In the aftermath of Tua Tagovailoa’s frightening concussion on Thursday Night Football, the NFL has taken baby steps to prevent another woozy player from bypassing the concussion protocol. Tagovailoa’s hands and arms stuck in the fencing response was one of the most indelible images since Lawrence Taylor snapped Joe Theismann’s leg on Monday Night Football.
The NFL is getting soft. You hear it all the time from fans who long for the barbaric days of “Jacked Up.” But that hasn’t applied to their hard-shell helmets. Tagovailoa’s injury should only accelerate the NFL’s transition to Guardian Caps as the mandated in-game headwear.
This offseason, the NFL mandated Guardian Caps be worn by all offensive linemen, defensive linemen, tight ends, linebackers, and tight ends between the start of training camp and the second preseason game. And while there were concerns that players would be more willing to use their helmets on tackles in practice, however, the average number of concussions among those position groups dropped from 23 over the previous three-year period to 11 in 2022. Of those 11 concussions, six stemmed from a blow to the face mask, which obviously lacks added protection.
Between that information and the NFL’s focus on mitigating concussions, the next step is clear. The Guardian Caps need to be phased in as headwear for live games as well. There will be resistance. We’ve seen how much fight players have put up to avoid making transitions to minor changes in helmet designs. Three years ago, a few players threw fits over their preferred helmet models being discontinued. The Guardian Caps would be the most drastic change since pro football replaced leather helmets with the relatively primitive protective helmets with a facemask in the 1950s.
From a commercial and aesthetic perspective, the helmets are displeasing. The soft shell over helmets composed of closed cell polyurethane foam, would make NFL players’ heads look less like the bobblehead dolls they’ve resembled for half a century or more like Toad the Mushroom. Regular-sized helmets and mini-helmets with league logos emblazoned on them are extremely popular memorabilia for autograph seekers. Would the NFL be willing to interfere with that revenue stream during a year in which they finally permitted alternate helmet designs for all 32 teams?
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The NFL has come so far, but they need to make the extra step. Think of this as the NFL’s equivalent to the era in car safety standards when airbags became mandatory 30 years after seat belts. And there was a time when baseball players didn’t wear helmets, and when that was mandated, players didn’t have to use earflaps until decades later. The same goes with hockey players having to wear helmets, and then eventually visors were added.
Every year, the NFL performs laboratory tests on helmet models that are derivatives of the same design. There are a few obstacles such as having the Guardian Cap data on concussions peer-reviewed by someone with more technical expertise than Robert Saleh.
The NFL must answer whether the added weight, the grip of the polyurethane foam, and the friction it creates could cause an increase in neck and spinal injuries, which would be a costly tradeoff. Having a soft and uneven surface means when two helmets hit they don’t slide off of each other smoothly, creating torque on the neck. This would probably explain why skill-position players on offense and defense weren’t required to wear the caps.
The NFL shouldn’t let these helmets go by the wayside ala ProCap helmets. The padded attachments were worn in the 90s by Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso and 49ers lineman Steve Wallace who swore by their effectiveness. The bulbous look was mocked and never caught on, but Ben Straus the engineer behind the ProCap recently worked with Johns Hopkins University on an Anti-Rotational Kinematic (ARK) helmet concept in 2018 that sought to mitigate the glancing blows that cause concussions.
There is so much more the NFL can do to prevent concussive blows. The NFL appoints biomechanical engineers every year who design and experiment helmets like the ARK or Guardian Caps. Many of them go nowhere, but this solution is right in front of them. Mandating players to wear Guardian Caps is the least they can do.