NFL, NFLPA working hard to improve player safety

There's a saying in the NFL that the injury rate for players is 100 percent.

That doesn't mean, however, there aren't ways to make the game safer for the men who partake in the sport.

When the Steelers donned Guardian Cap helmet covers for minicamp a year ago and then wore them in training camp, there was an adjustment process for many, not excluding fans, who weren't accustomed to seeing the space-age-looking safety padding covering players helmets.

It's one of many ways the NFL is working to improve the overall safety for its players from making improvements in helmets, to tweaking rules such as allowing fair catches on kickoffs to reduce big impacts.

The NFL mandated earlier this year that offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers wear Guardian Caps for every preseason practice, as well as any regular or postseason practice in which there is contact.

The Steelers, as they did a year ago when head coach Mike Tomlin had his team wear the soft-shell helmet pads during minicamp before they were mandated, took it a step further. Their defensive backs and wide receivers are also wearing Guardian Caps during training camp practices.

"It's not a nuisance, it's something you've got to get used to. It really puts the emphasis on tackling the right way, which is huge," said Steelers defensive tackle and NFLPA rep Cam Heyward. "You get used to it."

Take a look at the Steelers 53-man roster heading into Week 1 of the 2023 season

The caps go over the outside of the helmet, providing additional padding to absorb blows. NFL data from last year shows that one player is wearing the Guardian Cap at the time of a blow to the helmet, the device absorbs 11 to 12 percent of the force of the blow. If there are multiple players involved who are wearing Guardian Caps, the force of impact is reduced by around 20 percent.

Guardian Cap developed the technology in part through an NFL grant awarded in 2017.

For players in the trenches such as Steelers guard James Daniels, it's much appreciated. In fact, Daniels and several of the other offensive linemen wore the Guardian Cap throughout the 2022 regular season practices, even though they were not mandated.

"Anything that can protect your brain, I wish we were able to wear them in games, things like that to limit helmet-to-helmet impact," Daniels said. "On the o-line, you get that on every play. I wish we could wear them in games, but I'm glad the NFL mandated that we have to wear them for practice."

That could be on the horizon according to Jeff Miller, NFL vice president of communications, public affairs and policy.

The league has already developed position-specific helmets for linemen and quarterbacks and continues to work to improve those while developing safer helmets for other positions.

"Ultimately, over the next two, or three, or five years is that some of the improvements made to overall helmets will incorporate some benefits of the Guardian cap," said Miller. "In other words, the offensive lineman-specific helmet will probably — probably — have the same benefit to a player as wearing a regular helmet as a Guardian cap would. And so you may not need a Guardian cap. Or, another add-on — which I don't contemplate right now — for the Guardian cap itself, is it will evolve in such a way that it will mitigate even more of the forces without any detrimental impact.

"I was really excited by the benefit that we saw from Guardian caps this past year, but we were interested in studying the heat, interested in studying the neck forces and potential stingers, interested in getting the player feedback."

According to NFL studies, the first two weeks of training camp regularly produces approximately 30 concussions per year. Helping eliminate those is why the league decided to make the Guardian Cap mandatory for the first few weeks of training camp, when teams are more likely to have high-contact practices.

A year ago, while wearing the Guardian Cap, practice concussions decreased by more than 50 percent among offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends during training camp.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast