NFL's 'Edelman Rule' may be a blow to concussion awareness

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Patriots' Edelman on Super Bowl Win

The Cauldron

With 11 minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLIX, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman found himself on the business end of a violent helmet-to-helmet collision with by Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. While Edelman was ultimately cleared to return by the team's medical staff, it took the remainder of the game-winning drive for the star wideout to be evaluated — crucial minutes, proponents of concussion policy-reform claim, that placed Edelman at maximum risk for further injury.

For the rest of the drive, Edelman appeared jelly-legged and dazed as he approached Seattle's red-zone, sparking alarm amongst the 70,000-plus in attendance and the countless millions watching around the globe.

The Partiots' hurry-up offense precluded any attempts by team officials to attend to him, something that NFL decision-makers had in mind when instituting a new league-wide rule change, announced at the league's owner's meetings in Arizona in March.

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Now, football will allow for "medical stoppages," making the NFL the first professional sports league in North America to grant its medical personnel the power to halt play at any given time to attend to players they deem to be demonstrating signs of concussion.

The league will rotate 64 independently certified athletic trainers (ATC spotters), who will be empowered to notify league officials, and stop live action if one of two criteria are met:

A player who displays obvious signs of disorientation or is clearly unstable; or
If it becomes apparent that the player is attempting to remain in the game and not be attended to by the club's medical or athletic training staff.

A medical timeout will then ensue, game clock will stop, and the player in question must remain on the sideline for at least one snap during which time he will be evaluated by the medical staff.

While the rule change is seen as an informed move for a league increasingly beleaguered by public and media scrutiny — and, coincidentally, a league dealing with an appeal of its $1 billion concussion lawsuit settlement — some observers already see the potential for problems. In particular, teams that have a propensity for running rapid-fire offensive plays (the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, for example) might see over-zealous ATC spotters ruining the flow of a drive with a timeout called from the press box.

In fact, some have pointed out that if the new rule was in place during last season's Super Bowl, the result of the game might have been changed entirely.

Edelman hauled in a 21-yard pass from Brady to set up the game-winning touchdown after the hit by Chancellor. Oh, and the guy who caught that game-winning pass? None other than Julian Edelman. It's fair to wonder: Had the flow of New England's drive been interrupted by a medical stoppage, Seattle's defense would theoretically have had time to adjust accordingly. Certainly, given how woozy Edelman looked, he likely would have been sitting out a few plays.

Beyond the Super Bowl, another, more nefarious possibility exists: Will we start seeing an increase in players feigning signs of a concussion?

Ludicrous though it may sound, this is the NFL; where teams are so evenly matched that any advantage is typically exploited. Attracting attention from ATC spotters in order to create a game interruption isn't such a crazy notion when you consider that the "Edleman Rule" doesn't charge either team with timeouts.

In a league steeped in fierce competition, where every team is self-trained to seek even the slightest of advantages (see, e.g., Deflategate), "working the system" is sure to be as much a part of the gameplan as any route or blitz. This may be especially true in the rule's inaugural year, with the league undoubtedly bent on showing its new regulation has the teeth to bring about substantive change — to say nothing of justifying the existence of its 64-man task force.

READ ALSO: Edelman speaks with AOL about rule change

The NFL's brass remain adamant that the rule exists for the right reasons, and will thus be used judiciously. According to the league's Senior Vice President of Health and Safety, Jeff Miller, the rule was enacted with practical intentions:

"We don't expect this to happen a lot, but the athletic trainer is now empowered to stop the game if necessary to give the player the attention he needs," Miller said. "Concussions and head and neck injuries are really important and they need immediate attention. Therefore that was going to predominate over any potential competitive concerns."

And while there remains apprehension over how the rule could affect the integrity of the game, the NFL's recent pivot in acknowledging and attempting to understand head injuries — halfhearted though it may seem — has actually had some positive effects.

According to the league's 2015 Health and Safety Report, concussions are down by 35 percent league-wide since 2012. While Edelman's case occurred on the game's largest stage, concussions as a result of helmet-to-helmet collisions have decreased by 43 percent (52 cases in 2014, compared to 72 in 2013 and 91 in 2012).

From league officials to fans to the players directly affected, no one disputes the paramount importance of player safety; as public awareness continues to rise, it's an issue that's destined to remain squarely on the radar screen. In a constantly-changing sports landscape, technology and medicine continue to shed new light on the impact full-contact sports can have on the human brain.

Still, viewed from the lens of fans not yet prepared to heed the bigger picture, it may not be long before the new medical timeout rule stirs up something with which the oft-embattled NFL has been only too familiar — controversy.

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