Most agree that the NFL is taking concussions more seriously than it did for so many decades. However, recent incidents involving local players show there still is a long way to go.

49ers quarterback Alex Smith stayed in the game for several plays after he suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday. The next night, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler played seven snaps beyond his concussion.

Predictably, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith once again sounded the alarm for independent concussion specialists to be placed on the sideline at every game as a means of overseeing concussion protocol and treating players.

The NFLPA feels that the players it represents would be in better hands if monitored by independent specialists rather than by team-employed doctors and trainers.

Dr. Howard J. Friedman, a clinical neuropsychologist, agrees.

"Up to now, it's the trainers who had the responsibility of determining if somebody has a concussion, but they are clearly direct employees of the team," said Friedman, director of the Bay Area Child Assessment Clinic in Walnut Creek. "And they aren't independently licensed. They would have a really hard time exercising fully independent judgment, and they wouldn't be as well-trained in this."

Take the case of Raiders middle linebacker Rolando McClain. He said he suffered a concussion Sept. 16 during a loss to Miami, though he wasn't diagnosed with one until afterward and played the whole game.

McClain said he doesn't know when the injury occurred. He just remembers thinking, "Dang, I don't feel like myself."

For all he knew, it could have been the heat and humidity of South Florida or being on the field for so long against a dominant Dolphins offense. He had no information to go on, given it was his first concussion.

This isn't to say that Raiders doctors and trainers aren't qualified to recognize and treat concussions. Indeed, the Raiders in 2007 became the first team to employ a portable CT scanner on the sideline.

Yet an independent specialist would be better trained, several doctors said, not to mention free to concentrate solely on concussions and not sprained ankles, bloodied noses and bruised ribs, as well.

"That's where somebody on the sideline would help, somebody who that's their sole job," said Dr. Nate Kegel, a neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "We could catch it a little bit earlier, and it could help with the identification earlier."

Friedman said the progress made by the NFL in treating concussions in recent years is "incredible." Even so, he added, he suspects the league is divided over whether it wants to go the route of hiring independent specialists.

"On one hand, they want to protect players," Friedman said. "On the other hand, they don't want lots of people pulled out during the game."

  • Remember all that talk about Peyton Manning having a weak arm and the myriad questions about his ability to hold up for an entire season on the heels of missing last season and undergoing four neck surgeries? Didn't think so.

    Now all we hear about is how Manning is the front-runner for the league MVP and his Denver Broncos are a legitimate Super Bowl contender in his first season not in an Indianapolis Colts uniform.

    It's a long way from this time last season, when many people wondered whether Manning would play again.

    In some regards, Manning is playing as well as ever.

    He has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in each of his past six games, the longest streak in NFL history (minimum 20 attempts per game). He is second in the AFC with 2,705 yards passing and first with 21 touchdown passes.

    Manning has guided the Broncos to a 6-3 start and a two-game lead in the AFC West. More impressive, they are through the difficult part of their schedule -- the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Houston Texans, the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots in their first five games -- and their final seven opponents are a combined 23-40.

    As a result, Manning is leading the fan portion of the Pro Bowl voting. He needs two more victories to surpass John Elway and move into second place all-time with 149, trailing only Brett Favre (186). And he needs one more touchdown pass to move ahead of Dan Marino and into second with 421, behind Favre's 508.

  • Meanwhile, the other Manning, Eli, is the one facing all the tough questions in light of his recent slump.

    The Giants rolled out of San Francisco on Oct. 14 with a convincing victory over the 49ers and bathed in talk about being worthy of defending their Super Bowl title.

    However, the Giants have lost their past two games, and Manning has four interceptions and no touchdown passes in their past three.

    Fortunately for the Giants, they have their bye week to work out any kinks and prepare for what they hope will be another late-season run that ends with them hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the third time in six seasons.

  • Since 1990, 16 teams have qualified for the playoffs after sporting a losing record through nine games. Even so, none of those teams made it to the Super Bowl.

    Well, that would eliminate 18 teams from making it to the Super Bowl based on their records right now.