Head injuries back in NFL focus as Broncos target Cam Newton

The start of a new American Football season rekindled some old — and troubling — issues for the NFL.

Nobody could attest to that better than Cam Newton.

The Carolina Panthers quarterback was victimised by helmet-to-helmet hits at least three times in a 21-20 loss to the Denver Broncos on Thursday night. Net result of those hits: Zero penalty yards.

The Super Bowl rematch was every bit as good as promised — it came down to a last-second field goal attempt — but it was a brutal affair that put Newton, Broncos receiver Jordan Norwood, and linebacker Brandon Marshall in evaluation for concussions. None were held out.

“It’s not fun getting hit in the head,” said Newton, who threw for 194 yards, one interception and a touchdown. “But we didn’t lose the game off that.”

At 6-ft-5 and 245lbs, Newton absorbs more punishment than the typical QB, in part because he runs the ball a fair amount. He took three sacks, eight more hits while trying to throw and also took some thumps after his 11 rushing attempts.

Two of the most vicious hits had a direct impact on the game. The first came early in the third quarter, when DeMarcus Ware pulled Newton down and Von Miller hit him, facemask-to-facemask.

No flag was thrown, but Newton was doubled over in pain after that drive. He went 7 for 15 the rest of the game after starting 11 for 18 and leading the Panthers to a 17-7 halftime lead.

With under 40 seconds left, Broncos safety Darian Stewart went helmet-to-helmet with Newton. A flag was thrown but it was nullified because officials also called Newton for intentional grounding.

“Still don’t understand how that’s possible to get intentional grounding when you get personal fouled,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We’ve just got to treat Cam like a quarterback. I know he’s the biggest guy on the field, but he’s still a quarterback.”

Had that roughing call stood, Carolina would’ve had the ball in field goal range with a few more plays to move closer. Instead, Graham Gano had a 50-yarder to win that he pushed wide left.

Newton took the high road about the hits. Coach Ron Rivera said he’d wait to see the replays.

The Panthers quarterback added yet another move to his repertoire — he actually flossed his teeth on the sideline — as he led Carolina within range of the winning score, but Graham Gano’s miss, wide left from 50 yards with four seconds left, gave Denver a win in the Super Bowl rematch.

He remained in the trainer’s room for nearly an hour after the game had ended after being sacked three times, and hit eight more.

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

“I’m not going to pass on any judgment,” coach Ron Rivera said when asked about the head hits.

Newton still played well enough to win. He finished 18 for 33 with one touchdown running and another passing and moved the Panthers within field goal range twice in the fourth quarter.

His 69.5 passer rating was 14 points higher than in the Super Bowl. For a while, at least, this game had the makings of fun.

One highlight: After his 2-yard run in the second quarter gave Newton the most rushing TDs (44) for a QB in NFL history, he stared down the south-west corner of the Broncos stadium and did a version of the hand jive before placing those hands on his hips then fake-tearing apart the centre of his jersey, as if to reveal a big “S’’ on his chest.

But he is now 0-1 for the season, after going 15-1 last year.

Newton, now 27 and a dad, shouldn’t face too many questions about his toughness the way he did after the Super Bowl when he didn’t dive into a pile to go after a loose ball. He got ripped for wearing a hoodie into the postgame press conference that night, barely answering questions before leaving early.

His appearance this time was more telling.

“I feel shitty, that’s what I do feel,” he said.

“I just don’t like to lose. I am trying my best to keep it together. But I knew that this was going to happen, especially from the media standpoint, ‘How would Cam react to the media?’ The truth of the matter is, the Denver Broncos are the defending champs for a reason.”

Weekend fixtures:

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Bucs; NY Jets v Cincinnati Bengals; Philadelphia Eagles v Cleveland Browns; New Orleans Saints v Oakland Raiders; Jacksonville Jaguars v Green Bay Packers; Kansas City Chiefs v San Diego Chargers; Baltimore Ravens v Buffalo Bills; Houston Texans v Chicago Bears; Tennessee Titans v Minnesota Vikings; Seattle Seahawks v Miami Dolphins; Dallas Cowboys v NY Giants; Indianapolis Colts v Detroit Lions.


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