Despite a growing concern about head injuries in football, dozens of NFL players are still being diagnosed with concussions every year. And this season, it is Carolina that leads the league with seven.
Awareness has grown greatly in the past few years of both the injury and the cumulative effects. Will Smith made a movie about the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated impacts on the brain.
Despite the awareness, and NFL protocols put in place to identify concussions as they happen, football is a violent sport where head injuries are inevitable.
Last season, the Cleveland Browns had 14 reported concussions, while the Panthers had five. Including preseason, the Panthers have had nine this year.
DE Kony Ealy was diagnosed during training camp, then WR LaRon Byrd (who was making a good impression in camp) went on injured reserve in August.
During the course of the regular season, those affected are LT Michael Oher, QB Cam Newton, MLB Luke Kuechly, CB Daryl Worley, LB A.J. Klein, FS Colin Jones and, new this week, strong safety Kurt Coleman.
A lot was made of the excessive shots to the head that Newton received in the Denver game (four that the team believed could have been flagged). Then a goal line shot knocked him out. One can’t help but wonder if there was a cumulative effect at play from all the hits the QB has taken this season — especially with three of his five linemen out with injuries.
Still, Newton seemed to bounce back rather quickly. Much more troubling are a couple of other players.
For example, will Oher ever play again?
Oher, whose life was the basis for the move “The Blind Side,” hasn’t played since September and is on the injured reserve for the rest of the season.
Unlike a quarterback, offensive linemen are guaranteed to take an impact on every single snap all game long. True, most don’t involve blows to the helmet, but once a player has suffered a brain injury, all body impacts create jarring that affects the brain.
According to the Panthers.com website, Oher didn’t tell anyone he was suffering from any concussion effects until the Friday after losing to the Vikings in Week 3. He practiced all week like he was fine, slamming bodies with the defensive linemen over and over.
After first the team thought he would be back in early October just like Newton, but the symptoms wouldn’t go away. Now that it has been two months, questions arise. Such as, how many concussions has the reserved Oher had without telling anyone? Will these symptoms ever fully go away? Will Oher ever be the player he was before?
Then comes the issue of Captain America, Newton’s nickname for Kuechly. The linebacker was seen on national TV crying as he realized he was coming out of the game with a concussion.
Last season Kuechly missed three games with a concussion. Who knows how many brain injuries he had in college and high school before the issue became as public?
David Newton of ESPN, wrote a column this week about the similarities between Kuechly and another great middle linebacker who was drafted by Carolina.
Dan Morgan was taken 11th overall in the draft. Kuechly ninth overall. Both showed great speed and instincts.
Yes, Kuechly has led the league in tackles twice, but Morgan holds the record for most tackles in a Super Bowl (the NFL says 18, but the Panthers say he had 25 when you add in assisted tackles).
In five years with the team, Morgan did have some injuries and averaged just 11 starts a season, but when he played, he was a tackling machine just like Kuechly.
After retiring, Morgan, a former Miami Hurricane, told a team fan site that he had five known concussions, but suffered many more than that. He said he remembers a big hit in high school where his vision turned green.
Yes it is true that today’s safety protocol could keep Kuechly from returning too soon — and hopefully prevent a recurrence. However, middle linebacker is a position where big hits are the norm. Kuechly may always be at risk of another concussion.
And don’t forget how much of the Panthers’ salary cap is tied up in its top eight players. At least three of them won’t play this weekend, and two of those guys are out for the year.
Center Ryan Kalil ($11.8 million) is out with his shoulder. Oher ($6 million) is out. And Kuechly’s $6 million salary this year is actually a bargain compared to what he is owed for the next five seasons: $64.2 million total.
If Kuechly’s play becomes affected by concussion issues, not only will the team hurt from not having the player on the field, but the guaranteed money owed Kuechly will hamper Carolina’s ability to replace him with a quality performer.
If there is an upside to this rough season, it looks like the Panthers will have a fairly high draft pick next spring to find a replacement for Oher.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.