came in the second quarter Sunday. So Cutler stayed in the game for seven more plays. At halftime, Smith said, the symptoms emerged. So the Bears took Cutler out of the game.

I’m calling B.S. Cutler’s head snapped forward on the hit, and after he hit the ground, he grabbed both sides of his helmet. Meanwhile, one of Cutler’s teammates, standing over him, waved to the Bears’ sideline for medical help to come out. Cutler eventually got up, and appeared confused as to where he was.

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Those might not technically count as symptoms, but they are evidence.

Cutler, who reportedly has suffered six concussions since college, should have come out right then, even if he was able to answer what his name is and where he is.

“There’s protocol we go through when a player does get a concussion,” Smith said, shortly after the league had cleared the Bears by saying they had followed protocol. “Medical staff. We have a history a little bit with concussions, and I think going beyond what . . . protocol is . . . to take every precaution.”

The league and Smith aren’t even talking about the same things as everyone else. They are talking about checklists and protocols as a way of protecting themselves from lawsuits. Everyone else is talking about a person’s brain.

Protocol? If Smith were talking about Cutler, and not about himself, then he might have said something like this: “We went through the league protocol, but it clearly isn’t enough because Jay was still on the field with a concussion, getting hit in the head again. We need to do better by him, and by the other players.”

Smith did say that he believed Cutler suffered the concussion on the hit from Dobbins.

But his concern needed to be about Cutler’s health, not whether Smith would take the blame for leaving him in the game.

In a Houston game earlier this year, quarterback Matt Schaub held his head with both hands on the ground after a hit from a linebacker, too. He would miss one play.

“Our doctors . . .’’ Houston coach Gary Kubiak said at the time, “any time any player is on the field, they go through the same protocol.”

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Look, concussion protocol is supposed to be in place to give teams a method to help protect players, not to give the league a legal out in the future if, say, Cutler starts forgetting how to walk home the way former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon now does.

You can’t help but to feel that the only reason the NFL has made significant changes when it comes to concussions is because it was pressured into it by the huge numbers of ex-players suing the league because of their concussions.

The truth is, there is no way of solving this problem. It will never go away, mostly because of the roughness of the game. And the gray areas make it tough, too.

Sunday’s game showed that so clearly. Cutler had been running forward, with the ball up, before throwing. You can’t blame a linebacker for wanting to affect the throw by hitting high. At the same time, when Cutler released the ball, Dobbins was still 3 or 4 yards away, and took another full step before making the hit.

But the point is that the officials on the field ruled that Dobbins had done the wrong thing, and hit him with a personal foul. A 15-yard penalty and a $30,000 fine are not going to stop a guy from making a play like that.

Afterward, Dobbins was asked if he thought his hit had caused Cutler’s concussion. He said, “I have no idea. No clue. But it was good that he was out, though. You always want to take the quarterback out of the game.”

It must be an automatic ejection, and suspension, if a player is ruled to have intentionally cheap-shotted another one in the head. Cutler should have sat out, no matter what protocol said. And the league should have a concussion expert on the sidelines — as the NFL players union wants.

Instead, the league will have a marquee game on "Monday Night Football" with Chicago at San Francisco. Neither team is likely to have its starting quarterback. Vick won’t play this weekend, either.

The statement after Concussion Sunday needed to be a change in protocol, if the current one allowed concussed players to stay in the game. Change protocol, don’t hide behind it.

Tagged: Bears, 49ers, Texans, Matt Schaub, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Tim Dobbins

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