With safety in mind, the NFL is making players wear knee and thigh pads this season — even if some of them don't like it.
The mandatory leg padding is back for the first time since 1994, when it was dropped because it was too tough to enforce. If you think such a rule couldn't provoke much emotion, think again. Players have strong, if mixed feelings about the extra protection.
“Everyone is concerned about carrying more weight” says NFL vice president of football operations Merton Hanks, a Super Bowl-winning safety with the 49ers in the 1990s. “But I think the major point of mandating pads for everyone except punters and kickers is equity for all.
“Besides, we saw last year how Adrian Peterson ran in thigh pads and knee pads and what he was able to do.”
Players in the trenches, running backs like Peterson who take the most (and hardest) hits, and the linebackers who deliver those shots tend to favor anything that enhances protection. “Skill position” players such as receivers and defensive backs, leery of anything they think could slow them down a tick, aren't embracing the change.
“There might be some minor gripes, but we think the game will be as exciting and safe as ever,” Hanks said.
Minor gripes? Try these:
— “This is new, and it (stinks). It's different running around with these things in,” said Titans safety Bernard Pollard, who won the Super Bowl with Baltimore last February. “I mean, this is what the league is going to. Do we like it? No. Can we do anything about it? No.”
— “It's a great pendulum that's swung, and it's swung too far,” added 49ers star defensive lineman Justin Smith. “But that's the way it goes. The rule's the rule. You go with it.”
— “I don't know what I can say without getting into trouble, so I don't want to say anything,” said Ravens receiver Torrey Smith, one of the NFL's top deep threats. “Whatever they think is going to help us. I guess it will save you from a thigh contusion or a bruise or something. I don't know. It's not going to help with anything else.”
Even players who agree with the concept aren't completely sold on the rules change.
“It's necessary. I'm not sure it needs to be mandated,” said Lions receiver Nate Burleson, who is entering his 11th season. “I'm not going to complain that the league is trying to protect us, but I'd rather not have to wear those pads. With skill guys, it's about look and feel. Visually, we look lighter when you don't have pads on your legs.”
The pad protests date back to the seasons when Bill Parcells was coaching the New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowl wins — in the 1986 and '90 seasons.
“It was a constant battle for me,” says Parcells, who made the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. “I was always one that was very adamant about wearing pads and I would fine my players if they didn't wear them. Now, some of them got away with it and would take them out once the game started. You're not thinking about those things when the game is going on.
“I'm glad that they are enforcing that because I think the players sometimes don't know what is in their own best interest. I've seen many injuries in my experience that came when proper equipment was not worn and could have been prevented.”
Finding the proper equipment, or at least versions state-of-the-art enough to remove some reservations about their affecting performance, has taken years. Richard Kent, a Ph.D in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and deputy director for the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia, was charged by the NFL to independently evaluate pads for potential use in games.
Kent studied about six dozen varieties of thigh pads, from traditional loose pads that go into a pocket in the pants to girdles that are padded and have a wide range of materials and designs. Pretty much anything a player might call a thigh pad was up for review.
He also looked at 10 versions of knee pads, which aren't nearly as common in sports. He put them through experiments similar to crash dummy tests to come up with coverage and impact standards that would offer protection and comfort without inhibiting players.
“We reached out to every team and manufacturer to give me everything players might want to put under their pants as pads,” said Kent, who has worked for six years on biomechanical football issues. “We got boxes and boxes of pads and evaluated all of these.
“We looked at impact based on what percent protection does each pad give compared to a bare thigh. If you were to put a bare plate over a thigh and it gets hit wrong, it is much worse than having nothing at all there. And that is certainly true with some thigh pads; we need to ensure they are protective.”
One shocker: Kent found that some padding not only didn't offer protection, but actually added to the danger of injury, particularly contusions.
Still, some pads reduced the pressure from a hit to the thigh to 10 percent of what it would be with no protection. Some 37 pads that Hanks calls “high performance” were recommended.
Uniform police will be out in full force to make sure players are wearing them.
Hanks explains that during pregame warm-ups, league inspectors — 32 former players — will check for the knee and thigh pads. They will mark down any violations or make note of players who need to tweak a pad, and give the info to a team representative so players can make adjustments.
Once a team comes out for the game, if there is a violation, at a dead ball the inspectors will notify game officials. They will alert the coach that the player must be removed from the game until he is properly padded. That player will be inspected again before being allowed back in the game.
“You have to come out of the game and your coaches will not be happy about that,” said former Giants running back Joe Morris, who works as an NFL uniform inspector.
Even worse, players will face league discipline for the violations. Just imagine a repeat offender getting suspended for his wardrobe — or lack of it.
“The hardest thing is practicing in these pads,” Morris said, “and when you get used to it, then everyone will feel comfortable. They will have the opportunity to do that in preseason.
“But you can be sure the first time Tom Coughlin or Mike Tomlin sees a guy can't go into the game because of that, they are not going to be happy. You're supposed to be in game uniform, and that includes the knee and thigh pads.”