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The NFL opened the season with referees missing a bunch of illegal hits to Cam Newton’s head

The NFL needs to be much better at penalizing players for targeting, and recognizing potential brain injuries on the field.

Cam Newton took a lot of hard hits during the NFL season opener on Thursday night. That wasn’t unexpected against a punishing Broncos defense, but several of those hits seemed to fit the textbook definition of helmet-to-helmet and just one of them was called a foul. With the Panthers driving for what they hoped would be a game-winning score, safety Darian Stewart lit into the reigning league MVP.

Newton is 6’5, 245 pounds, mind you. It takes a lot of effort to get under his chin. That penalty was offset by an intentional grounding penalty, giving the Panthers another chance at second-and-10.

This hit by Brandon Marshall, however ...

... was not called.

Nor was Von Miller’s late addition to the play on which Newton was sacked and injured in the third quarter.

Nor this play which also occurred on the Panthers’ final drive.

And in case you were wondering, no, Newton was not checked for a concussion. Last season, the NFL implemented independent injury spotters who have the power to stop games if they feel a player has suffered an injury like a concussion. The spotters missed several concussions last season, however, and Thursday’s game suggested that they haven’t shored up their process much in the offseason.

On Friday morning, an NFL spokesman released a statement saying that an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, two independent spotters and the Panthers' team physician all reviewed the play on which Newton drew the penalty and concluded "there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal of the player from the game."

Newton's postgame press conference was delayed while he got treatment. When he took the podium, Newton demurred, saying that he didn't think he was being targeted during the game. He said that the Panthers asked him questions about his condition after the game, but that he didn't remember the questions because there were too many things going through his head.

"It's not my job to question the officials," Newton said. "I really like this officiating crew. So it wasn't something that I know they did intentionally, but it's not fun getting hit in the head."

He added: "I try to warn the refs every time I do get hit in the head, but if the flag is not called, then it's okay."

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera also sidestepped questions about the hits that Newton took, saying he needs to see the tape but that "the referees are doing the best job they can." Newton’s teammates were more outspoken.

The NFL says it is taking earnest steps towards reducing head injuries. The steps they have taken still don’t seem to be enough, however. Part of the problem may be that Newton’s reputation as a big, bruising runner makes referees treat him differently, but that shouldn’t be the case. The hits he took in Week 1 could have serious implications on his season.

If one of the NFL's biggest stars is found to have suffered and played with a concussion in Week 1, the league will face another avalanche of questions about how seriously it addressed head trauma. The NFL needs to be better at this.


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