Justin Ellis has played defensive tackle in the NFL since 2014, and for the first time during Monday’s practice, he said he didn’t get vibrating and ringing in his ear when his helmet collided with an offensive lineman.
Sometimes “you’re going to feel like contact to your head when you’re on a block or a physical block. I can’t feel it at all, because of the Guardian,” Ellis said after New York Giants practice Monday.
Guardian is the maker of the mushroom-shaped foam helmet wraparound caps mandated by the NFL for use during training camp this year for offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends. The cap maker and the NFL, which funded some testing, tout statistics claiming the caps reduce impact velocities by 20 percent.
It all sounds good, but there are skeptics. Jets head coach Robert Saleh made waves last week when he openly worried that the cap might give a false sense of security to the players.
“Too much of anything is a bad thing. I do think because of the soft blow, it’s lending the players to use their heads a little bit more,” Saleh said.
His counterpart on the Packers, Matt LaFleur, worried about what happens when the caps come off, telling reporters, “Now that they haven’t had that feeling of what it really feels like and now it’s live action … I think the intent is totally legit. I think that, but I don’t understand, if they’re going to wear them in practice, why aren’t we wearing them in the game?”
The NFL has no plans to require the caps in games, instead focusing on the rise in concussions during training camp last year, compared to a decline during actual games. And most of the more than 2,000 high schools and more than 200 colleges that use them do so only in practice. According to Guardian, it has about 300,000 caps in circulation, including at colleges ranging from Clemson to USC.
Ironically, despite the NFL’s intent not to use the cap in games, its lineage traces back to a brief experiment in the 1990s of a few players wearing something similar during the regular season.
Mark Kelso, a defensive back for the Bills, wore what was called the ProCap during the second part of his career, earning him the nickname the “Great Gazoo,” so named after the alien on “The Flintstones” with a head too large for his tiny body. While Kelso credited the cap with extending his NFL time, it never caught on in an era when the league downplayed the risk of head impacts.
Fast forward to 2010, and the maker of the ProCap, Bert Strauss, approached chemical engineering company Hanson Industries about making a helmet that incorporated the soft cap.
Erin Hanson, the co-founder with her husband, Lee, of the eponymously named firm, decided there would not be a market because it’d be too expensive for youth and high school teams to replace their helmets. But she saw a business in the caps, and so the Hansons created Guardian Innovations.
Guardian introduced the first prototype at the January 2012 American Football Coaches Association trade show. In 2017, the company won $20,000 in funding through the NFL’s Head Health Challenge, which seeded promising safety technologies. More funding came in the form of NFL financing the testing at Biocore, a University of Virginia-related mechanical engineering laboratory that is 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 testing adjusted to account for their speeds and greater impacts. The high school version reduced in laboratory velocity impact by 33 percent, reflecting the slower speeds of the youth game, according to Guardian.
“To get this kind of testing done is not cheap, certainly hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the NFL certainly helped out,” Lee Hanson said. Erin added, “Having the cooperation of the NFL to help us with the development and the testing has been huge.”
The Guardian cap is not the first protective device to make its way onto an NFL field with league financial help. The Vicis helmet, which uses a softer shell, also received funding through the Head Health Challenge.
Jennifer Langton, the NFL’s senior vice president of Health and Safety Innovation, sees parallels with some players and coaches complaining about the Guardian caps and the move to eliminate lower-performing helmets last decade.
“Change is difficult,” Langton said. When the NFL began rating helmets in 2015, it began banning headgear that underperformed, famously captured in Antonio Brown’s histrionics about having to give up his beloved Schutt Air Advantage.
Jason Kelce is wearing bubble wrap on his head for a little extra padding. 😂 #FlyEaglesFly
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) July 29, 2022
Seahawks tight end Noah Fant said, “I dislike them a lot. I know they’re NFL-mandated, so I’m not going to say too much. I’m not a fan of them, but some other people may be. I understand why, it’s just kind of bulky and I can see the little straps on my facemask and stuff which bothers me a little bit, but we’re going with it.”
Max Garcia, a Giants guard, said, “Sometimes it can slide up and kind of get your vision. So I would say, you know, it just needs to be just a little bit sturdier.”
While the league promotes the 20 percent velocity impact reduction (both colliding players must wear the caps to achieve this rate), that figure comes from testing at Biocore, not actual field play. Five teams last year used the caps in practice. Asked if there was data comparing those clubs’ concussion rates during training camp with others, the NFL declined to share the information.
The Hansons said though clearly, the NFL would not have mandated the caps if the experiment last year had not been successful.
But Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, wrote in an email, “Any real-world gains may be offset by greater impacts due to the added weight of the cap, greater rotational acceleration due to greater size of the helmet apparatus, or a player receiving a greater number of impacts due to the greater size of their helmet. In addition, if the softer padding changes player behavior because they perceive they are safer, players might be worse off than before. The use of the caps should be monitored closely, and users should be aware the potential benefit is limited.”
Tony Plagman, Guardian’s national sales manager, countered that no one claimed the caps were a “magic pill,” but merely an extra layer of protection.
Giants offensive lineman Shane Lemieux rejected the concept expressed by Saleh and Nowinski that the cap could lead to poor techniques such as leading with the helmet. And he applauds the NFL for taking player safety seriously.
“I love this game more than anything and I love that the NFL is doing research to help protect us more,” Lemieux said. “Obviously, I want to stay as healthy as I can. Because this game, this game means the most to me, but at the end of the day, I want to walk away healthy.”
The Athletic’s Michael Shawn-Dugar, Zackary Rosenblatt and Matt Schneidman contributed.