The NFL’s use of padded Guardian helmet covers in camp attracts support and suspicion

Justin Ellis has played defensively in the NFL since 2014, and for the first time during Monday’s training, he said he didn’t vibrate and ring in his ear when his helmet hit an offensive lineman.

Sometimes “it feels like you’re touching your head when you’re on a block or a body block. I don’t feel it at all, because of the Guardian,” Ellis said after training the New York Giants on Monday.

Guardian is the manufacturer of the NFL-mandated Mushroom Wrap Helmet for use during training camp this year for offensive linemen, linebackers, linebackers and tight ends. The cap maker and the NFL, which funded some of the tests, touted statistics claiming that caps reduce impact velocities by 20 percent.

Everything looks good, but there are skeptics. Jets coach Robert Saleh caused an uproar last week when he was publicly concerned that the hat might give a false sense of security to players.

“Too much of anything is bad. I think because of the soft hit, it lends players to using their heads a bit more.

The Saints wear their Guardian Hats during a bootcamp session. (Stephen Low/USA Today)

His Packers counterpart, Matt LaFleur, was concerned about what happens when the hats come off, telling reporters, “Now that they don’t get that sense of what you really feel and now it’s straight action…I think the intent is completely legal. I think so, But I don’t understand, if they’re going to wear it in practice, why don’t we wear it in the match?”

The NFL has no plans to order caps at games, instead focusing on the rise in concussions during training camp last year, compared to the decline during actual games. Most of the more than 2,000 secondary schools and over 200 colleges that use these schools only do so in practice. According to the Guardian, there are about 300,000 common trade characters in circulation, including at colleges ranging from Clemson to the University of Southern California.

Ironically, despite the NFL’s intention not to use the cap in games, its pedigree goes back to a brief experience in the 1990s of a few players wearing something similar during the regular season.

Mark Kelso, defensive back for Bills, He wore what was called a ProCap During the second part of his career, it earned him the nickname “Great Gazoo,” so named after the alien in “The Flintstones” with a head that’s too large for his small body. While Kelso credits him with extending his time in the NFL, it hasn’t spread in an era when the league has reduced the risk of head trauma.

Fast forward to 2010, and ProCap maker Bert Strauss contacted chemical engineering company Hanson Industries about making a helmet that would include the softshell.

Erin Hanson, co-founder with her husband, Lee, of the company named after her, decided there would be no market because it would be too expensive for youth and high school teams to replace their helmets. But she saw a business in hats, so Hanson created Guardian innovations.

Guardian presented its first prototype at the NFL Trade Show in January 2012. In 2017, the company won $20,000 in funding through the NFL’s Major Health Challenge, which sowed the seeds for promising safety technologies. More funding came in the form of NFL funding for testing at Biocore, a University of Virginia mechanical engineering lab co-founded by Jeff Crandall, who chairs the NFL Engineering Committee.

A newer version of the cap had to be developed for the size of NFL players, and the test was modified to take into account their greater speeds and impacts. The high school version lowered the lab’s speed effect by 33 percent, reflecting the slower game speeds of the youngsters, according to The Guardian.

“Doing this kind of testing isn’t cheap, definitely hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it definitely helped the NFL,” Hanson told me. Erin added, “The collaboration with the NFL to help us with development and testing has been huge.”

The Guardian Cover isn’t the first protective device to make its way into an NFL stadium with financial help from the league. The Vicis helmet, which uses a softer shell, has also received funding through the Head Health Challenge.

Jennifer Langton, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety innovation, sees parallels with some players and coaches complaining about Guardian hats and a move to remove underperforming helmets in the past decade.

“Change is hard,” Langton said. When the NFL began rating helmets in 2015, it began banning under-performing headgear, made famous in Antonio Brown’s theatrical work of having to give up his beloved Shot Air feature.

A number of players have expressed their dissatisfaction with the hats since the opening of the training camps. Eagles center Jason Kelsey appears to have mocked Guardian Hats, wearing bubble wrap on his helmet.

Noah Fant of the Seahawks said, “I hate them so much. I know they’re NFL commissioned, so I won’t say much. I’m not a fan of them, but some other people might as well. I understand why, it’s just kind of huge and I can see The little straps on my face mask and the things that bother me a little bit, but we follow them.”

Max Garcia, one of the Giants’ guards, said, “Sometimes he can slide up and get to see you. So I’d say, you know, you have to be a little more steady.”

While the league touts a 20 percent velocity impact reduction (both clashing players must wear hats to achieve this rate), that number comes from testing at Biocore, not actual field play. Five teams last year used hats in practice. Asked if there was data comparing those clubs’ concussion rates during training camp with others, the NFL declined to share the information.

Hanson said that though, the NFL would not have decided the hats if last year’s trial had not been successful.

But Chris Nowinsky, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, wrote in an email, “Any real-world gains may be offset by larger impacts due to the additional weight of the cap, increased spin acceleration due to the larger size of the helmet hardware, or the player receiving a greater number of impacts.” Because of the larger size of his helmet. Additionally, if soft padding alters a player’s behavior because they perceive they are safer, players may be in a worse situation than before. The use of hoods should be closely monitored, and users should be aware that the potential benefit is limited.”

Giants linebacker Justin Ellis says the Guardian cover has had a positive effect on him. (John Jones/USA Today)

Tony Plagman, Guardian’s national sales manager, responded that no one claimed the berets were a “magic pill,” but just an extra layer of protection.

One of the offensive line giants, Shane Lemieux, rejected the notion expressed by Saleh and Nowinsky that a hat could lead to poor techniques such as helmet driving. He commends the NFL for taking player safety seriously.

“I love this game more than anything, and would love for the NFL to do research to help protect us even more,” Lemieux said. “Obviously, I want to stay healthy as much as I can. Because this game, this game means a lot to me, but at the end of the day, I want to walk healthy.”

Athletic Michael Sean Duggar, Zachary Rosenblatt, and Matt Schneidman contributed.

(Top photo of the Browns tight end David Njoku: Ken Blaze/USA Today)


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