- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The NFL reviewed Chicago's handling of the concussion suffered by quarterback Jay Cutler, and determined the team correctly followed concussion protocol, according to a league spokesman, while coach Lovie Smith maintained the Bears actually went beyond the league's requirements.
Cutler suffered a concussion in the second quarter of Chicago's 13-6 loss Sunday to the Houston Texans.
"Let's forget about the protocol for a minute," Smith said. "If a player has a concussion or any injury, he's not going back in the game; simple as that. Once we found out (that) Jay Cutler (and defensive end) Shea McClellin had a concussion, we were going really first on our own protocol, which is the player (is) out of the football game."
Smith said Cutler is "getting better," and added he "was feeling better at the end of the game." But the quarterback's status for the Bears' Nov. 19 game against the San Francisco 49ers is unclear with a battery of tests ahead this week to determine if he can play.
Because of Cutler's uncertain status, the Bears are expected to re-sign veteran quarterback Josh McCown, according to a league source.
After reviewing film from the game, Smith believes the concussion occurred on a vicious shot from Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins. Cutler took a blow to the head with 2:56 remaining in the first half when he scrambled past the line of scrimmage to complete a pass to Devin Hester for a 42-yard gain, which was nullified when officials flagged the quarterback for an illegal forward pass. As Cutler released the ball, Dobbins struck the quarterback in the head, drawing a penalty for unnecessary roughness.
The hit clearly shook up the quarterback, who remained in the game for seven more snaps. But during a break in play as Smith unsuccessfully challenged the call for illegal forward pass, the team's medical staff administered the NFL's standardized sideline concussion assessment protocol and determined Cutler wasn't displaying concussive symptoms.
Smith said he spoke with Cutler personally "right after" the hit.
"Our trainers talked to him then. When I say concussion protocol, that's a part of it," Smith said. "It's not like he showed symptoms, but we had a break in between. Our trainers talked to him, evaluated him. He was fine from there. Players in the huddle didn't see anything wrong with him at the time. Not just then. We continued to talk him all the way out, even through halftime."
The league requires teams to place certified athletic trainers in the press box at games to help monitor head injuries. The trainers can notify medical staff on the sideline of any potential head injuries.
If a player doesn't display concussive symptoms after undergoing the league's sideline concussion assessment protocol, he will be allowed to return to play, which is what Cutler did in participating in seven more snaps after the hit from Dobbins.
According to league guidelines, a player sustaining a concussion should not return to action on the same day if he continues to display symptoms, which include the inability to remember assignments or plays, a gap in memory, and persistent dizziness and headaches. The league enacted those guidelines in 2010, two months after a congressional hearing on head injuries.
Smith indicated the Bears took the NFL's protocol a step further by continuing to evaluate the quarterback for concussive symptoms in the locker room at halftime, which is when the club determined Cutler should sit out the duration.
"We're constantly talking to him," Smith said. "If you look at his play, it's not like he was light on his feet or starry eyed, anything like that. We felt he was in control of everything, just like the rest of our players at the time."
The Bears opened the second half down 10-3 with Jason Campbell at quarterback, before announcing minutes later Cutler would sit because of the concussion.
Dobbins called his hit on Cutler clean, insisting he hit the quarterback in the chest. The linebacker claimed "I did not touch his helmet."
Smith indicated the Bears take extra precaution in assessing potential concussions because of the team's history of dealing with such matters. Cutler suffered a concussion on Oct. 3, 2010 after absorbing nine sacks in the first half in a loss to the New York Giants. The injury forced Cutler out of the team's next game against the Carolina Panthers.
Earlier that season linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer suffered a concussion in the third preseason game and missed the exhibition finale. Cleared to play in the opener, Hillenmeyer left the game after becoming ill. Eventually, the team placed Hillenmeyer on the injured reserve, and the linebacker retired because of multiple concussions.
He's currently involved in a lawsuit with the Bears in an attempt to recover lost wages due to being forced to retire because of the concussions.
"Return to play is a medical decision made by doctors, not coaches," Hillenmeyer said on Monday. "The Bears training and medical staff understands that they are bound by law and oath and good conscious to protect Jay's health first, even if he disagrees with the outcome."
NFL rules state, Cutler can't practice or participate in a game until he's cleared by an independent neurologist. Per league policy, Cutler also won't be allowed to speak with the media until he's cleared medically.
Cutler will be evaluated this week with a brain function test called ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing). The league has required players to establish baseline tests of brain function since 2007.
"We'll go through the protocol, and once they've been cleared to come back for practice and play, that's when he'll play. It's really as simple as that. We've already started the process with that," Smith said.
The computerized testing utilizes memory and recognition exercises to help measure recovery from a concussion. Because of the team's history, Smith indicated the Bears err on the side of caution as opposed to rushing players back to action.
"Every team has players they've gone through with concussions, and that's not just with concussions. We do that with all of our players with any injury they have. We'll never put a guy at risk. No game is that important to us. The player's health always comes first with everything we do."
ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson contributed to this report.