Sam Mellinger

Concussed: How the NFL failed Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid on Alex Smith's concussion

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid provided updates on the concussions of quarterback Alex Smith and running back Spencer Ware following Sunday's 30-14 win over the Colts.
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Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid provided updates on the concussions of quarterback Alex Smith and running back Spencer Ware following Sunday's 30-14 win over the Colts.

The following words are about Alex Smith’s head slamming against what one player says is the hardest turf in the league, twice, with enough force to leave the Chiefs quarterback woozy, twice. There is nuance here, danger, and the pursuit of a solution that may not exist.

But if you only have a moment or two, please stick around for the next 157 words because we can distill much of what’s wrong with how the NFL claims to protect its players into one tidy scene.

This is Andy Reid, the third-most tenured coach in the NFL, and among its highest paid, attempting to explain this unexplainable series of events — his franchise quarterback is shoved into the ground so hard his ear is gashed, gets up wobbly, somehow passes the league’s concussion test, returns to the game, and while running a read-option play an hour or so after losing his equilibrium is again hit into the turf, again gets up wobbly, and again is put through the concussion test.

Reid’s opening statement included a claim that Smith passed the second test, too, which sounded so unbelievable it had to be the first question. You said he passed the second test, too?

“He passed it the second time, yes,” Reid said.

This is when a team spokesman interrupted, and clarified to Reid: no, he didn’t pass the second test.

“Oh, I thought he did,” Reid said. “So he didn’t pass the second time.”

NFL concussion testing is airtight, huh?

The Chiefs beat the Colts 30-14 on Sunday, and there is a lot to be encouraged about from the football. They built and maintained a lead here, which is no small thing. The pass rush was terrific, finally. The defense limited one of the league’s highest-scoring teams, again. They moved the ball, even when backup quarterback Nick Foles came in. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill had their most productive games. Dee Ford is making steady and undeniable progress.

But it was hard to watch that game and not come away thinking about Smith’s head, and the series of non-decisions that led to him returning, being put in danger again, and leaving from a second hit to the head. It’s also hard not to notice that neither hit was flagged, but a player who hugged a referee in another game Sunday was flagged.

The description of Reid’s apparent confusion over Smith’s second test is not to pick on the coach. He was speaking about 15 minutes after the final gun. Maybe he just got mixed up, and besides, he’s a football coach, not a doctor.

It is not his job to determine who is healthy, or who has a concussion. The Chiefs have doctors for that. The league has (supposedly) independent neurologists to help. If a doctor tells a football coach a player can go, then the football coach has to believe that player can go.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid explained the decision process among the league, team trainers and himself about the concussion protocol for quarterback Alex Smith on Sunday in Indianapolis.

It’s the test itself, approved and promoted by the NFL, that deserves every ounce of criticism. The league protects the details of its protocol obsessively, and makes changes to it every year, but you don’t have to trust a sports writer that this is more medical theater than thorough diagnosis — read the NFL’s own words. From page 3 of the league’s concussion protocol:

The 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.

That is the NFL, basically, saying, ¯\_(??)_/¯

On Sunday, that protocol failed Smith, a husband and father. He is a grown man and absurdly compensated, and by now there can be no claim by anyone involved that they do not understand and accept the risks of this violent and enthralling sport.

But the league is failing its players, still. That’s obvious to anyone who watched the helmet of Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson drill into Smith as he slid, the quarterback’s helmet bouncing from the collision into the turf. Smith remained on the ground for a moment, shaken like a boxer trying to beat a 10-count on his way up, steadied by running back Spencer Ware (who was unavailable to comment because he, too, would later fail a concussion test).

Smith walked off the field for his test. Jeremy Maclin has taken that test each of the last two seasons. The in-game test is different than the one given during the week, presumably because there’s a game out there to win. Maclin is short on details, but describes it as a series of tests, requiring memorization and balance.

He’s asked if he’s confident in the test.

“I think everybody’s different,” he said. “I think to have one standard test for each individual may not be the best thing. But at the same time, that’s what they came up with, that’s what we have, so that’s what they go by.”

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The NFL could stretch the boundaries of honesty a bit and describe the tests as individualized, since the results are compared to a baseline of responses given by each player before the season. But players have openly talked about tanking those initial tests to avoid being removed from games.

Tamba Hali has not taken a concussion test yet, and that’s not because he believes he’s never had a concussion.

“Every time they try to get me to do it, I say no,” he said. “Because then they get a gauge on you.”

So, Smith passes the first test — ahem — and comes back to the sideline. In his postgame remarks, Reid emphasized a few times that the Chiefs did everything by the book. There is no dispute of that here, but his insistence on noting that he took additional steps before putting Smith back into the game shines light on the problem.

Reid talked about getting “my eyes on it,” and was then pushed for details about the conversations he had to makes sure his quarterback’s mind was clear.

“I talked to Rick (Burkholder, Chiefs trainer),” Reid said. “Rick says, ‘He’s OK, passed everything.’ I go, ‘Are you OK, Alex?’ He said he was OK.”

Not exactly the fiercest physical, but this is the world the NFL has created. After that conversation, Smith is back in the game, and his coach, emboldened by his quarterback clearing a dubious test, calls a read option.

This is part of the Chiefs’ offense, but it’s also a play that some team officials have privately wanted to limit because of the inevitable hits it means for the quarterback. On this play, Smith read the Colts’ end moving inside, so he kept the ball and ran six steps, not quite getting to the first-down marker before sliding.

That’s when Colts safety Clayton Geathers — who, in an eerie coincidence, is the cousin of Robert Geathers, who concussed Chiefs quarterback Trent Green 10 years ago — dove in and appeared to shove the left side of Smith’s helmet into the turf.

After the game, Reid appeared defensive about his and the team’s handling of Smith after both hits. Many fans will continue to focus on Reid calling a play he knows could lead to his quarterback being hit so soon after he was dazed by another hit.

But all of that misses the point, like blaming a construction crew for making too much noise. Reid is doing his job here. If a doctor clears a player, based on league protocol, then why should a coach be expected to argue?

And why are we talking about what plays should be called for a quarterback who’s playing with a possible concussion instead of the fact that the quarterback is playing with a possible concussion?

NFL TV ratings are going down, significantly, with very few exceptions. There are any number of theories as to why this is happening, ranging from the looming presidential election to over-saturation to a simple lack of compelling games. Some of us will continue to watch, no matter what, because the athletes are incredible and the spectacle is fun and the strategy is irresistible.

But if the league is wondering why it’s losing so many casual fans, it might look at a system it admits is broken, is avoided by some players and deemed suspicious by others, in no small part because it sometimes means a quarterback we all suspect has a concussion is being allowed to play until taking another hit we all know damn well caused a concussion.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger