For Philadelphia Eagles, other NFL players, postseason adds element to game’s health risks
Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Jaylen Watkins said it’d be difficult to envision a player taking himself out a playoff game, even if he faced health risks or signs of a concussion. "In that moment, you’ll do whatever to win the game," he said. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills said he returned home after taking his dog for a short walk Sunday, glanced at the television and muttered what other football fans across the country were thinking.
“Oh man,” Mills said. “Cam’s hurt. I hope he can go back in.”
Mills was watching the Panthers play the Saints in an NFC wildcard round game and saw Cam Newton sitting on the turf after absorbing a big hit. Trainers circled the quarterback. And as a fan, Mills felt devastated at the thought of the league’s 2015 MVP missing the closing minutes of a crucial contest to undergo evaluation for a concussion or another injury.
The NFL and the Panthers wound up averting a crisis, though. A neurologist cleared Newton to return after passing a brief concussion evaluation, and the quarterback said after Carolina’s loss he simply got poked in the eye (Deadspin has a complete breakdown of the eye-poke explanation here).
In any case, the image of Newton stumbling to the sideline shined the latest spotlight on the league’s struggles to cope with concussion and injury risks, while underscoring the reality that the playoffs add an element to those challenges. Several Eagles this week said the heightened stakes of the postseason would make them and other players more likely to play through a headache or pain without telling trainers.
“Cam’s the quarterback, he knows what he means to the team,” Eagles defensive back Jaylen Watkins said, discussing the scene in the Panthers’ loss to the Saints. “I’m pretty sure if they would’ve tried to grab him and take him of the field, he would’ve been like, ‘No, get off of me.'”
Watkins said while most players are aware of research linking football to long-term brain damage and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, they’d probably try to stay in a game through headaches if they felt they could play well.
It’s all about circumstances, explained Watkins, whose Eagles will host the Falcons on Saturday in the NFC divisional round. He said he’d more likely let trainers know of a headache or any injury in the first quarter of a game or during the regular season than he would down the stretch of a postseason nail-biter, because his competitive nature would override everything else.
“Game on the line, you know, you’ll deal with whatever afterward and take the proper steps,” Watkins said, “but in that moment, you’ll do whatever to win the game.”
The NFL had faced lawsuits and widespread criticism for their slow response to studies outlining the prevalence of CTE in former players. Over the past decade, however, the league’s installed new rules and policies in an effort to prevent, diagnose and treat concussions more properly.
On Sunday, Newton went into a blue medical tent with an independent neurologist for his evaluation in the fourth quarter. Those resources and the concussion protocol were not in place 15 years ago.
And yet, concussions can still go undiagnosed and players can put themselves in harm’s way, like when Texans quarterback Tom Savage reentered a game last month after suffering an apparent seizure (and concussion) on the field. No matter how intensive the NFL’s concussion guidelines are, it’s often up to the player to alert medical staff of his symptoms.
The league encourages players to report those injuries, and they have reason for it. It’d hurt the NFL if a star missed the final minutes of a playoff game; it’d cause more damage if a notable figure like Newton slipped through concussion protocol on a national television broadcast.
But many believe that the league might not be able to avoid a controversy like that without the help of players and teams. “No matter how many loopholes the league and the union try to close, teams that want to keep their star players in important games will probably find another,” Deadspin’s Dom Cosentino wrote.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins admitted to playing through a concussion in 2015. He conceded the decision to do so was unwise and said he’d try to tell medical staff the next time he felt woozy or dazed.
It’s a difficult balance to reach, Mills said. By nature, NFL players don’t want to come out of games or show signs of injury — and that feeling is magnified in big games or the postseason, Mills said.
“As a competitor, you want to give your all to the team,” Mills said. “You want to give you all to the players, to the coaching staff. So if something does happen and you’re able to shake it off and then be able to still perform at a high level, you do.”
Added defensive tackle Elijah Qualls: “You play through it if your shoulder’s bruised or you rolled your ankle or something like that. But if you got a full-blown concussion, like for sure, like you can’t see and stuff, you have to come out. You’ve got a life to live after football.”
Where things get tricky is the severity of the head injuries. Qualls used the term “full-blown concussion,” but not all symptoms are obvious, and the rookie said it’d be a challenging decision whether to tell trainer about a dull headache.
Though Qualls has never appeared in an NFL postseason, he also said he imagines the playoff atmosphere would intensify a players’ motivation to fight through an injury.
As a matter of self-preservation, Qualls said he gives himself a rule to follow. He’ll always go to trainers if he senses an injury and ask one question.
“The only thing I ask is, ‘Can it get worse? Can it get more severe?'” Qualls said. “If they tell me no, I’m going back in. I’ll play through pain; I don’t care what it is. As long as I’m not about to lose a limb, be crippled for the rest of my life, I’m cool with it. If they tell me it can be severe or life-threatening or I could break something or tear something or whatever, I’m not going to play.”
Then Qualls paused for a moment and shrugged his shoulders.
“But, then again,” he said, “I’ve never been in a playoff situation.”
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