Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz deserves to be praised for removing himself from Sunday's playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks because of a brain injury. It was an extraordinary act of self-preservation in a sport that frequently discourages self-preservation.
Granted, Wentz is not some back-of-the-roster grunt who was risking his job by tapping out of a postseason game. But he is a prominent starting quarterback who's been wracked with injuries throughout his four-year career and had to watch one of his backups win a damn Super Bowl. This makes his decision that much more courageous, and that much more powerful as an example for other players. The long-term risks of repetitive head trauma are simply too great to ignore.
But what might have happened had Wentz tried to tough it out, to play through the pain, as the culture of football typically encourages players in such circumstances to do? There's no way to know, of course, because the timeliness and severity of concussion symptoms varies greatly. The NFL has a concussion protocol that's designed in part to protect players from themselves. And even though the league has a history of blaming the protocol's limitations - and the players themselves - for any failures to enforce those procedures, this appears to be a case in which Wentz sought to protect his brain because it's possible no one else was going to do it.
The shot to the back of the head Wentz took from Jadeveon Clowney was brutal. But we know that with the benefit of hindsight. In real time, it was virtually impossible to know Wentz had been hit in the head at all, either via the initial impact from Clowney or after his head slammed into the ground. The live-action play went off without a hitch, and the game moved on.
The NBC broadcast only showed Wentz struggling to get to his feet for an instant before he began to walk away. His back was turned, so there were no shots of his face or of his eyes, and the broadcast cut away before anyone had an opportunity to know whether he'd suffered any type of injury.
Wentz stayed in the game for the remainder of the Eagles' possession - another five snaps. He even took an additional hit from Ziggy Ansah that knocked him to the ground, though there was no direct blow to the head. The broadcast showed him wincing slightly as he left the field while the Eagles prepared to punt, but it was impossible to determine whether this was frustration or a response to pain or head fogginess.
To those watching on television, nothing appeared to be amiss for several minutes. A total of 14 plays and a pair of commercial breaks went by after the Clowney hit until viewers suddenly learned that Wentz was walking to the locker room. That was also when play-by-play voice Al Michaels said that Wentz had just been evaluated in the medical tent.
Those in the stadium, including reporters tweeting about it as it happened, could see that Wentz had been in the tent for a few minutes before being escorted to the locker room. After another play went by, sideline reporter Michele Tafoya let viewers know Wentz had been examined in the tent for a concussion. As she spoke, a slow-motion clip of Clowney's hit on Wentz was finally shown.
In a statement provided to theScore, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said "appropriate protocols were followed," before adding:
The independent certified athletic trainer spotters and unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants monitoring the game were carefully observing the play and the players after the hit. In the judgment of these independent medical experts, and based upon their direct observation and the available video, neither player seemed to exhibit behavior or symptoms suggestive of concussion.
In other words, the spotters and independent consultants didn't think Wentz had a head injury. Per the protocol, they are "charged with monitoring all available video feeds and the network audio to identify players who may require additional medical evaluation." But the broadcast hadn't shown anything that would indicate anything was wrong with Wentz. This was one that was possibly going to fall through the cracks - until Wentz spoke up.
At some point after Wentz got to the sideline, he told backup Josh McCown to stay ready, according to what McCown said to reporters afterward. McCown wound up finishing the game, and the Eagles lost, ending their season.
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski he knew Wentz wasn't right based on the way the quarterback looked when he got up gingerly after the Clowney hit. However, Ertz only knew this because he had the benefit of being close to the situation. Ertz played Sunday despite two broken ribs and a lacerated kidney, but he drew a clear line between that and a head injury.
"I'd rather have him healthy and safe," Ertz told Sielski, "than for him to be at 50%, risking a severe brain injury.”
Players can and do hide concussion symptoms to avoid being taken out; another Eagles player, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, copped to doing so in December. Wentz's actions ought to show that speaking up is worth it, that the long-term risks outweigh the short-term gains.
Dr. Sills said that what Wentz did was "heroic," and for once, this wasn't a cynical response from a league that too often transfers the burdens of the game's inherent dangers onto the players. Would anyone else have recognized what was wrong if Wentz hadn't had the courage to do so? And what might have happened had he taken another brain-rattling hit before that other one had a chance to heal?
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.