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New injury timeout rule would give spotters significant power

The proposal, disclosed Monday by the Competition Committee, to give spotters the ability to pause the action to get a potentially injured player out of a game is long overdue. But it still remains to be seen whether the new proposal ensures that all players who need to be removed from play actually will be.

It’s obvious that the rule is aimed at getting potentially concussed players out of action, something that the game officials failed to do during a 2014 Thursday night game between San Diego and Denver last year. As a result, Chargers safety Jahleel Addae remained on the field after suffering a concussion.

As explained at the time, the league office was dismayed by the failure of the team, the game officials, the sideline medical experts, and the ATC spotter in the press box to see what instantly was noticed by those watching the game at 345 Park Avenue. Addae was in distress and needed to immediately come out of the game.

But it’s one thing for the ATC spotter to contact the game officials and remove a defensive back from the field in the second quarter of a regular-season game. It’s quite another for the spotter to pull the plug on a key offensive player during crunch time of, say, a key postseason game.

In the most recent Super Bowl, Patriots receiver Julian Edelman seemed to have suffered a concussion, but he was not sent to the sidelines immediately for evaluation. The situation has been mentioned and discussed but never really explored, in large part because Edelman defers to coach Bill Belichick’s insistence that players never talk about injuries. On Monday, however, it became clear that the league realizes in situations like Edelman’s, action is needed.

“The Edelman situation was a play we looked at and it was part of the issue,” Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay said at a Monday press conference. “There were a couple of other plays that go back a couple of years that we looked at and really it came a little bit from the health and safety committee just saying, ‘We got the ATC spotters, they’ve got a really good vantage point, they’ve got technology in their booth, they’re communicating pretty well with our trainers and doctors and we’ve got a pretty good rhythm going there, why would we miss a player where a player shouldn’t come out?’ And maybe this becomes the fail-safe. So that was the genesis of it. We do not expect this to be a rule that gets used a lot. We expect it to be a fail-safe when people just don’t see this player and the distress the player may have had, the ATC spotter does and stops the game.”

The proposal, which still must receive at least 24 votes from ownership before becoming effective, gives the ATC spotter enormous power, no matter how frequently the rule is used. The ATC spotter would have the ability to slam on the brakes at any time and to send any player to the sidelines for further evaluation. While the ATC spotter can’t mandate that the player be taken to the locker room for a full-blown concussion evaluation that could keep the player out of action for 10 to 15 minutes of real time during a key phase of a big game, the ATC spotter would have the authority to get the player off the field for a closer look at a time when the player may actually be perfectly fine.

In certain settings, the ATC spotter may be inclined to tread lightly. Given the stakes and significance of the circumstances in which Edelman wasn’t removed from play by the Patriots or by game officials, it’s difficult to envision the ATC spotter having the nerve to press the button and instruct the officials to send Edelman to the bench.

It’s even harder to envision the ATC spotter doing that if in that same scenario the potentially injured player is quarterback Tom Brady.

Despite the NFL’s unprecedented sensitivity to head injuries, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will be erring on the side of safety during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl if erring on the side of safety means perhaps erroneously keeping a player who is perfectly fine out of the game.