The Daily Briefing Thursday, June 1, 2017
AROUND THE NFL
DT SHARRIF FLOYD thinks he might be able to play this season after all. Ben Gosseling from ESPN.com:
Sharrif Floyd was on the field for the Vikings’ practice on Wednesday, though he wasn’t able to do any running. Floyd, who is dealing with a nerve issue that is preventing his right quadriceps muscle from firing properly, said he believes he will be on the field this season. “It’s not a matter of if,” he said. “It’s a matter of when.”
The Eagles are happy with their first round pick, DE DEREK BARNETT from Tennessee. Les Bowen in the Philadelphia Daily News:
SOMEHOW, DEREK Barnett keeps his balance. He’s turning the corner past an offensive tackle, Barnett bent to his left like a short-track speedskater whipping through a turn, his head and left shoulder almost brushing the ground.
“He can turn a corner and be this high off the ground; you guys will notice that when you see him out there,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said, as part of a lengthy, enthusiastic appraisal of the rookie defensive end, who was drafted 14th overall in April.
“I’ve worked on it a lot, especially in college. It takes a lot of reps and a lot of stretching,” Barnett said this week. “I think it helps me play against guys who are a lot taller than me, that are waist-benders. I’m only 6-3, I’m not the tallest d-end; I think my height already helps me, from the leverage standpoint.”
Schwartz noted that Barnett “played right away” as a true freshman at Tennessee, was productive game-in and game-out.
“He’s really tough. He’s got a great center of balance,” Schwartz said. “He’s not on the ground very much. He’s got some things to work on, like any rookie. But he was an effective player. I think that against all competition, he was consistent from game to game. He’s tough as can be. He’s good against the run and good against pass – played right (side) and played left. All those things led us to draft him.
“How much he can contribute, how quickly he can be ready is up to him and coaches. It’s our job to get him ready to be out there. But we’re really excited about him.”
Barnett was the first true freshman to start on the Tennessee defensive line, and he set the school record for tackles for a loss and sacks by a freshman. An ESPN.com story told of a phone conversation with his mom soon after he started college, in which Christine Barnett told him she worked too hard and couldn’t arrange to go to road games; besides, she didn’t know whether he’d be playing much.
“I’m gonna be playing,” Derek told her. And he was, en route to breaking Reggie White’s Tennessee record of 32 sacks.
Could QB BROCK OSWEILER really be impressing Coach Hue Jackson? Pat McManamon at ESPN.com:
Hue Jackson had positive words for quarterback Brock Osweiler on Wednesday, calling the quarterback a “pleasant surprise” as the Cleveland Browns worked in Week 2 of OTAs.
“He’s done a good job,” the Browns coach said of Osweiler, who was acquired from Houston in March. “He works hard at it every day. He’s into it. I think he really enjoys being here.”
Osweiler is working with Cody Kessler, rookie DeShone Kizer and Kevin Hogan as the Browns sort through who will be the starter. This was not his week to speak to the media, but a week ago he said he could not have felt more welcome.
As for expectations, Jackson was candid in saying his were not exactly soaring when Osweiler arrived.
“I expected everything that you guys wrote,” Jackson said. “I watched everything that you guys wrote about what he was and what he wasn’t. I heard it from everywhere, too.”
Osweiler had a winning record last season for Houston — his one season as a full-time starter — but he also threw 16 interceptions and completed just 59 percent, both fourth-lowest in the league.
Jackson clearly was aware, but he has insisted since he came to Cleveland he would judge what he sees.
“I think you guys know me; I don’t judge people by what everybody else says,” Jackson said. “But everybody has a reputation before them. His was a little bit different. He’s not any of that that we’ve [seen]. The guy has been outstanding in our building, and I think that’s what’s most important.”
Jackson said Osweiler is “long and lanky” when he throws but said he moves well for a guy who stands 6-feet-8. He said Osweiler’s height can make him look gangly but that he is so tall that he can drop passes over defenders.
At one point in practice, Osweiler limped away after being caught in a tangle of linemen after he fell while moving up in the pocket. Trainers checked him, but he returned soon after.
Jackson said he told Osweiler on Tuesday that he sees improvement from a year ago.
“He looks much better right now,” Jackson said. “He’s more compact. He’s throwing the ball with a lot more velocity. He’s doing a lot of good things. He needs to keep going, just like all our quarterbacks do.”
James Walker of ESPN.com talks contract with WR JARVIS LANDRY:
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry made it clear Wednesday that he is not focused or bothered by his current contract situation.
In his first public comments since the Pro Bowl in January, Landry confirmed there have been discussions with the team. But Landry said he never considered holding out of voluntary workouts and that the contract situation will eventually take care of itself.
“I’m not really worried about any contract or anything like that,” Landry said at Miami’s OTAs. “I’m more focused on trying to help my team get to a Super Bowl, week in and week out playing hard and playing together. We’ve talked back and forth but there’s nothing really going on. We’re just really focusing on right now today.”
Landry, who was a second-round pick in 2014, is due to make $893,850 in the final year of his rookie deal. He has been one of the NFL’s best bargains based on production. Landry has 204 combined receptions for 2,293 yards and eight touchdowns during his past two Pro Bowl seasons.
The Dolphins said this offseason that extending Landry is a priority. Both sides are expected to work out a new contract by the start of the regular season. The Dolphins also have extended multiple in-house players this offseason, such as safety Reshad Jones ($60 million), receiver Kenny Stills ($32 million), linebacker Kiko Alonso ($28 million) and defensive end Andre Branch ($24 million).
Landry is confident and hopeful that he will be next.
“I don’t really have a breaking point,” Landry said of a possible deadline. “I’m at the point in my life where I’m set. I’m comfortable in the position that I’m in right now. I’m here to help my team get to the Super Bowl and it starts with me being here. I can’t be one of those guys that sit out or not show up and just bring bad whatever to the organization. For me, I know that I need to be here.”
Landry was recently ranked the 42nd-best player in the league, according to an NFL Network poll taken by fellow players. Last year Landry was ranked No. 98, which marks a significant jump, but the receiver remains unsatisfied.
“Not enough,” Landry said. “Honestly, me personally, I play this game to be recognized as one of the best. For me, and I’m sure every player, want to be No. 1 I’ve always approached this game that way and how I’ve worked. So I won’t settle for [No.] 42.”
– – –
G T.J. LANG, now of the Lions, says he meant it as a compliment when he called Dolphins DT NDAMUKONG SUH a “psychopath.”
Ndamukong Suh has been described as many things throughout his career. An All-Pro. A Pro Bowler. A force. A dirty player. Detroit Lions offensive lineman T.J. Lang, who played against Suh twice a year when he was with the Packers and Suh with the Lions, has another descriptor: psychopath.
.@TJLang70 talking about Ndamukong Suh on @PardonMyTake “I’ve never played against a more, literal psychopath in my life. Guy was a nutjob.”
I would take this as a compliment if someone said that about me as a player. Right @Mike_Daniels76?? https://twitter.com/prideofdetroit/status/869569876528046080 …
Lang’s former teammate Mike Daniels did retweet that take, seemingly in agreement with Lang. Suh certainly has a reputation as one of the best defensive players in football, but along with that title usually comes the notion that he skirts the lines of fair play. (You might remember Suh getting fined a time or two, including when he stepped on Aaron Rodgers’ ankle.) I don’t think that qualifies him for the literal definition of a psychopath, but apparently linemen might just have a different meaning for the word.
THIS AND THAT
KAEP IN LIMBO
The Seahawks are not likely to sign QB COLIN KAEPERNICK despite the best efforts of sympathetic media to forge a marriage. Matt Bonesteel of the Washington Post:
Colin Kaepernick met with the Seattle Seahawks last week about their backup quarterback job, and everything seemed to suggest that the two sides would be a pretty good fit. For one, Seattle needed a viable backup to Russell Wilson with only Trevone Boykin (who has been arrested twice this offseason) and Jake Heaps (who was cut twice by the Seahawks last season) on the roster. For another, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said Seattle would be “a perfect place” for Kaepernick because the team’s personnel would be so welcoming.
But on Tuesday, Sirius XM radio host Pat Kirwan threw cold water on that possible pairing.
Sirius’ @PatKirwanRFN on whether Seattle will sign Colin Kaepernick: “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Kirwan probably would know. The former NFL scout, assistant coach and personnel executive has known Pete Carroll since 1990, and the Seahawks coach had this to say about him in Kirwan’s 2015 book, “Take Your Eye Off the Ball 2.0″: “We’re like football soul mates, people who just make sense to each other and have developed a level of nonverbal communication that’s very special.”
Kirwan did not seem to elaborate on his prediction, and the Seahawks won’t be talking about it at least until Friday, when Carroll talks with reporters during Seahawks organized team activities.
GM John Lynch admits the 49ers would not have kept QB Colin Kaepernick around even if he had not opted out of his contract. Nunzio Ingrassia at FoxSports.com:
Colin Kaepernick’s time with the San Francisco 49ers was going to be up this offseason one way or another.
The once-dynamic dual-threat quarterback is still on the market after opting to enter free agency this offseason, but had Kaepernick not made that choice, the 49ers would have taken matters into their own hands. San Francisco general manager John Lynch said Wednesday on PFT Live that the team would have cut Kaepernick if he hadn’t opted out of his deal.
“Yes,” Lynch said when asked if Kaepernick would have been cut, “and we had that conversation with him. So I don’t want to characterize it as he made a decision to leave here. We both sat down and under that current construct of his deal, it was a big number. [Coach] Kyle [Shanahan] had a vision for what he wanted to do, and one thing I think Kyle was very clear and I think Colin appreciated, is that Kyle has an idea of how he’d play with Colin Kaepernick.
“But he preferred to run the exact offense that he ran in Atlanta last year that was record-breaking in this league. And if you change it for the quarterback, you change it for everybody on that offense. So he had a great discussion that I think gave Colin clarity, so we moved on. Brian Hoyer was one of the guys we pursued. Once we pursued him, we didn’t see Kaep as a backup that would really fit in that scheme and we communicated that to him. So I think we’ve been very up front with it. But I think that is a fair characterization. Yes, he was not going to be here under the construct of his contract. We gave him the option, ‘You can opt out, we can release you, whatever.’ And he chose to opt out, but that was just a formality.”
Kaepernick and the 49ers agreed to rework his deal last season as the former star quarterback traded in $14.5 million in injury guarantees during the 2017 season for the chance to hit the open market early. But despite starting 11 games last season and throwing 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, the 29-year-old quarterback has watched teams sign plenty of other players at his position.
The popular belief is that teams are not inclined to sign Kaepernick because of his protests last season, opting to kneel during the national anthem in order to bring light to racial injustices. But his on-field performance hasn’t been consistent, and he has yet to regain the form that helped him guide the 49ers to back-to-back NFC title games in 2012 and 2013.
The Seattle Seahawks reportedly were close to signing Kaepernick, but those talks appear to have cooled.
Kaepernick’s unsigned status is wearing on his fellow SJW’s, including LB ELI HAROLD. Bob Hillie at OmniSport:
Fellow anthem protester and 49ers linebacker Eli Harold told ESPN Wednesday he is disappointed former teammate Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned.
“It’s frustrating,” said Harold, who last year kneeled with Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid during the national anthem. “It’s frustrating for me because I really think it has everything to do with the protest that he did. Some general managers and owners are scared to touch him simply because they’re scared to lose revenue, money. We all know he’s better than some of these guys that went in free agency, but that’s neither here nor there. He’ll be signed by training camp, by the time training camp starts. But it’s frustrating.
“I really feel like the world took a step forward in seeing the protest, but it shows you that we really, honestly, in the NFL, in the football realm, in the professional world, we didn’t take a step forward because he’s still not employed. I feel like it’s bigger than what he did, it’s bigger than football. … He’s a good quarterback. You go back and look at the numbers; he had a pretty good season for the games he played. So he’ll be signed.”
Harold said he draws that confidence from his regular contact with Kaepernick, who himself remains confident he’ll sign somewhere.
Mike Tanier of SportsOnEarth scoffs at the notion that a “media circus” will surround Kaepernick and knock a new team off course.
One of the familiar talking points of the never-ending offseason Colin Kaepernick-unemployment drama goes like this: Teams aren’t blackballing him because of his political activism. They just don’t want the “media circus” and distractions that come from signing him. If he were Tom Brady, it would be different. But as a backup or reclamation project, he’s just not worth the headache.
An interesting theory. Except here’s the thing: The circus rolls through fast.
If a team had signed Kaepernick, whether in March or last week, that circus would already have folded its tents. The distraction would no longer be distracting. The mountain would again be a molehill. The football world would be getting back to football.
This supposed headache can be easily remedied, and everyone involved in the NFL knows it.
Torrey Smith, current Eagles wide receiver and Kaepernick’s teammate last year, was in the 49ers locker room through it all last year: the national anthem protest, the backlash, the Time magazine cover and Kaepernick’s re-emergence as the 49ers starting quarterback. Here is his take on the epic, allegedly franchise-crippling distraction he dealt with:
“It’s only a distraction when you people ask about it.”
Even the questions from overheated reporters didn’t last long, Smith said Wednesday at Eagles OTAs in Philadelphia.
“It died down, for sure. Initially, in the locker room, guys were talking about it. But it died down. It got to the point with us where we were like, ‘This is what he’s going to do. It’s gonna be 90 seconds before the game, and that’s it.’ It wasn’t a big deal at the end of the day.”
Smith’s account of a frenzy/circus/distraction that barely registered after a few days sounds familiar. I’ve made it a point to seek out NFL media circuses for years. I’m the reporter who books a plane ticket as soon as a team signs a controversial player and descends on training camp like a hungry buzzard in search of a carcass.
My finding? The frenzies are not nearly as frenzied as fans—or those who use “media circus” as a justification for Kaepernick’s continued free agency—might imagine.
Tim Tebow’s 2012 training camp with the Jets is often cited as the quintessential counterproductive NFL media circus. Tebow’s presence caused a distraction that year because the Jets made sure of it. They allowed television networks to install permanent cameras all around their camp site in upstate New York like it was the set of a reality series.
The Jets craved attention in the era when ESPN ended broadcasts by making Herm Edwards sing “Happy Birthday” to Tebow. What they got were some extra reporters—and maybe a few busloads of extra fans. There were no caravans of Tebow pilgrims overrunning tiny Cortland, New York. Reporters didn’t parachute into the team facility to snap Shirtless Tebow photos. The big, crazy Jets press contingent was just a bit bigger and crazier.
Was the extra attention great for the Jets? Probably not. Some minor controversies got blown out of proportion because so many of us were there to go berserk over every scrap of news. But still, Tebow’s presence didn’t throw the team into any turmoil it wasn’t already throwing itself into.
I got to see Tebow again at Eagles OTAs and minicamps in 2015. A few national reporters blew through town to tell Tebow tales, but not many; those Chip Kelly Eagles had two dozen other stories for us to write about.
Sure, Tebow got more attention than your typical third-stringer. But even though a stray Tebow tweet could gain a life of its own on the internet, it was day-to-day business as usual at Eagles headquarters—or as “usual” as things ever got under Kelly.
As for Tebow’s tenure with the Patriots, Bill Belichick can cow a room of reporters into not asking a Tom Brady concussion question, even when it’s one of the biggest stories of the offseason. The Patriots may go a little too far in the name of eliminating distractions, but they show what a team can do when it wants to filter out the noise.
If Tebow was the Gallant of internet-sensation backup quarterbacks, it isn’t hard to identify the Goofus. Johnny Manziel was a fountain for the wrong kind of off-field attention, the stuff that keeps the lights on in this business. I spent several days across two years covering Manziel in camp, going so far as to visit the taprooms in which Manziel had been photographed. You know, “zany media circus” type stuff.
To repeat the refrain: National reporters arrived in drizzles, not deluges. Questions about Manziel were fielded by teammates with polite cliches. Brock Osweiler took more heat last week than Manziel or the Browns ever faced when he was the darling of the sports gossip columns.
Whatever Manziel and the Browns may have been dealing with privately, extra media attention had little to do with it.
Maybe Tebow and Manziel are not the best analogies for Kaepernick, though, despite the fact that both are polarizing and possessed debatable football value when they got their second-through-fourth chances.
Michael Sam’s arrival in St. Louis had all the makings of media maelstrom in 2014. Sam, like Kaepernick, was considered a cultural hero and persecuted figure by many on the political left. He signed with a Midwestern team whose practice facility is a four-hour drive from the Westboro Baptist Church. Would there be marches? Protests and counter-protests? Battalions of international reporters?
There were crickets.
I was the only national reporter there for the first few days of Sam’s training camp in 2014. Others trickled in as I left. There was a larger-than-normal press gaggle when Sam spoke, but that was a 15-minute burst of activity. Otherwise, when local reporters mentioned “Sam,” everyone knew they were talking about starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
Smatterings of fans sat on the knoll beside the Rams practice field and cheered politely during 7-on-7 drills, with no protest signs or rainbow flags in sight. While Sam’s jersey sold better than the national average for seventh-round rookies, no one paid much attention to the defensive lineman running special teams drills.
There was one “distracting” Sam story during his brief Rams tenure: a report that ESPN quickly apologized for about how he handled showers in the locker room. That story rose and fell in a news cycle. Bradford tore an ACL in late August, and that became the story of Rams camp. The Rams released Sam by Labor Day. There were angry tweets and hot takes, but no boycotts, just as churches held no vigils for Tebow.
The “not worth the headache” argument for Sam, though ethically dubious, carries a small amount of merit. Sam was a fringe player at a low-profile position. Teams aren’t prepared for a rush of national attention for a replaceable backup defender, though they find ways to accommodate it when it suits them.
More case studies needed?
In the bustle of 2011 training camp, when teams scrambled back to work after the lockout, the Giants invited 60 Minutes to profile undrafted rookie linebacker and cancer survivor Mark Herzlich. Extra cameras and commotion on the sideline barely registered among the always-chaotic Big Apple press pool. The presence of a famous fringe player didn’t inundate the Giants with additional attention or keep them from winning the Super Bowl.
Herzlich, of course, was not a controversial figure like Sam or Kaepernick.
We could keep going…
The point is that teams have the power to control access to players. They can grant or limit credentials or interviews. That gives them power to tailor the message, as they do whenever a violent offender is draped with the “second chance” narrative. Any team that wants to frame Kaepernick’s presence as non-controversial, or even inspirational, knows how to do it.
After all, the 49ers did it last year. Team owner Jed York used Kaepernick’s protest as an opportunity to donate money to social causes and initiate dialogue on racial issues. “Jed York was the best owner to handle what happened with us,” Smith said.
If the “distraction” of signing a player like Kaepernick comes down to a little more emphasis on community relations and affairs, it may be a welcome distraction. In the long run. York’s steady public relations hand may be one reason the Kaepernick story was already simmering down by October last year, though novelty and fatigue were bigger factors.
There’s a disconnect between what happens in cyberspace and what happens at team facilities. One hundred aggregated articles, editorials and reactions can spawn from one beat writer’s report. It looks like a hurricane of publicity from the outside, but it was barely a breeze in the locker room, where dozens of reporters huddle around players even during the spring doldrums.
Local reporters must fill their notebooks for two months with the quotes they glean from a few scattered hours of interview sessions. They can’t keep rehashing old news, because it won’t sell. If Kaepernick is this week’s story, the rookie running back or contract holdout will be next week’s story.
As for national reporters: There are an ever-shrinking number of us, with ever-tightening travel budgets. We can only be in so many places and ask so many questions.
So if Kaepernick signs with a team tomorrow, he will give a press conference, as will his coach and the team owner. Some teammates will speak. There will be a few days’ worth of articles and reactions across all media.
Then the story will go cold. Every national outlet will start preparing a deeper Kaepernick feature to publish or broadcast around the start of the season. The five or six most important/reputable reporters or outlets will get exclusive interviews. Everyone else will get to write think pieces from home.
As for those phalanxes of outraged citizens: Angry fans don’t travel well. There were rallies in opposition to Kaepernick’s protests last year, most notably one in Chicago, which was earnest, respectful and—compared to the volume of opinions found on the typical Kaepernick comment thread—rather small.
Again, that sounds familiar. I’ve searched for PETA protestors at Michael Vick’s Eagles games and found tiny handfuls of them on the far fringe of the parking lots. Sure, Kaepernick’s situation is more contentious, and times are more fractious. But when media attention fades, outcry fades with it.
Don’t take my word for it. Smith was there when Kaepernick took the field in front of tens of thousands of fans, when his protest was fresh news and the political climate was explosive.
“It wasn’t even bad when he started playing,” Smith said. “We heard some fans heckling. People were mad at him during the anthem. You’re yelling at him during the anthem. Isn’t that disrespectful?”
Yes it is.
But it’s hardly a distraction.
No team has declared that undue media attention caused it to pass on Kaepernick. John Mara’s remarks about angry fan letters to The MMQB are the closest thing we have heard to a rationale for the quarterback’s unemployment from any official source.
The “media circus” argument usually comes from the media itself. They are afraid of what we will do to them, some of my colleagues will assert, which ironically proves how accommodating the media can be by lobbing a readymade justification for avoiding Kaepernick into every team’s lap.
“Someone has to say that,” Smith said of the media headache excuse. “If you think that’s too much to take from a backup, then say it. … But they are commenting about their fans being mad at them.”
Teams will never claim that they passed on Kaepernick to avoid media attention. It makes them look weak. And they know it’s a myth. The only reason Kaepernick is even a story right now is all of the silence.
The NFL comes to its senses and deems Mike Tirico, for many years the Monday night announcer, to be primetime worthy. The AP:
Mike Tirico is replacing Al Michaels as the play-by-play announcer for Thursday night games this season.
The NFL needed to approve the switch because its contract with the network calls for the top broadcast team to do Thursday games. NBC has those games from Nov. 9 through the end of the year after CBS handles the first portion of the schedule.
“Although there have been a number of changes in the network’s broadcast booths over the past couple of seasons, our priority, and the priority of our network partners remains the same: produce a high quality, engaging broadcast that our fans love whether its Thursday, Sunday or Monday,” the league said in a statement. ” For TNF, we get that with Mike Tirico, a terrific broadcaster, and Cris Collinsworth at NBC, and the new team of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo at CBS.”
Michaels will still do Sunday night games with Cris Collinsworth as analyst. Collinsworth will continue double duty on the Thursday and Sunday night matchups.
A BETTER HELMET
The DB has thought that the key to a successful future for football is to develop helmets that are safer while being less of a weapon. Jenny Vrentas of TheMMQB.com on that quest. She starts with a rare bi-partisan meeting in Wasington, D.C.:
“It’s in everybody’s interest,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president for health and safety, told the audience, “that we do more.”
In a true display of bipartisanship in the nation’s capital, Miller asked Thom Mayer, the medical director of the players’ union, to join him at the front of the room. Mayer then asked the audience to consider what it would be like if they stood a one-in-six chance of suffering a concussion on the job—a rough approximation of what NFL players face over the course of a year.
This gathering occurred during Week 10 of the 2016 season, a week in which 14 players appeared on team injury reports for having suffered concussions. By season’s end, 244 concussions would be reported to the league. Against the backdrop of this ever-present threat to player safety, the men and women in the D.C. conference room tried to answer a question that will have far-reaching implications on the game: How much more can the helmet do?
Football is a game of inches, and none is more important than the inch and a half between the outside shell of a helmet and a player’s skull. Since the 1940s, when hard plastic helmets began to replace leather ones, the primary purpose of the helmet has been to guard against skull fractures and hematomas (bleeding on the brain)—catastrophic injuries that led to deaths on the football field in the early 1900s. In recent years, however, scientific studies have led to a better understanding of the short- and long-term consequences of blows to the head. That, coupled with myriad stories about former NFL players experiencing poor mental health in retirement, has changed the expectations for the modern helmet.
In February 2016, in an Indianapolis conference room at the combine, the NFL owners’ health and safety advisory committee held an annual meeting in which they review injury data. Among those in the room: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Giants co-owner John Mara, and John York, the 49ers’ co-chairman and a retired pathologist. They were all alarmed by the concussion data from the 2015 season. The number of diagnosed concussions, in both preseason and regular-season practices and games, totaled 271. And the number diagnosed in regular-season games (182) was up 58 percent from 2014—and 18% over the four-year average. They all realized the issue of head trauma was not going away, and they wondered: What more could be done with helmets?
As a football fan, you have likely heard the analogy of the brain being compared to a carton of eggs: while a case can stop the shells from cracking, the yolks can still be scrambled inside. In 2014, a Federal Trade Commission report probed the safety claims of the football helmet industry and warned that no manufacturer can make the claim that a helmet can prevent concussions. Now, while shopping for a helmet, consumers are met with a warning like the one that pops up on Schutt’s website, in all caps: “No helmet system can prevent concussions or eliminate the risk of serious head or neck injuries while playing football.” To proceed, you have to click, “I understand.”
Though the medical community understands the nature of concussions better than ever, the injury remains something of a riddle for doctors and scientists, because it presents in different ways for different people. One long-held theory was that the brain sloshes back and forth during a collision, striking the rough inner surface of the skull and rebounding against the opposite side—a violent act that causes bruising and swelling. Most experts now suggest looking at concussions in a different way—that the forces most likely to cause this so-called “invisible injury” are the rotational ones that twist the head, causing nerve cells to stretch and twist and strain.
Because the head is round and most hits are off-center, almost every collision in football involves significant rotational forces. For more than 40 years, however, the only safety standard helmets have had to pass to reach market is a vertical drop test that measures how well they handle linear, straight-line forces that cause injuries such as skull fractures. That will change in 2018, after the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) voted to include a rotational threshold in its standard. The NFL and the NFLPA jointly do their own testing that takes into account the critical rotational forces—but, for decades, the market standard has been a simple pass/fail test for the bare minimum of what forces a helmet should be able to withstand.
The NFL is now getting involved in equipment innovation in a way that hasn’t really been seen in professional sports. A few months after that 2016 combine meeting, Jeff Miller, the executive VP for health and safety, went back to the owners and asked for a $100 million investment, $60 million of which would be used to stimulate the helmet industry. The league created a nonprofit organization, Football Research, Inc., to oversee an “Engineering Roadmap”—a five-year plan to find better equipment solutions by offering incentives for new innovations and researching specific answers about what happens on the field when a player is concussed. (Football Research, Inc., has a four-person board of directors of independent engineers and doctors, and Duke University is managing the series of TECH challenges to support and spur on promising new ideas). The goals: A better overall helmet in three years, and position-specific helmets in five years.
At the symposium in Washington, D.C., presenters used the example of the auto industry, which, in response to high fatality rates in the 1960s, began taking a systematic approach to injury prevention—including crash test programs, enhanced safety regulations and the adoption of new design features. The NFL isn’t a regulatory body like the Department of Transportation, but it has a deeply vested interest and the resources to invest in this endeavor.
“There’s a huge sensitivity to the concussion problem: What can be done to address it? Why isn’t it being addressed by current protective equipment?” says Jeff Crandall, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics and chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Engineering Subcommittee. “Coming up with a path forward—where we can at least support the idea that we are working on solutions that are going to reduce the injury—that’s crucial. So people are aware that it’s being worked on; that someone is paying attention to it.”
– – –
“Science and medicine can barely agree on what the definition of a concussion is or how one occurs,” says Glenn Beckmann, director of marketing communications for Schutt, the second-largest provider of NFL helmets. “So it’s a daunting challenge to build a product to standards or ideals that aren’t in existence yet.”
• JENNY VRENTAS: The NFL, the Grant Money, and the Business of Concussion Research
But another factor is the helmet market itself. It’s relatively small, on the order of $100 million, compared to, for example, an auto industry that rakes in $2 trillion in annual revenue. And it’s controlled mainly by two entities, Riddell and Schutt. Insular markets often tend to restrict innovation. For 24 years, the NFL had a licensing agreement with Riddell as the official helmet of the NFL. Players could wear any helmet of their choosing, but Riddell was the only company whose logo could be displayed. The league ended that arrangement in 2013, eliminating any perception of endorsing one brand over the others. Still, multiple entrepreneurs and small business owners describe the helmet industry as nearly impossible to break into. Rawlings, the major sports equipment manufacturer, re-entered the helmet and shoulder pad business in 2010, only to exit again five years later.
In the annual helmet testing results released by the NFL and the NFLPA for the 2017 season, four manufacturers finished in the top-performing group: Riddell; Schutt; Xenith, a smaller company that broke into the market in 2009; and VICIS, the newest company on the scene. VICIS’ Zero1 helmet tested the best and is listed as the top-ranked helmet on a poster that will be displayed in all NFL equipment rooms (the performance of the 13 other helmets in the top-performing group was not statistically significantly different).
VICIS’ design literally turns the traditional hard polycarbonate helmet that’s been used for decades inside out. A stiff plastic shell inside still protects against skull fractures, but it’s the first helmet to have an outside surface made of a flexible polymer that deforms locally upon impact, rather than making that familiar crack sound. The concept is the same as that of a bumper on a car: The material bends, thereby slowing down the impact and reducing the force transferred to the person inside, according to Newton’s Second Law of Motion (force=mass x acceleration). The outer and inner layers are connected by a matrix of columns that flex in all directions to absorb linear, and most importantly, rotational forces.
The concept behind VICIS’ helmet was originally sketched on a napkin by Sam Browd, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital who has had to retire young athletes from contact sports because they’ve suffered numerous concussions. About four years ago, he was at a pediatric neurosurgery conference in Hawaii, listening to a presentation on a new foam liner for a football helmet, when he was struck by the idea that such stepwise changes in helmet technology may not be enough.
“This is my opinion: It’s very difficult, when you have an industry that has been going on for decades, to completely blow up your own product and say this is not the right path,” says Browd, who also serves as one of the NFL’s unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants at Seahawks home games. “It’s a very expensive and challenging thing.”
Execs from Riddell and Schutt point to some of the recent advances in their own technology. Riddell’s SpeedFlex helmet has flexible components, including a hinged rubber-padded panel near the crown of the helmet; this year, the company is launching its Precision Fit technology that uses 3-D scanning to create a custom-fit helmet liner for a player’s head (starting at the college and pro levels). Schutt has introduced the lightest helmet on the market in the last year, and another model uses exterior “Tektonic Plates” that move independently from the rest of the helmet to address rotational forces
Because a few major players dominate the helmet industry, innovation is harder to come by and major hurdles exist for entrepreneurs trying to bring a game-changing product to market. For starters, every football player already has a helmet, so new customers can only be added by stealing them away from the incumbents. Product liability insurance is expensive, and multiple class-action lawsuits threaten the largest company, Riddell. (Among the ongoing litigation: former NFL and NCAA players seeking damages for the helmet-maker allegedly failing to protect players from brain injuries and their known risks. In response to the lawsuit filed earlier this year from former college players, Riddell issued a statement that it would “aggressively defend this latest action as it does all frivolous litigation.”) Furthermore, Riddell and Schutt have been trading intellectual property lawsuits for nearly a decade. In 2010, Schutt was forced to file for bankruptcy after losing a $29 million judgment to Riddell over patent infringement. For all of these reasons, the industry hasn’t been a magnet for entrepreneurs and traditional avenues of venture capital.
VICIS, which received its initial grant through the University of Washington, says it would have been difficult to launch the company outside of a university. They also got an assist from the NFL: They won one of the league’s Head Health Challenges, which the company says provided them with both validation in the sport and $1.1 million in grant funding. Says VICIS CEO Dave Marver, “The whole NFL grant program in general is a recognition of the fact that it has been a stagnant industry and the pace of innovation has not kept up with the need. The NFL has stepped in and filled an important void.”
VICIS shipped helmets to all 32 NFL equipment rooms a few weeks ago for players to try in OTAs, and Baldwin is one of a handful of Seahawks players who plan to wear the VICIS helmet during the 2017 season. He was introduced to the technology two years ago by the team’s equipment manager, and now serves as a player advisor for the company. The fact that a current player has worked with a helmet company to inform its design speaks to the heightened awareness around player safety—and the fact that today’s players are expecting more out of the gear they wear on their heads.
“You think, OK, it’s just a helmet, it is what it is, and there’s nothing you can really do about it,” Baldwin says. “But being exposed to this new technology, you realize there is something we can do here; there is something that can be improved.”
– – –
During a weeklong project at Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Stadium last fall, a team of three dozen scientists recreated 60 concussive hits that took place during the 2015 season. They hooked crash test dummies up to sensors and measured the exact motions that resulted in concussive injuries using 3-D motion cameras. The NFL is also aiming to work with the players’ union to outfit a cross-section of players at different positions with head-impact sensors for the 2019 season—not as a diagnostic tool but as a way to better characterize impacts at this level. It’s a measure they tried out in a pilot program a few years ago, but the technology then wasn’t deemed accurate or sensitive enough to be useful. Earlier this year, the NFL shared with the helmet industry the specs they need for sensors to work in the NFL environment, including being able to measure both linear and rotational acceleration.
Position-specific helmets make sense, especially when you consider that players at different positions already wear different cleats and shoulder pads. The needs for linemen, who can sustain upwards of 1,000 sub-concussive blows in the trenches over the course of a season, are very different from those who play wide receiver and defensive back: in the secondary, collisions are fewer but higher-energy. But getting to the NFL’s stated goal of position-specific helmets by 2020 will require more information about those different needs. Just like auto manufacturers being given safety thresholds to meet, the idea is for helmet makers to have access to the same kind of central resources to inform their designs. And just like five-star auto safety ratings are updated for variations such as rollover crash testing and automatic emergency braking, the NFL and NFLPA want to update their helmet testing and include a measure for helmet-to-ground impacts.
“The automotive industry might be 50 years ahead of sports in terms of the tools and resources they bring to the problem,” says Richard Kent, who leads the Automobile Safety Research Group at the University of Virginia and is a consultant to the NFL. “We still to this day try to design the front ends of SUVs to not hurt children in pedestrian crashes. And you think about the mass imbalance there, but that doesn’t mean we give up and say, ‘There will always be pedestrian fatalities.’ In my mind that’s harder to do than [address concussions in] the game of football.”
The NFL money is also being used to seed what league executives hope can be disruptive innovations in the helmet industry—similar to the grant VICIS received a few years ago. Using Duke University as a partner, the NFL will fund as many as 15 different innovations in protective equipment over the next five years through a HeadHealthTECH Challenge. Duke’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, which works with scientists to move ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace, will choose up to three potential equipment innovations each year. The winners will be funded for a year’s time, with the chance to be renewed, and will be able to use the university’s infrastructure to help them help test, develop and refine their ideas.
The first two were chosen last month.
VyaTek Sports received $190,000 for development and testing of its Zorbz technology, patches made of a highly efficient energy-absorbing material that can be attached to the outside of a helmet. They’re single-use, just like the padding inside a bicycle helmet, which is to be replaced after a significant impact. And the makers of Guardian Cap, the familiar soft-shell helmet covers many top college programs use on the practice field, received $20,000 for biomechanical testing of their product. When the caps first went commercial five years ago, the company did testing for the worst-case scenario—to make sure they didn’t cause helmets to be less effective. Now, they’ll be able to test their product’s efficiency within a range of velocities, honing in on whether this kind of technology is more useful for certain position groups—for instance, the lower-velocity impacts offensive linemen rack up.
Both are independent companies that say they’ve faced greater hurdles in the helmet business than any other sports equipment field they’ve worked in. There’s a great risk involved in this business; Erin and Lee Hanson, owners of Guardian Cap, say close to 25% of their revenue is spent on product liability insurance. And there are only a handful of options to pitch your technology to an existing helmet company. “Very, very few companies want to bet their future products on somebody else’s technology,” says Howard Lindsay, founder of VyaTek Sports. “For inventors like me, I have been beating my head against the wall for five years trying to find somebody that would help move this forward.”
Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the leading voices on brain injuries in sports, says the biggest measure the NFL could take does not have to do with equipment. The league has made 47 rule changes since 2002 to try to reduce the amount of head trauma in the game, but Cantu advocates strengthening the rules even more to legislate intentional targeting of the head out of the game (which college football has already done). It’s unlikely, he believes, that a helmet will ever dramatically reduce the rotational forces of football’s collisions. But he allows that the NFL is going to great lengths to answer that question in a way that has never been done before. “From that standpoint, I give them great credit,” Cantu says. “There are other professional sports that also have a high risk of head trauma, and none of them are putting a fraction of the money toward research as the NFL. I don’t personally think that technology is going to solve the problem, but I certainly don’t have a problem if people who have money are spending it to see if it can help.”