NFL’s new position-specific helmets, rule changes, COVID-19 rules, former player deaths

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News, flotsam, jetsam of the NFL week

New Position-Specific Helmets

Player-safety history will be made in Week 1, with at least six NFL starters wearing the first position-specific helmet ever made. VICIS, the innovative Seattle-based helmet manufacturer, has invented a helmet designed for offensive and defensive linemen. It’s called the VICIS Zero2 Trench. If you watch the Saints-Packers closely Sunday, you’ll see the odd raised front-top of Green Bay right guard Lucas Patrick’s helmet. He’ll be one of the six scheduled to wear the Trench, designed to put additional streamlined padding at the lineman’s forehead and hairline, where the repetitive, play-after-play contact with the opposition happens most often.

“When I first saw the helmet last spring,” Patrick told me the other day, “I loved it, because it’s designed to mitigate those repetitive hits we always get. I got one brain. There’s a lot of smart people out there, but no one’s figure out how to do a brain transplant yet. I plan to play as long as I can, so I’m going to do everything I can to preserve the brain I have.”

All helmet manufacturers have been in a race to design position-specific helmets. VICIS vice president of product development Jason Neubauer said designing one for linemen first of all made the most sense. One, because of the volume of players; there are more offensive and defensive linemen than any position group or groups on the field. And two, because the hits to linemen happen in mostly the same place. “If you make a heat map of where the impacts are for lineman,” Neubauer told me, “they’d all be near the same place.” Front of helmet. And so VICIS installed light and pliable padding where linemen take the most punishment. The company emphasizes light-weight in its design, because players don’t want helmets any heavier than they already wear, and they also have the ability to snap in different thicknesses of padding in six areas at the front of the helmet. Some players want the padding harder, some softer; five different pad thicknesses are available. In addition, VICIS offers to custom-make the padding for NFL players, giving players a personal fit along the jaw and cheekbone.

Packers guard Lucas Patrick wore the Zero2 Trench helmet in a preseason game. (Getty Images)

The Zero2 Trench is the second-best performing helmet out of the 20 approved for player use by the NFL and NFL Players Association exam teams this year. Beginning two years ago, the NFL began to outlaw some low-performing helmets, and each year players get a new poster with the approved helmets

As of Friday, Neubauer said, 30 of 32 teams have ordered Trench helmets for their linemen, through there’s no guarantee they’ll all be used. Players are fickle with helmets. They’ll try out several kinds, even during the season, but sometimes not change. The change will come, Neubauer said, when players talk to players in locker rooms.

The Packers’ Patrick is bullish on this one. He said it feels slighter lighter than his former helmet, and the sightlines are just as good. He’s gotten some guff from opponents making fun of the distended helmet in the preseason, but he doesn’t care. “Those big collisions, I feel safer in this helmet,” Patrick said. “I’ve had a few in camp where you get those big hits, with the linebacker barreling down on me and we make solid contact, and before, I would really feel it. Now, I feel totally fine, like I was in pass-protection and nobody really hit me. So far, for me, it’s a great helmet.”

Designing helmets with different positions in mind is the next frontier for pro and college players. (The Trench has been sent to some major colleges this fall too.) The wide receiver and quarterback helmets, for instance, could be designed with extra padding at the back of the head, to prevent violent head hits on the ground.

Louis Riddick Is Okay

The EF-3 tornado you might have seen ravage a small southern New Jersey town, Mullica Hill, had an NFL angle. Former player and current Monday Night Football analyst Louis Riddick lives in Mullica Hill, about 25 miles southeast of Philadelphia, and he was home Wednesday when his son came to find him and said, “Dad, look outside.”

Riddick, two days later: “I’ve probably seen the movie ‘Twister’ eight or nine times. Seeing it in real life, you can see why people get mesmerized by a tornado. The power, the size, how random it is. My housing development is next to the one where it hit, where big, beautiful houses got flattened, destroyed.

“I saw roofs, chimneys, tires, trees floating, circling in the air above my head. Very wide. When I saw it coming, I yelled to the family, ‘Get in the basement!’ I should have gone, but I just couldn’t stop looking at it. It was coming toward us, then veered off a little bit toward this other neighborhood. The noise was amazing—a cross between a thunderstorm and 100 jets taking off at the same time, with everything shaking. There was maybe five, 10 minutes, at the most, where you could feel the intense power of it. Whole treelines got destroyed. Why are roofs flying through the air? The power of it, it’ll change you. Seeing how quickly your life, your house, your future, can be turned upside down in a matter of seconds. The neighborhood next to us, destroyed. And ours, spared. Literally, no damage. Literally, a couple of flower pots knocked over. That’s it.

“When it ended, I just realized how fortunate we are. You realize how grateful you should be for every day you have.

“That night, maybe 3 in the morning, I’m on the phone in my driveway, in the pitch dark. I think it’s like this incredible destructive thing came by, winked at me and said, ‘I’m gonna spare you today.’

“So man, I’m grateful today. Just grateful for every day we have.”

Art McNally Gets His Due 

The former field judge, referee, director of officiating and conscience of officiation (my words), who worked the NFL’s rules game for a half-century, was nominated as the 2022 contributor for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If he gets 80 percent of the vote from the 49 Hall voters when ballots are cast shortly before the Super Bowl next February, McNally will be the first on-field official in the 102-year history of the NFL to be enshrined. The NFL’s Sunday operations center officiating command center is called Art McNally GameDay Central.

Two reasons why McNally deserves this, and has deserved it for years. I’ve covered the NFL for 38 seasons now, and no single person in any aspect of the league has had more integrity than McNally. No one distrusted him, and I mean no one. That’s the most important thing for an official, and for an officiating department. Two: He modernized officiating. Starting in 1968, he installed a program to study and grade officials, using the same kind of film analysis that coaches used to evaluate player. He pushed for replay and other forms of technology (such as wireless microphones on refs) to make the game more transparent to fans and viewers). The people you see on TV explaining the rules today, led by Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino, think he’s the most important person in the history of NFL officiating.

Lots of contributors to the game—owners, officials, GMs—deserve consideration for the Hall, but none more than McNally. Good choice by the contributors subcommittee.

The Unnoticed Rule Change

The big rules change of the year will be the elimination of the low block. This has gotten zero attention this summer, but when you watch football this year, you’ll notice. You’ll see a corner move toward a ballcarrier in the open field, with a guard escorting the ballcarrier, and you’ll see the corner do a matador move and avoid all contact, and you’ll say, Whaaaat? It’s now illegal to block a man below the waist more than two yards outside the tackle or more than five yards on either side of the line of scrimmage. The intent is to eliminate chopping players at the knees, often at full speed. “The corners are going to have to use their athleticism to avoid those big linemen,” said Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer, who is a proponent of the rule because of safety. One of his corners is not crazy about it. Said Patrick Peterson: “We’re really gonna get smashed now. Imagine a 315-pound guard lead-blocking and running right at us. We gotta literally just almost stand there and take it, or try to fake them out and get around them to the ballcarrier. But I think a few of us [cornerbacks] are going to get leveled.”

Two points to make: I think offenses will have a big advantage here, particularly in things like wide runs or the screen game. As one coach told me, “Third-down backs will love this rule. They’ll be able to get out on the edge and instead of getting six to eight yards, they might get 15 because the play can’t get blown up by the DB cutting the guard or tackle.” Also, it’ll be interesting to see how attentive officiating crews are to this rule. Watch the first two or three weeks, when it could get over-flagged to tell players on both sides, We’re serious about calling this, so cut out the low blocks.

RIP To Two

Tunch Ilkin. I don’t have one story about Ilkin, the former Steelers offensive lineman who died of ALS on Saturday at 62. I have 20. There was about a 12-year span or so, from maybe 2005 to 2018, when I’d have some Steelers question at various times—in training camp, during the season, before the draft, whenever—and I’d think, Gotta call Tunch. What I loved about his answers is they were long, they were on point, and they were honest. He walked the sunny side of the street with the Steelers, because he loved them and broadcasted for them, but he was unvarnished with me, always.

So much about Ilkin was admirable. Born in Istanbul, emigrated to Chicago with his parents at age 2, went to Indiana State at the time of Larry Bird, sixth-round pick of the Steelers, first Turkish player in NFL history, union rep for the Steelers when it wasn’t popular in western Pennsylvania to be a union rep for rich football players, joined the Steelers radio team with Bill Hillgrove and legendary Myron Cope. And this is where I found out about Ilkin the person. Cope was starting to be forgetful on the air around 2004, and you could barely notice the times Ilkin covered for him even though he did, and it was seamless. What a mensch, and what a good football analyst. The game, and everyone who loved the Steelers, will miss him.

Superbowl XXXVI X
Patriots wide receiver David Patten, at Super Bowl XXXVI in February 2002. (Getty Images)

David Patten. “Undrafted out of Western Carolina in 1996.” Imagine someone with that profile five years later doing something that hadn’t been done since Walter Payton did it: rush for a touchdown, catch a touchdown, throw for a touchdown in the same game. Then, in the Patriots’ first Super Bowl season, Patten scored the only offensive touchdown, on an eight-yard pass from Tom Brady, in the Pats’ first Super Bowl win ever. The essence of Patten, who died in a motorcycle crash in his native South Carolina last Thursday, was the essence of the early Patriots. “As much as anyone,” Bill Belichick said, “David epitomized the unheralded, self-made player who defied enormous odds to not only earn a job in the NFL but to become a key player on multiple championship teams.” Key player to put it mildly. He scored a touchdown in both the AFC title game against the Steelers and the Super Bowl against the Rams.

For The Record: Covid Rules

Here are the most important Covid rules you need to know for the season, with approximately 93 percent of NFL players fully vaccinated:

• Unvaccinated players who test positive for Covid are out and away from the team for 10 days. No exception.

• Unvaccinated players who are deemed close contacts with Covid-positive people are out and away from the team for five days. No exceptions.

• All vaccinated players will be tested every seven days, and once more per week if they choose. Weekly testing for the vaccinated will occur on either Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday and will include all coaches and team officials who have close contacts with players.

• Vaccinated players who test positive can rejoin the team, if asymptomatic, by testing negative twice in tests separated by 24 hours. (Example: Vaxxed player tests positive. Goes home. No feeling any symptoms. Will test each day. The first time he has two consecutive negative tests, he’s allowed back as a full participant in team activities and games.) These players must get the approval of both chief medical officer Allen Sills and the team’s infection control officer.

• Vaccinated players who are deemed close contacts with Covid-positive people are not pulled out of team activities. They will be subject to daily testing and can remain as full participants in team activities and games.