Gearing up for better safety and performance

When it comes to outfitting the Cincinnati Bengals for battle, equipment manager Jeff Brickner has some pretty interesting challenges. He has to deal with defensive linemen who want punters' shoulder pads and wide receivers' shoes, to maximize speed. Brickner has rookies telling him that they don't want to wear any protection on their legs, because the veterans don't do it. And he doesn't even need to stock some of the old-school protection.

"I haven't given away a hip pad in years," he says.

Brickner and other keepers of the gear throughout the league are in the middle of the dance between manufacturers trying to produce equipment strong enough to provide adequate protection and players who want things lighter and less cumbersome. That defensive lineman who wants to dress like a kicker? He's trying to find a way to wear no padding at all.

"Lighter is faster," Brickner says. "That half-step is the difference between winning and losing."

Decades ago, the level of innovation in football equipment was pretty much limited to new facemask designs. Today, everything an NFL player puts on is a work in progress, and the slick, form-fitting game pants seen one season could be completely redesigned the next. The goal is to stretch - sometimes literally - the boundaries of safety in an attempt to help players get the job done faster. "Innovation happens every day in front of you," says Green Bay equipment manager Red Batty. "You just don't see it because it's so gradual."

The most important development in equipment technology concerns the helmet, which continues to be redesigned with an eye on increased safety. The greater awareness of long-term concussion effects and concern for protection of the spine have manufacturers working hard to give players the best product possible. Although some still favor the traditional VSR4, Riddell's standard helmet, models like Riddell's "Evolution" and "Speed" and Schutt's "Ion" and "XP" provide greater impact absorption and protection. Some helmets cover the jaw line better. Others have more sophisticated facemasks. Still more contain different interior components, designed to be more comfortable and safe. This isn't something that has evolved over 10 years; you just have to go back two, three or four.

"There have been major, major steps in the ways a helmet is made," Batty says. "It has to pass industry standards, and every company does its own testing to reach these standards.

"The NFL, along with the Players Association, monitors the process extremely closely, in conjunction with trainers. Everybody's on top of it."

While helmet safety is key, there is also the matter of its communication role. Speakers inside the equipment of quarterbacks and now defensive players add another layer of innovation, and even they have evolved during their short lives. Batteries are smaller, as is the audio equipment itself.

The helmet isn't the only piece of equipment that is the target of innovation, although it is the most important. The other padding worn by players has undergone significant developments as well. Take shoulder pads. The days of overly-armored hulks smashing into each other in the quest of extra yardage are over. Today, it's about speed and big plays. When Brickner talks about defensive linemen's desires for lighter protection, it may sound humorous, but it's serious. "They say it's a hands game," Brickner says. "They don't need pads, because they don't use their shoulders." The same goes for rib protection. Gone are the old, clunky "flak jackets." Today's devices are thinner yet still protective.

Foam that soaks up sweat better to keep the pads drier and lighter is a key component inside the pads, which can still take the brunt of a hit but not burden a player with extra bulk. The uniforms that cover them are more sophisticated, too. Just as old flannel baseball uniforms seem antediluvian, so too do cotton football jerseys. Durability and aerodynamics are key parts of the equation now. Players -- particularly defensive linemen -- want shirts that will cling to them and wick away moisture. Pants are also designed to be tighter and sleeker. Batty reports the Packers use three styles. One has the traditional lace-up/belt system. Another has just a lace-up component. The third has neither fastening method. "It's like a bathing suit," he says.

Finally, there are the shoes. The old standby, that size-18 offensive lineman's high-top, is still out there. It just weighs less than ever before. "The shoes are incredibly light," Batty says. The question is whether the players are choosing the proper footwear for their positions. A 280-pound defensive end may want to have sprinter's speed as he tries to blast his way to the quarterback, but using a receiver's shoe may not provide the necessary support for his substantial frame. "Guys look at the shoe chart and ask first, 'How much does it weigh?'" says Brickner, who sees players dropping cleats on the scale all the time. The goal is quickness and agility, just as it is with nearly every other piece of equipment out there. Meanwhile, the manufacturers are trying to keep up with the players' desires while still making pieces that provide protection. It's a fascinating dynamic.

And one that isn't changing any time soon.

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