GREEN BAY, Wisconsin — There are some good reasons why many members of the Green Bay Packers dislike guardian caps, the protective devices worn over the helmets of players lining up near the ball.
And then there’s Kenny Clark’s reason.
“Just looking at them just irritates me, to be honest,” the Pro Bowl defensive tackle said at training camp this week. “I don’t even like looking at her. It’s like a big, old mushroom.”
Appearance doesn’t matter, of course. According to the NFL, the Guardian Cap reduces impact severity by at least 10 percent when worn by one player and by at least 20 percent when worn by two players.
According to a league press release trumpeting the development, the NFL and NFLPA “through their biomechanical experts” worked with the Guardian cap manufacturer “to test and advance the design of a cap that would withstand the effects of the… withstands NFL player experience on the field. ” This information comes from the huge amount of data that is collected during the games. This data was used in laboratory simulations when developing the protective cover.
Offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers must always wear the Guardian Cap, whether they like it or not. At the request of coach Matt LaFleur, the Packers began training camp with all 90 players wearing the cap. By the end of Day 2, every running back, receiver and defensive back had thrown them aside.
LaFleur consulted with his peers in the NFL and college, where Guardian Cap use is much more widespread, before formulating his policy. He understands the science; he also understands the law of unintended consequences.
“It’s really about player safety and you’re talking about your brain. That’s pretty important,” LaFleur said. “I would support anything that helps our boys live long, healthy lives. What I’m a bit concerned about is if you have that pad on your helmet, and we make that a point with our coaches, I don’t want the guys to feel confident that they can now use their head. That’s one of the things that’s not great about that, you can get false confidence and now your technique is suffering and I definitely don’t want us to go that route.
LaFleur also had another problem. A player needs a training camp to get used to the physicality and stress on the body. LaFleur wasn’t referring to head injuries in this case, but he did use the phrase “feeling, folks.” A headfirst run into AJ Dillon is not a typical part of Clark’s ordinary life.
“What happens when they take them off and now they haven’t felt what it really feels like and now it’s live action?” LaFleur wondered.
New York Jets coach Robert Saleh, a close friend of LaFleur’s, had the same concern.
“I think the soft hitting allows players to use their heads a little bit more,” Saleh told reporters in New York this week. “I think the first time they take it off – anyone who’s played football knows that the first time you take your helmet off, hit your helmet or have a collision, there’s a shock. I think if you wait until the first game for that shock. … I don’t know, time will tell. It’s just interesting with these Guardian Caps and what exactly we’re trying to achieve.”
dr Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, responded in a statement provided to ESPN.com’s Jets beat writer Rich Cimini.
“The brain doesn’t get used to headbutts,” Sills said. “The Guardian Cap helps mitigate those forces at a time of the season when we’re seeing the greatest concentration of them.”
Linemen, tight ends, and linebackers must wear the Guardian Cap during practice during the week of the second preseason game.
No player interviewed for this story offered a substantive opinion, perhaps not wanting to ruffle their feathers.
“Football is football,” said full-back Rashan Gary. “Take them off, I have yet to strike. Put them on, I still have to hit.”
Last year, according to league data, there was a total of 187 concussions between training camp, preseason games, in-season training and regular season games. About 16 percent of those concussions occurred on the training camp practice ground.
“I think the intent is perfectly legitimate,” LaFleur said. “But I don’t get it, if they wear them to practice, why don’t we wear them to the game?”
The Guardian Cap is the latest in the NFL’s effort to reduce head injuries. Because of better helmets and rule changes aimed at eliminating helmet-to-helmet contact, the league said concussion counts have fallen 25 percent over the past four seasons compared to the previous three. From the start of training camp to the end of the 2017 regular season, there were 281 concussions. Last year it was 187.