CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stood at his locker stall Monday morning, wearing a black hoodie and tapping on his cell phone.
Newton didn't talk to the large media gathering that showed up at Bank of America Stadium to report on the controversy swirling around the NFL's reigning MVP.
But several of his teammates and coaches expressed confidence in the Panthers' medical team, which is being investigated by the NFL and the NFL Players Association for its response to the big hit Newton took near the end of last week's loss at Denver.
At least one of Newton's teammates wondered why the NFL didn't do more to protect Newton in the first place.
"I don't think you can talk about player safety and then have what unfolded. You can't talk out of both sides of your mouth," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Player safety sounds great. It's a great offseason rallying cry. It sounds awesome. We got zero yards out of any of those hits."
The Broncos had at least four helmet-to-helmet hits on Newton in the second half. Only one drew a penalty: Darian Stewart's jarring tackle that left Newton on the ground for about 30 seconds.
The personal foul on Stewart was negated by an intentional grounding call on Newton.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it was the most head shots he's seen Newton take in five-plus NFL seasons, adding he sent video of a "a number" of the hits on Newton to the league office for review.
NFL officials already have said linebacker Brandon Marshall's hit to Newton helmet in the third quarter also should have been penalized. Marshall and Stewart are expected to be fined by the league.
"I just think it was physical play and we'll see what happens," Rivera said. "We sent a number in, and the league is the one (that) is going to evaluate and make their decision and rule accordingly."
But Olsen says more needs to be done to curtail vicious hit during games.
"Player safety's important. I don't want to get hit in the side of the head, either. I just think (an illegal hit) needs to be penalized," Olsen said. "If guys want to hit guys in the side of the head, they can. Are you going to fine them? And if they don't care about the fine, there's nothing that's going to stop them. What stops them is they gave up 15 yards. That's all."
A slippery slope
The league can suspend players for violent hits that violate player-safety rules, although suspensions generally are reserved for repeat offenders. Olsen said suspending players for first-time violations could create a "slippery slope," with too much subjectivity required to determine what hits trigger a suspension.
"If you want to protect us, protect us on the field," Olsen said. "And if they do break the rules ... throw a flag. That's all."
Stewart's hit happened within a few feet of umpire Bill Schuster, who signaled to referee Gene Steratore that it had been a helmet-to-helmet tackle. Game officials have the discretion to remove a player to be evaluated for a concussion, but no one did in Newton's case.
The Panthers team doctor and the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant also allowed Newton to stay in Thursday's game.
The next day the NFL said proper protocol had been followed because the team doctor and independent consultant looked at a replay of the hit and determined Newton did not need to be screened.
But the league reversed course Sunday after the players union announced it would conduct its own investigation.
The Kuechly example
Panthers players and coaches pointed to the medical staff's treatment of players with concussions in previous seasons as evidence of the seriousness with which they deal with head injuries.
Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly was held out of three games last year after sustaining a concussion in a Week 1 win at Jacksonville.
"I think our guys do a really good job with that stuff – if you look at the resume and how long these guys have been in the league, and just what we've done the last couple years with guys that have been in those situations," center Ryan Kalil said. "Luke Kuechly is somebody who was out last year (three) games and he was dying to get back in, and they wouldn't let him."
But it's the in-game concussion protocol that is under review. Medical staffers are asked to look for a number of observable concussion symptoms, including players who are slow to get up following a hit to the head.
Newton was on the ground for about 30 seconds while Olsen and head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion checked on him. After Vermillion helped him to his feet, Newton walked back to the middle of the field and was not checked for a concussion until afterward in the locker room.
'He was good'
Kalil said Newton was lucid while driving the Panthers into position for a game-winning field goal.
"He was good. I said after the game if he did have any problems, I didn't see anything like that," Kalil said. "Especially on that last drive, because we were talking about one of the (pass) protections, and he was reminding me about something we talked about early in the week. I thought he was fine."
Rivera said Newton remains sore from the pounding he took at Denver, but has exhibited no concussion-related symptoms.
Olsen said he doesn't know enough to speak to the concussion protocol. But he's confident the Panthers' medical team has players' best interests at heart.