Let’s go back to the first quarter, long before the Patriots’ defense would make enough game-changing plays across a second-half shutout to secure the win, not long after Cardinals starting quarterback Kyler Murray would leave the field with what looked like a serious non-contact knee injury on just his third play from scrimmage.
With less than four minutes left in the first quarter, Agholor’s fellow wide receiver DeVante Parker caught a second-down pass from Mac Jones. Parker’s head was slammed to the turf on the ensuing tackle. He was clearly rattled, slow to get up, his knees buckling as he wobbled and tried to stand. He finally got to his feet, but with the completion in question, Jones and Co. rushed to get back to the line of scrimmage and run another play before it could be challenged.
Agholor, who was lined up in the slot, could be seen looking over to Parker, who was lined up out wide to his left. Noticing his teammate was not right, Agholor began frantically waving his arms, trying to get the attention of officials so they could stop the game and get Parker off the field. The stoppage came, but only because Arizona coach Kliff Klingsbury threw a challenge flag. Parker was able to head to the locker room, and was later ruled out of the game with a head injury.
The first reaction is to credit Agholor for looking out for the welfare of his teammate. On a night when there were so many injuries, starting with the one to Murray right through in-game exits of Rhamondre Stevenson and Jack Jones for the Patriots, there were plenty of reminders of what a brutal game football can be. Good for Agholor for making sure Parker’s wasn’t exacerbated by staying on the field for a play too long.
But the sequence begged bigger questions too, beginning with how the NFL’s concussion spotter didn’t see what Agholor clearly did. Troy Aikman, calling the game on ESPN, also wondered about that, saying of Parker, “He’s a little banged up. They’re gonna be watching him, somebody upstairs should be. He looked a little wobbly after he comes up off the ground.”
This season already has exposed flaws and forced changes to the league’s concussion protocols, going back to the September saga of Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Every week it seems we are reminded that more work needs to be done to ensure that players are not at risk of sustaining repeated hits to the head.
What happened with Tagovailoa will remain as one of the most significant story lines of the season. Initially injured by a hit in a game against the Bills, Tagovailoa stumbled and seemed unable to keep his balance, and anyone watching immediately wondered if he’d sustained a concussion.
He returned to the field, however, with team doctors clearing him and attributing the concerning visual picture to a back injury he’d suffered earlier in the game. Tagovailoa finished that game and was back on the field four days later for a Thursday night matchup with Cincinnati. When he took another blow in the second quarter of that nationally televised contest and responded with what is clinically known as the fencing response, where his hands went into an awkward flexed position, the concern for his health was matched only by the outrage of his appearance on the field in the first place.
The NFL investigated the series of events, and while affirming Miami had followed protocol, admitted the protocol had flaws. The league immediately added ataxia, which is the involuntary loss of muscle control, to the list of symptoms requiring immediate removal from a game. Yet gaps in the policy still remain. Just this past weekend, Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett was slammed to the ground by Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith and left the game to be evaluated for a concussion.
Pickett reportedly cleared the protocol and quickly returned to the field. But after one series, a three and out in which he was not tackled again, he left the game for good. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was quoted afterward saying, “When he became symptomatic, he was pulled from the game and evaluated for concussion,” but admitted, “I don’t know about the sequence or the details regarding the sequence.”
While medical experts continue to study the lifelong impact of concussions, the NFL must continue to keep pace, to do anything it can to reckon with the devastating effects of an injury it fought for so long to even admit existed. If that means expanding examination of players beyond an immediate sideline moment and putting protocols in place for delayed reactions, do it.
If it means installing a mechanism for players in a game to stop play to help an ailing teammate, do that too.
Maybe they could call it the Agholor rule. On this night, Agholor was looking out for Parker, a much bigger play than any of the five catches that showed up in the box score.
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Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.