No-helmet practices? Could happen in NFL's push for player safety

The NFL has continued a quiet campaign to curtail concussions in the game and improve player safety overall. It's a movement that at some point might result in players participating in some limited-contact practices without helmets and placing further limits on the scope of on-field practices and offseason training.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety a primary concern and has been sitting in on conference calls every three weeks with John Madden's subcommittee that was created to find ways to make the game safer for all players.

Madden's subcommittee, which consists of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner, San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary, and former NFL coach Mike Holmgren, convenes over the phone every three weeks about measures to improve safety and reports to the league's competition committee. In addition, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions, Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith spoke at length about ways to limit concussions in a private meeting last week in Washington D.C.

Other ideas the leaders chatted about, and are considering, include revising guidelines about how quickly players can return from a concussion and expanding the use of the neutral (non-team affiliated) physician required at every game. Goodell and Smith are also mulling ways in which players can report observations of teammates suffering from post-concussion symptoms and considering requiring all players to wear the most state-of-the art helmets and protective devises, according to the source.

Madden, a Hall of Fame coach and award-winning broadcaster before retiring from the booth this year, said his group watches video and studies the issue closely, and will make its full recommendations to the Competition Committee in February at the combine in Indianapolis. In the meantime, he has a regular dialogue with Goodell and Competition Committee chair Rich McKay.

"The Commissioner has been great," Madden said. "Between the Commissioner and myself and the members of the committee, we make up the agenda and he's been on all the calls. He's been there and listened to everything and contributed, and he's pushing this. He's very interested in this, pushing safety, not only concussions, but the whole safety of the game, making sure it's played right, which I appreciate. And it's one of the reasons (where) I'm involved. I know the things we believe in and the things we stand for are the same things the Commissioner stands for."

Madden said his subcommittee spends half its time on player-safety issues and the other reviewing ways in which to better the game overall. They are approaching safety from an equipment and in-game rules standpoint, but also dissecting whether it makes sense to legislate offseason and practice regimens as well. The group continues to discuss recommending no-contact practices without helmets to some degree but has not yet formed a formal stance on the issue.

"It seems a little far-fetched," Madden said, "but it's something the coaches (on the subcommittee) have been talking about."

  -- John Madden on Roger Goodell 

Madden, who played one year in the NFL (1958) and was head coach of the Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, likened that potential striking change to his era, when teams were informed they could no longer use full pads and contact in minicamps, instead having to use helmets and shells.

"We all thought at that time, 'That's it, that's the end of our development and everything in the offseason,' " Madden said. "And we went on and learned to practice in helmets and shells."

Madden said his group continues to look for measures to eradicate hitting players in a defenseless position and said he will recommend a rule change to the subcommittee during next week's conference call, looking to implement some of the more stringent rules that prohibit such hits in high school and college. He would not elaborate on the exact nature of the rule until the committee discusses it.

"No one is against protecting a defenseless player," Madden said. "No one says, 'Oh, boy, I really want to hit a guy that is in a defenseless position.' There's no argument there. Nobody wants that."

Madden also was enthused by the rule change to prohibit the use of a four-man wedge on special teams -- limiting it to two men at this point -- and believes ultimately even a two-man wedge could be taken out of the game.

"One of the things we're talking about -- (because) eliminating the four-man wedge worked so well -- is can we eliminate another number of collisions in the game by eliminating the two-man wedge?" Madden said. "There are ways we can do it in the game and ways we can do it in practice."

Madden said the committee is also very intrigued by an idea espoused by Tomlin, which would tie the amount of offseason snaps a player can take to the amount of snaps he took in the past season, with those who worked the hardest being spared more. It's a practice Tomlin uses with the Steelers, with the thinking that the cumulative effect of all these collisions -- in games and practices -- takes a toll and can leave players more vulnerable to injury.

"I think there's something there," Madden said. "Those are the types of things we're looking at and studying."

Overall, Madden concedes that with bigger, strong and faster players than ever before playing a collision sport, certain inherent risks will always remain. The goal of his committee is to regulate that reality as best they can, placing player safety above all else as the league continues to seek ways to preserve its greatest assets.

"It's amazing when you watch football and watch old classic games and see the way it was played, with blows to the head and everything," Madden said. "It was head slaps with defensive linemen and necktie tackles. There was a time where you could hit the receiver anywhere on the field before the ball was thrown and just come across and clothesline him.

"You watch that now and say, 'Holy shoot! Look at what they did then.' You know we've come a long way already, and this is not something where we've been in the dark ages on it and we're now coming out of it. It's been a long-time thing, and we've been striving for a safer game all along, and there are still more things I think we can do."

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