On the same day the NFL announced that the number of diagnosed concussions leaguewide dropped 11 percent in 2016, a report surfaced that the NFL Players Association is reviewing the way the Chiefs handled Chris Conley’s concussion evaluation against Pittsburgh on Jan. 15.
Pro Football Talk, which reported the latter news Thursday, said it’s unclear whether the NFL is also investigating.
Conley was hit in the head by Steelers safety Sean Davis during a play in the Chiefs’ 18-16 divisional-round loss to the Steelers. Conley was on the ground for several moments, but returned to action after a brief absence.
He said after the game that he went through concussion protocol before returning.
“Yes, they checked me out — it was mostly a hit to my back and ribs, not my head,” Conley said.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said after the game that Conley injured his ribs, and Conley said the club did X-rays on the area as well.
“The hit just knocked the wind out me,” he said.
The league announced on Thursday that the number of diagnosed concussions leaguewide dropped from 275 in 2015 to 244 in 2016. That number, however, remains higher than in 2013 (229) and 2014 (206).
The league also says it saw a decreased number of preseason concussions (71) compared to last year (83), which was a point of emphasis considering preseason practices have consistently led to more concussions than regular-season ones.
“It’s important to distinguish between the two, because we focused heavily on training camp and preseason practices, and we’ve continued to make progress in that area,” said Dr. Christina Mack, the director of epidemiology and outcomes research real world insights at QuintilesIMS, a third-party company that compiled the data.
The league also said it saw an increased number of self-reported concussions this year, which the league hopes is an indication players are taking concucssion risks seriously.
“I’ve been a team physician for 23 years, and during the past three years I think I’ve seen a cultural change concerning concussions – the players are now more aware of the symptoms of concussions and are concerned for their health,” said Dr. Jeff Heyer, the president of the NFL’s Physicians Society and the team internist for the Carolina Panthers who – like Mack – spoke on the league-organized conference call Thursday to discuss the data.
“As a result of this ongoing education, players are more likely to speak up if they believe they have a concussion. And this awareness has led to more self‑reporting of symptoms by players and then an appropriate medical evaluation by the team physician and (unafilliated neurological consultant).”
Still, even though concussions are down in the preseason and regular season can be considered promising, when asked if this one-year data is statistically significant, Dr. Jeff Miller – the NFL’s executive vice president of health and safety policy – cautioned against reading too much into that.
“It’s certainly positive that concussions were down this year across categories,” Miller said. “But I think putting too much focus on any one year would be mistaken. The goal here is to drive those numbers down through rules changes, culture changes, protocol changes, through greater observation and treatment over a longer term period of time.”
There is still much work to be done on the subject, obviously. Page 3 of the league’s concussion protocol states that an “athlete may have a concussion despite being able to complete the NFL Sideline Concussion Assessment ‘within normal limits’ compared to their baseline, due to the limitations of a brief sideline assessment,” which is essentially an admission there is no foolproof way to diagnose a concussion immediately.
The Chiefs had their own bit of potential concussion drama this past season, when quarterback Alex Smith was allowed to return to a game against the Indianapolis Colts on Oct. 30 after having his head slammed into the turf, only to be knocked out of the game permanently when it happened again in the second half.
The Chiefs said afterward that Smith passed all concussion protocols – something Smith verified himself when he spoke the next week – and that he did not, in fact, have a concussion. He still, however, sat the next game against Jacksonville as a precaution for whatever head trauma he suffered against Indianapolis.
The difficulty of accurately diagnosing concussions is why the league is optimistic about the increased cooperation it says its receiving from its players, even though the league did not release any concrete data on that specific matter Thursday.
“When we started the UNC program, there was just a significant amount of resistance from the players in terms of just being evaluated,” said Dr. Mitch Berger, a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee. “A lot of times we would say we thought we saw a pretty big hit, and we looked at it on the injury surveillance video system and agreed and we wanted to evaluate the players. A number of them were resistant in the beginning.
“But now I would say uniformly this past season, none of the players ever resisted.”
Plenty of challenges to adequately and consistently diagnosing concussions still remain, however, as the NFLPA’s apparent investigation into the Conley situation shows.
“One year is not statistically significant, so we look at these trends holistically,” Mack said of the improved numbers for 2016. “It’s certainly in a positive direction, but that said, there is still a lot of emphasis, concussions remain a serious concern.”