The NFL says it’s all about player safety.
Try telling that to Cam Newton, one of the league’s biggest stars.
The way the Carolina Panthers quarterback was beaten up in a season-opening loss at Denver, one would think it is back to open season on anyone wearing a helmet and shoulder pads.
If nothing else, it showed that Newton is subject to a different set of rules than the league’s other QBs.
Can you imagine Tom Brady or Drew Brees taking four helmet-to-helmet hits — including two where the defender appeared to leave his feet and launch himself into Newton — with only a single flag being dropped?
We can’t either.
Clearly, the NFL’s epiphany on player health — which the jaded will note only came at the prodding of a massive lawsuit brought by former players whose lives were ruined by repeated hits to the head — still hasn’t gone far enough.
“We’ve got to treat Cam like a quarterback,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said after Thursday night’s Super Bowl rematch, won by the Broncos 21-20. “I know he’s the biggest guy on the field, but he’s still a quarterback.”
It’s only natural that the officials see Newton, as imposing a quarterback as there is at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, in a different light than his mostly smaller counterparts.
And, to be sure, Newton’s running ability puts him in harm’s way a lot more often than a pure drop-back passer.
“The guy is a … tight end, defensive end playing quarterback. What are we supposed to do?” said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who doled out a couple of egregious hits on Newton. “When he’s running the ball — they’ve got quarterback-designed runs, quarterback keeps, quarterback powers, draws, everything — we’re going to treat him like a running back.”
That’s no reason for the officials to continually look the other way.
In the short term, the league needs to immediately send out an edict to its officials that ALL quarterbacks are deserving of the same protections, as well as launch an urgent review of its concussion protocol after Newton went through the entire game without being tested, even after all those brutal hits.
Never mind that the Panthers said he was tested four times afterward and all were negative.
The next player might not be so lucky.
Longer term, the league needs to seriously consider following the college game, which has brought down the hammer on targeting. When a player initiates a hit with the top of the helmet, leaves his feet to deliver a blow or levels a defenseless player, he is ejected from the game and has to sit out the first half of the next game as well. In addition, his team receives a 15-yard penalty.
All targeting calls are automatically subject to a video review, a necessary step in a violent game that’s nearly impossible to keep a handle on in real time. While the targeting rule still has its share of hiccups, the replay system helps to weed out the calls that are blatantly wrong, an important safeguard when a foul comes with such stiff penalties.
At the very least, the NFL needs to expand its replay system to help officials determine which hits are truly dangerous.
“I think as far as big hits on quarterbacks or hits to the helmet, I think that would be important and I think eventually it is going to come that,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Friday. “If there is a questionable call, you have to go to replay just to make sure. Again, this is about player safety at the end of the day, so we have to find a better solution to keep these things down to a minimum.”
The NFL already determined that Marshall should’ve been penalized for his second hit to Newton’s head after the quarterback had thrown a pass, according to a person speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the league doesn’t comment publicly on the details of such reviews.
That could lead to a hefty fine.
The league needs to show it’s at least as concerned about player safety as it is about deflated footballs.
Immediately after the game, Newton shrugged off the beatdown he received, saying it wasn’t his job to question the officials. Maybe he was still groggy. Maybe he’s gotten so used to being subjected to a different standard that he expects it.
“I try and warn the refs every time I do get hit in the head,” he said. “But if the flag is not thrown, then it’s OK.”
No, it’s not.
The league should be watching out for all its players, even those who seem big enough and strong enough to take care of themselves.
“It’s kind of been like that since he’s been here,” Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis said. “They judge him different. They look at him different.”
That’s got to change.
Week 2 would be a good time to start.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
AP Sports Writers Steve Reed in Charlotte and Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.