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JuJu Smith-Schuster’s injury shows why NFL should penalize helmet-to-helmet hits

Officials called no foul on the play where Kansas City’s wide receiver was injured — but they should have.

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NFL: NOV 13 Jaguars at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After the Kansas City Chiefs had stayed relatively healthy through the season’s first nine weeks — at least by NFL standards — Week 10 brought bad news. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Chris Lammons were knocked out of last Sunday’s 27-17 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars with concussions — while offensive tackle Andrew Wylie left the game with what was reported to be an elbow sprain.

Lammons and Smith-Schuster have entered the NFL’s concussion protocol, while it was reported that Wylie would undergo an MRI on his elbow. We expect to learn more about the status of all three players when the team returns to practice on Wednesday.

If Wylie misses time from his injury, reinforcements could come from offensive tackle Lucas Niang, who is beginning his third week of practice with the team after rupturing a patellar tendon in 2021. This would fit the timeline of other players returning from this injury.

Wide receiver Mecole Hardman missed Sunday’s game due to an abdominal issue after being held out of practice all week — but could potentially return for Week 11’s divisional rematch against the 5-4 Los Angeles Chargers.

A closer look at Smith-Schuster’s concussion

Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Smith-Schuster was injured in the second quarter after taking a scary hit from safety Andre Cisco, who appeared to be making a targeted, helmet-to-helmet blow.

Following the hit, Smith-Schuster exhibited an immediate neurological response known as a fencing posture, which occurs following a sudden trauma to the brain stem. You may remember that earlier this season, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had a similar response after what appeared to be repeated concussions.

It should be noted that before Sunday’s game, Smith-Schuster had previously been diagnosed with three concussions during his NFL career.

Adding to the frustration felt by Chiefs fans (and players) was that officials initially threw a penalty flag after Cisco’s hit — but then picked it up. No penalty was called on the play.

After the game, referee Brad Rogers defended the decision.

“After discussion on the field,” Rogers told reporters, “the two officials came in and determined that the defender had set and braced for impact and hit shoulder-to-shoulder. They didn’t feel it was a use-of-helmet foul.”

When will enough be enough?

In recent years, the league has consistently said that it is focused on the safety of its players, enacting stricter penalties and fines to protect them. But this was another instance in which these rules were not enforced as they should have been.

The penalty flag should never have been picked up. If there is any shade of doubt that a penalty should be called, the ruling should err on the side of player safety. A neurological fencing response is never the result of a shoulder-to-shoulder hit. NFL officials should be trained to know this — so that in the moment, they can make the correct call.

Although a penalty in this instance would not have prevented Smith-Schuster’s injury, it could have minimized the likelihood that an injury like his could happen again. This incident — along with others like what occurred with Tagovailoa — show that the NFL still has work to do for the sake of player safety.

Perhaps the next step should be for calls made in the interest of player safety to be reviewable from the booth.

Smith-Schuster’s outlook

Thankfully, the Kansas City wide receiver was able to walk off the field — although he needed some aid to do so. He and Lammons will now go through the concussion protocol, which consists of five phases that advance from symptom-limited activity (and rest) to light aerobic exercise — eventually graduating to non-contact football-specific drills before a return to play.

As players progress through the protocol, symptoms cannot re-occur; otherwise, the player must revert to the previous phase. Players must also pass neurocognitive testing at each phase before advancing to the next one. On Wednesday, we hope to learn more about where Smith-Schuster — and Lammons — stand in the protocol.

Given Smith-Schuster’s injury history — and the neurological response he exhibited on the field, which indicate a higher level of brain trauma — we probably should not expect him to be available for this Sunday’s game. A longer rest period may be necessary, allowing the brain to recover and inflammation to subside.

As always, each decision for a player to return to play should be made with player safety as the most important factor. Neither player should be rushed back before the medical providers responsible for their care have determined they are ready.

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