GREEN BAY, Wis. — There are some good reasons why many members of the Green Bay Packers dislike Guardian Caps, the protective devices worn on the helmets of players who line up near the ball.
And then there’s the Kenny Clark reason.
“Just watching them just cracks me up, to be honest,” the Pro Bowl defensive end said at training camp this week. “I don’t even like to look at them. It’s like a big, old mushroom.
Appearance, of course, is irrelevant. According to the NFL, the Guardian Cap results in at least a 10 percent reduction in impact force if one player wears it, and at least a 20 percent reduction in impact if two players wear it.
According to a league press release trumpeting the development, the NFL and NFLPA, “through their biomechanical engineering experts,” worked with the Guardian Cap manufacturer “to test and develop the design of a cap that withstands the impacts NFL players experience on the field. ” This information stems from the vast amount of data collected during games. This data was used in laboratory simulations in the development of the protective shell.
As a rule, offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers have to wear the Guardian Cap whether you like it or not. At coach Matt Lafleur’s request, the Packers began training camp with all 90 players wearing a hat. By the end of Day 2, every running back, receiver and defensive back had thrown them aside.
LaFleur consulted with colleagues around the NFL, as well as in college, where Guardian Cap use is much more prevalent, before formulating his policy. He understands 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’m all for anything that helps our boys live long, healthy lives. The thing that I’m kind of worried about is when you have that cushion on your helmet, and we emphasize that a lot with our coaches, I don’t want guys to feel confident that they can use their head anymore. So that’s one of the things that’s not so great about that is you can get false confidence and now your technique suffers and I definitely don’t want to see us go down that road.
LaFleur had another problem. A player needs training camp to get used to the physics and stress on the body. LaFleur didn’t talk about head injuries in that case, but he did use the phrase “your boys callous.” A head-on collision with AJ Dillon is not a typical part of Clark’s ordinary life.
“What happens when they take them down and now that they haven’t had that feeling of what it really feels like and now it’s live action?” Lafleur wondered.
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New York Jets coach Robert Saleh, a close friend of Lafleur, had the same concern.
“I really think because of the soft shot, it gives the players an opportunity 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 — anybody who’s played football knows 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 to happen. … I don’t know, time will tell. It’s just interesting with these Guardian Caps and what exactly we’re trying to achieve.”
Dr. Alan Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, responded in a statement provided to ESPN.com Jets beat writer Rich Cimini.
“The brain doesn’t acclimate to head shots,” Sills said. “The Guardian cap helps mitigate these forces at a time of the season when we see their greatest concentration.”
For linemen, tight ends and defensive backs, the Guardian cap must be worn at practice during the week of the second preseason game.
No player interviewed for this story offered substantive opinion, perhaps to avoid ruffling feathers.
“Football is football,” outside linebacker Rashan Gary said. “Put them down, I still have to hit. Put them down, I still have to hit.
Last year, according to league data, there were a total of 187 concussions between training camp, preseason games, in-season practices and regular-season games. About 16 percent of those concussions came on the practice field in training camp.
“I think the intent is perfectly legitimate,” LaFleur said. “But I don’t understand, if they’re going to wear them in practice, why shouldn’t we wear them in the game?”
The Guardian cap is the latest in the NFL’s efforts to reduce head injuries. Because of better helmets and rule changes aimed at eliminating helmet-to-helmet contact, the league said there has been a 25 percent reduction in concussions 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 they were 187.