NFL players don Guardian Caps, designed to protect from concussion

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A piece of equipment adopted by the NFL as a way of reducing repetitive head trauma got a thumbs up from 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan for a reason that had nothing to do with concussions.

The league mandated last March that all offensive and defensive linemen as well as tight ends and linebackers wear a Guardian Cap during training camp. The cap is a padded shell affixed to the outside of the helmet, designed to reduce the shock of helmet-to-helmet contact that is a daily part of padded practices.

It was the invention of Guardian Sports, a company that develops protective sports gear.

“I love them,” Shanahan said. “I don’t have to worry about the quarterback breaking his finger. Everyone’s got pillows on the top of their helmet.”

Shanahan’s comment was a reference to new starting quarterback Trey Lance, who suffered such an injury last preseason, the coach revealed earlier this week.

Use of the Guardian Caps will be in effect through practices leading up to the second preseason game, which means when the 49ers are in Minnesota for two joint practices next week, both teams will wear the mushroom-like overlays in the trenches.

After that, the players can choose whether to wear them. The caps have been used off and on the past two years, with the 49ers experimenting with them two years ago. The Los Angeles Rams had them available during training camp a year ago and didn’t use them at the outset. When quarterback Matthew Stafford hit his thumb on the helmet of a pass rusher, coach Sean McVay immediately put the cap into use.

A Rams spokesman said caps were worn by offensive linemen once the regular season began. With defensive players coached to pull off a quarterback during practice in pass rush situations, offensive linemen pushed toward the quarterback can have their helmets exposed for contact with the throwing hand of the most important player on the team.

Whether the Guardian Cap or another innovation like it will gain traction for its main purpose — reducing the shock of repeated blows to the head — remains to be seen. The NFL’s competition committee and safety advisory committee both recommended the use of Guardian Caps through the first 14 padded practices, citing data that suggested at least a 10 percent reduction of impact when one player is wearing it and 20 percent if both are wearing it.

While that may not sound like much, agent Leigh Steinberg believes it’s a good place to start. Steinberg has long been a proponent of taking steps to reduce repetitive head trauma, which has been linked to CTE, Alzheimer’s Disease, premature senility and depression.

Practice and game equipment, such as chin straps, facemasks, shoulder pads and mouthpieces, includes embedded radio frequency identification tags that log data, which is recorded and available to all 32 teams in a central database. Data will be collected from preseason practices to understand how the Guardian Caps performed and help determine whether their use will be expanded going forward.

“People look at quarterbacks who get hit in the head and somehow make the assumption that’s the majority of the problem,” Steinberg said in a phone interview. “The reality is linemen hit each other on a regular basis at the inception of every play and it’s possible that an offensive or defensive lineman could come out of football with 10,000 sub-concussive events. Any advance has to be welcomed.”

A “sub-concussive event” includes no loss of consciousness with the player simply accepting it and pushing on as part of the process and the culture of the sport.

“They play Pop Warner and from that point on, they accept norms of behavior and lack of concern for long-term health that’s different than the rest of us,” Steinberg said.

Ron Rivera, coach of the Washington Commanders and one of four coaches on the competition committee who voted to use Guardian Caps this year in training camp, noticed a difference as soon as training camp opened.

“You didn’t hear the clack of the helmets today,” Rivera told reporters following the first training camp padded practice. “That’s typically what happens when you don’t have the Guardian Caps on, inevitable contact, helmet to helmet. They’ll absorb some of the shock and take a lot of shock off the player’s helmets, and if this comes out and it really helps reduce it, then I imagine we would continue.”

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 09: San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle catches throws before donning his football helmet wrapped in a Guardian wraparound cap on the practice field next to Levi's Stadium, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
The helmet of tight end George Kittle with its Guardian Cap awaits use when he returns to the next contact drill.

Pittsburgh coach and competition committee member Mike Tomlin told his players in a video released to the NFL, “I love football. My sons play football. I’m morally obligated to keep this damn group safe and I promise you will get that commitment from me.”

Tomlin made the caps mandatory for all positions and also had them used during non-contact OTAs and minicamps so players would get used to them.

Not everyone is sold on the use of Guardian Caps. New York Jets coach and former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh told reporters they might embolden players to take risks they otherwise would not.

“I do think because of the soft blow, it’s kind of lending the players to use their heads a little bit more,” Saleh said.

DeMeco Ryans, who succeeded Saleh as 49ers defensive coordinator last season, isn’t so sure.

“I haven’t noticed any substantial differences,” Ryans said. “We teach keeping your head out of the tackle anyway. We teach leverage side tackling so we don’t use our heads, just to make sure our guys are safe.”

Shelby Harris, a defensive lineman for the Seattle Seahawks and a former Raiders draft pick said during his media session the shells give players a false sense of security.

“They’re stupid,” Harris said. “I get what they’re trying to do, but the main thing is, you might have guys leading with their head more because they’re not feeling it, because they have this big old helmet thing on. And then you get in a game, and the next thing you know, they knock themselves out.”

Houston defensive tackle and three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt said “You feel like a bobblehead. Like you’re going to fall over.”

As far back as 1990, 49ers tackle Steve Wallace and Buffalo safety Mark Kelso wore padded overlays called “Pro Cap” which were painted to look like helmets and actually used in games. Kelso’s helmet was an artifact for a time in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the notation “the helmet did not catch on, however, as most players didn’t like the look of it and there were concerns that the weight of the helmet could cause neck injuries.”

The NFL reported a 25 percent reduction in concussions from 2018-2020 as opposed to 2015-17 as a result of rule changes and emphasis on reducing head trauma.

Steinberg isn’t surprised about the pushback as it pertains to leading with the head because of the extra protection.

“That’s been the argument all the way since they gave up leather helmets,” Steinberg said. “It’s been a consistent theme. I don’t think it’s anything but helpful. Does it solve the concussion problem? No. But is it a positive? Yes. Because there will be more breakthroughs.”



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