In another, earlier era of the NFL, Carson Wentz would have staggered back to the Eagles’ sideline Sunday night, sat down with his head in his hands, and kept his mouth shut. He would have abided by the unspoken expectations of that time: that this was a playoff game, that he was the starting quarterback and his team’s season was on the line, and that he had an absolute obligation to disregard the foggy, fuzzy sensation clouding his brain and get back on that damn field.
Those days aren’t gone yet, but they might be going away, and the sensible — and, in a way, gutsy — decision that Wentz made in the aftermath of the head shot he absorbed from the Seahawks’ Jadeveon Clowney should help ensure that they do. It’s easy to get lost in the short-term effects, on Wentz and the Eagles, of Clowney’s hit and the damage it wrought. Wentz left after just eight snaps and didn’t return. Josh McCown, 40 years old and in the 17th season of his career, entered his first playoff game. And the Eagles didn’t score a touchdown, despite venturing inside Seattle’s 30-yard line five times, in their 17-9 loss.
Maybe the Eagles win if Wentz stays in the pocket and stays in the game. Maybe a hundred sports-talk hosts and another hundred sports columnists have to find another bone to chew on. But once you get past the immediate questions and controversy surrounding the hit, a more important and encouraging development becomes clearer to see.
Here was Wentz, as vital to his team’s fortunes as any quarterback in the NFL, a still-emerging star, being honest enough to remove himself from a playoff game because of a head injury. That is, without any doubt, a good thing, for him and for the norms and future of his sport.
Understand: No one forced Wentz to leave the game. No one. Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, acknowledged in a statement that, according to “the independent certified athletic trainer spotters and unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants monitoring the game,” neither Wentz nor Clowney “seemed to exhibit behavior or symptoms suggestive of concussion” after Clowney speared Wentz in the back of the head. This is the system that the league loves to tout whenever it touts its commitment to player safety, and that system broke down. It wasn’t until after the Eagles’ offensive possession ended, a few plays later, that Wentz told McCown he was woozy. Only then did Wentz enter the league’s concussion protocol. Only then was he examined and diagnosed.
“We talked on the bench, and obviously he expressed concern and told me to stay ready,” McCown said. “When you are dealing with these things as a player, it’s tough. Carson Wentz has put a ton into this season and to get to this moment, especially the things that he’s gone through. It’s a tough call. But he is sitting there not feeling right and obviously knew he needed to get checked. For the state of our game and the questions that come around those types of injuries, I think it’s a step forward. It’s progress.”
Of course it is. For all the research and information available now, for all the awareness of the possible repercussions of head trauma — post-concussion syndrome, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, dementia — an athlete’s own free will remains a formidable obstacle to any effort to identify, treat, and reduce such incidents and injuries.
It’s a huge loophole. The incentives to deliver such a blow and to conceal a concussion are still so strong: a paycheck, a longer career, the loyalty a player feels to his team and teammates, the outcome of a big game.
Wentz was hardly immune to those incentives. Sure, you can argue that a Joe Blow backup has more at stake, that he doesn’t have the same financial freedom that a franchise quarterback who recently signed a lengthy and lucrative contract extension does. But Wentz has been well aware of the criticism levied at him over his four years with the Eagles: that he’s injury-prone, that he’s either too tough or too reckless for his own good, that one way or another he can’t stay healthy.
Those same critiques have arisen since Sunday night, and he had to know they would, and they’re powerful, too. No one in the Eagles’ locker room has publicly second-guessed Wentz, though, or suggested that he owed it to himself or anyone else to put himself at greater risk. Zach Ertz watched how Wentz rose from the ground after the hit, how unsteady he was, and he recognized, right away, that something was wrong.
“In that situation, the health is the first thing,” said Ertz, who has suffered two concussions — that he knows of — in his seven-year career. “He’s got a family. He’s got a baby on the way. He’s got to think about something much bigger than football. Carson as a person, obviously, would love to do everything he can to win his first playoff game, but his health is the most important thing to all of us on this football team. I’d rather have him healthy and safe than for him to be at 50%, risking a severe brain injury.”
He was asked if the thinking among players on concussion and head injuries has evolved since 2013, when he entered the league.
“For sure,” said Ertz, who suited up Sunday despite two broken ribs and a kidney laceration. “All of us understanding the health risks, that’s definitely increased in the seven years I’ve been in the league. I tell guys all time: I can play through a lot, but the one thing I’m not trying to play through is an injury to my brain. You only get one of those. That’s something you can never play with.”
That belief isn’t universal around the NFL, not yet. A player hiding a concussion might be a rarer occurrence than it once was, but it still happens. Eagles linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill suffered a concussion on the first play of the team’s loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 1, then lied to medical personnel about it, telling them he’d hurt his shoulder. Coach Doug Pederson called it “a selfish act,” but not until after Grugier-Hill had played another 41 defensive snaps that day. Malcolm Jenkins concussed himself in 2015 while tackling Cowboys running back Darren McFadden. He didn’t say a word then, but he would now.
“What I did was wrong,” Jenkins said. “It put myself in danger and put the team at risk. I don’t encourage anybody to do what I did. I did the wrong thing. I’m glad that Carson took himself out. It’s a tough situation. It’s hard to do. But we appreciate him, and we understand.”
It’s long past time that everyone understood, and out of that ugly moment Sunday night, that late and needless head hit, should rise a lasting benefit. Carson Wentz did the right thing, and no one had to tell him to do it. It’s a sign that the culture and attitude around concussions have changed for the better, and it makes it easier for the next man, and the next one, and the next one, to speak up and keep himself safer.