Rams, NFL Handling of a Shaken Case Keenum Was Disgraceful

For all of the talk about how the NFL cares about player safety and the health of athletes that expose their bodies and brains to potential damage during three hours of violence each game-day, we’re wondering why no one gave a damn about Rams quarterback Case Keenum on Sunday afternoon in Baltimore.

With a little more than a minute remaining in the Rams’ 16-13 loss to the Ravens, Keenum had his head slammed hard into the turf in on a sack nullified by a Ravens’ offsides penalty. This wasn’t a case of a player being able to cover up his injury — hoping no one witnessed it — so he could stay in the game. This still happens too often in the NFL, even after the league’s initiative to be on full alert to look for signs of a concussion.

Earlier this season Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins disclosed that he’d concealed his concussion from the medical staff so he could keep playing. Because there was nothing unusual or even noticeable about the hit that caused Jenkins’ concussion, his brain injury went undetected.

Keenum had no chance to hide Sunday.

You could see the back of Keenum’s head bounce violently on the turf after Baltimore defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan rag-dolled him. Clearly disoriented, Keenum squirmed on the ground. You could see him holding his head. Teammate Garrett Reynolds tried to pull Keenum up and get him to his feet, but Keenum wobbled and flopped down again. He was on all fours, then rolled over. Reynolds made a second try, and Keenum barely managed to raise himself up. His mind was in a different location.

Backup quarterback Nick Foles noticed immediately and began to loosen on the sideline, waiting for the inevitable signal to replace Keenum. Surely, the Rams coach Jeff Fisher would hustle Foles in there and get Keenum out of harm’s way and into the safety zone to be examined by the medical staff and put through the mandatory concussion protocol.

That’s the NFL policy.

But you wouldn’t have known that by watching Keenum struggling to re-attach his senses to reality, with no intervention from the league’s concussion spotter, Rams coaches, or the team’s on-site medical staff.

Fisher took no action. In his post-game interview, Fisher indicated he was unaware of Keenum’s disturbing body language. I had a difficult time believing that, but Fisher reinforced the point, several times over, during his Monday news conference at Rams Park. OK, fine. He didn’t know.

But even if Fisher was yapping at the officials at the time, or talking strategy with an assistant coach, he deserves criticism for being so oblivious. A coach must be aware of what’s going on, especially with his quarterback, and especially late in the fourth quarter of a 13-13 game. This didn’t happen in a scrum; everyone in the stadium had a wide, full, clear view of Keenum’s distress.

Moreover, Fisher wasn’t the only person standing on the sideline.

Or observing the scene from the coaches’ booth upstairs.

There’s no justification for sticking with a discombobulated Keenum.

On the next play, Keenum sailed an overthrown pass beyond the reach of Wes Welker. (Oh, the irony.) Two plays later Keenum seemingly lacked pass-rush awareness, held onto the football, and lost it on a sack-fumble. The Ravens used the takeaway to set up the winning field goal.

I realize that Fisher doesn’t prioritize the quarterback position — but come on, now.

This was absurd. And irresponsible.

If we simply view this from a football standpoint, I can’t imagine why a coach would want to have a dazed, brain-clouded quarterback in a tie game with a minute left in the fourth quarter.

From a player-safety standpoint, it was shameful to expose Keenum to additional punishment. Head trauma is a serious matter, but the coach, the trainers the doctors and the NFL spotter didn’t take the time to thoroughly inspect Keenum before allowing him stagger his way to a sad and avoidable finish.

While the officials discussed the penalty on the play, Rams head athletic trainer Reggie Scott went onto the field to briefly check on Keenum. But less than a minute later, Keenum was huddling up for the next play.

In a rule new for 2015, the NFL’s injury spotter has the authority to buzz the officiating crew to halt play if he has reason to be believe a player may be concussed. The player is automatically removed and must pass the concussion protocol before he’s permitted to reenter. The spotter assigned to Sunday’s game ignored the blatant warning signs. There was no gray area here; Keenum was messed up. If the spotter thought his responsibility ended when Scott looked at Keenum — which is suggested by the NFL’s concussion-protocol guidelines — then it’s a remarkably stupid rule.

Keenum did get to his feet and must have been able to convince Scott that he was OK to keep playing. But that means nothing. This is what concussed players do. Their survival instincts kick in, and they can put on a convincing act for the trainers and medics and coaches to ease concern. Lucid or not, most players want to stay in the game and compete.

Why did so many people on the Rams’ sideline fail to see Keenum flailing? The man’s brain was short circuiting. He required attention. Where were Fisher’s assistants? What about the offensive linemen who rushed to Keenum’s aid? Why weren’t the Keenum’s teammates waving to the bench to get Fisher’s attention ? Here’s an idea: you want to protect and support a teammate? Great. Start with taking a stand so the dude doesn’t take another debilitating hit to scramble his head wires.

According to Myles Simmons, reporter for the Rams’ official web site, Keenum was diagnosed with a concussion after the game. Unfortunately, that diagnosis came too late.

The Rams and the league office have some explaining to do.

Later Monday (several hours after I filed this at 7 a.m.) the NFL announced that it would investigate the matter to determine the reasons for the breakdown in the protocol process.

Question: if the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell discipline and fine players who are careless in delivering concussion-causing blows to the heads of opponents — then why wouldn’t the league fine a coach and medical staff for being negligent when their QB was in duress, flopping around, and displaying obvious symptoms that scream CONCUSSION? Why would the league continue to employ a hopelessly out of touch (and possibly vision-impaired) spotter who couldn’t spot a head-slammed quarterback writhing on the ground, at one point reaching for his head?

The reaction on Twitter was predictably angry.

  • Retired New England Patriots offensive lineman Dan Koppen: “Keenum is still in the game how? We do we have concussion protocol then?”
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter: “He shouldn’t have been in the game when he fumbled. He was hurt two plays before.”
  • Former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt of Monday Morning Quarterback: “NFL has made positive strides in concussion protocol/treatment, but they will have to answer to what happened to Case Keenum today.”
  • Ross Tucker, former NFL lineman and current football analyst for NBC Sports Network, SiriusXM NFL Radio, and the Sports on Earth site:  “That should just about do it for Case Keenum — and Jeff Fisher.”

Many, many people had an opportunity to protect a concussed Case Keenum on Sunday in Baltimore.

And no one did. Keenum was left on the field, suffering from head trauma — vulnerable to another hit and more damage to the brain. This was an appalling failure of leadership, policy and basic decency.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie