Just less than a year ago, Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Carson Wentz apparently experienced a traumatic brain injury — on Dec. 22, 2016 to be exact.
Driven head first into the turf by New York Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon, the then-rookie Wentz needed help to remain standing before being sent for a concussion evaluation in the locker room. Then miraculously, he returned to the game.
Less than a month later, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson seemingly suffered the same fate — on Jan. 9. He received a clothesline forearm to the head and neck courtesy of Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster in the National Championship Game. Watson sat there for a moment, stared forward, grabbed his facemask, and quickly shrugged his shoulders — all “cobweb” clearing responses — before gesturing for a penalty. The flag was already in the air. However, there was never any concussion caution call from above. Nor did the referee banish Watson to the sideline for an examination. Watson was not coming out of that game.
Fast forward to the current season. Last month, Watson — now a member of the Houston Texans — tore his right ACL. Then on Sunday, Wentz followed suit, except his injury was to the left knee.
Perhaps, but the science suggests otherwise.
A study published in January 2016 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine offers a far more ominous connection between knee injury and concussion.
Authored by University of Wisconsin orthopaedic surgeon Alison Brooks, the study found concussed collegiate athletes were nearly two-and-a-half times more likely than normal to suffer a non-contact leg injury in the first 90 days after returning to play.
Piggybacking on recent similar studies, Brooks and her co-authors concluded, “Given the demanding environment in which athletes are required to execute complex maneuvers, it is possible that mild neurocognitive deficits may result in judgment errors and loss of coordination during play.”
As for other recent studies, one out of the University of North Carolina (June 2015) and another out of Georgia Southern (Nov. 2016) came to similar conclusions.
The North Carolina researchers found a correlation between concussion and major lower extremity injury for at least a year after a concussion among 44 concussed athletes versus controls.
The scientists from Georgia Southern looked at an even larger group, 335 athletes, and found a significant relationship between concussions and leg injuries for the entirety of college careers.
All of which should not be so surprising. Research going back more than a decade — and reproduced again and again at separate centers — shows concussion victims display subtle but measurable changes in the way they walk for prolonged periods. Furthermore, those who suffer multiple concussions end up with permanent changes.
None of this should be particularly encouraging to current Texans starting quarterback Tom Savage. He was leveled on Sunday and displayed the “fencing response” — raised, rigid or slightly twitching forearms — but was allowed to return to the game for one series after a sideline exam of less than three minutes. Only after that series was he permanently removed and placed in the “concussion protocol.”
How was he ever allowed to remain in the game? The same question applies to Wentz and Watson last season. As long as football concussion protocols focus on sideline symptoms rather than those displayed immediately post-hit, on the field, this sad refrain will remain the same.