Tracing the Evolution of Player Safety Throughout NFL History

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2012

Tampa Bay linebacker Greg Spires puts a big hit on San Francisco running back Kevan Barlow during the San Francisco 49ers 15-10 defeat of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers October 30, 2005 at Monster Park in San Francisco, California. (Photo by John Medina/NFLPhotoLibrary)
John Medina/Getty Images

It seems that the last few years have seen a huge change in the culture of the NFL. Gone (or at least being shuffled to the side) are the days of ESPN's Jacked Up! segment on Monday Night Countdown.

As we have learned more about the damage that can be done to players over the course of a career—especially as the result of helmet-to-helmet hits—the NFL has taken steps to mitigate the impact to player's health and long term welfare.

We can argue the merits of those steps another time, but if your issue with it is that it changes the game, you might want to take a look back at how the game's safety considerations have evolved before.

And change they have, fairly regularly in fact.

Let's hop in the Way-Back machine (or T.A.R.D.I.S. if you're a huge nerd like me) and take a look at some of the many changes in equipment and rules that have taken place in the history of the NFL in it's quest to protect its players.


While helmets have been worn in football since the early 1900's, they weren't required until the mid 1940s. The first helmets, including those which were required early on, were leather affairs with light padding inside. By the 1950s, a new polymer based helmet was introduced, and by 1955, a face mask was suggested in order to cut down on the amount of broken noses and teeth.

Of course then you had to have rules against grabbing said facemask or Dick 'Night Train' Lane would yank you down by it.

The helmet material changed very little over the years until the polycarbonate version we know today emerged in the 1990s.

While there is a lot of debate as to whether helmets can be designed to prevent concussions, it's hard to argue that they haven't decreased the amount of severe skull trauma that was not uncommon in the very early days of the NFL.

Shoulder Pads and Other Equipment

According to this article, the first players to wear even the simplest form of pads found themselves the butt of many jokes from teammates and opponents alike. It wasn't until the 1950s that shoulder pads were commonplace, and even then they were just pieces of leather strapped together.

LAKE FOREST, IL - JULY 21:  A general view of shoulder pads taken during the Chicago Bears Mini Camp on July 21, 1998 in Lake Forest, Illinois. (Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Eventually foam and hard plastic would become the norm, but the pads didn't breathe, so while they protected players from injury, they tended to cause the players to dehydrate quicker, leading to exhaustion. At the start of this century, new synthetic fibers were used, which made the pads lighter and cooler.

While shoulder pads aren't going anywhere, less players wear other pieces of equipment like thigh pads and hip pads, and there are a few players as recently as 2006 who didn't wear a cup (a.k.a. an athletic supporter).

I'll leave you to ponder the potential insanity of that last statement on your own.

However, again, we look at innovations that at one point flaunted the very nature of this 'man's game' and instead became commonplace. So much so that I can't imagine a game played without them.

1977—The Head Slap is Outlawed aka The Deacon Jones Rule

If you don't know who Deacon Jones is... well damn I don't know how to finish that sentence.

LOOK OUT HE'S GOING FOR THE SLAP!!!David Maxwell/Getty Images

Suffice to say, Jones was a beast of a defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams and is best known for a technique known as The Head Slap. You can read the link for the particulars, but basically you hammer the opposing player's helmet as hard as you can to knock him off balance, then blow past him as he stumbles.

The concern with the move was that the lineman were left in a very vulnerable position, open to being stepped on or have someone land on their leg—they were not able to control their movements. I'm sure the pounding to their head was a concern to some extent, but probably not much of one in the 70s.

This was solely done to keep players safe, and while it may have seemed to hurt the game short term, I'm pretty sure the defenses are doing just fine without it.

1979 - Use of Helmet as a Weapon Banned

Unlike the Head Slap, there's no one thing which caused this that I am aware of, but it bears noting because it leads us to where we are today.

The rule makes sense, as do rules against hitting a defenseless player or a late hit on a quarterback—a player who is not able to or trying to protect themselves cannot be allowed to be hammered or they will be hurt. Leading with your helmet puts not just the target at risk, but the guy doing the hitting as well.

Frankly, it's poor technique anyway. You should have your eyes and head up when tackling. If you lead with the crown of your helmet, you're doing it wrong.

The rule protects both the tackler and ball carrier and cuts down on head and neck injuries as well as lowering the risk of a spinal injury.

2009- the Big Change

The owners meetings in Dana Point, California saw a ton of safety inspired rules added to the rulebook, including:

  • A blindside block cannot be initially delivered by a helmet, forearm or shoulder to an opponent's head or neck.
  • The initial contact to the head of a defenseless receiver is also prohibited.
  • On kickoffs, a blocking wedge cannot consist of more than two players.
  • During onside kickoff attempts, the kicking team cannot have more than five players bunched together.

This was also the year that Congress held hearings about NFL Players on the field getting concussions. The result of the hearings meant that Commissioner Roger Goodell would release a memo saying:

"Once removed for the duration of a practice or game, the player should not be considered for return-to-football activities until he is fully asymptotic, both at rest and after exertion, has a normal neurological examination, normal neuropsychological testing, and has been cleared to return by both his team physician(s) and the independent neurological consultant.".

Originally you had to get knocked out to get removed. No longer.

2011 - The McCoy Incident

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 08:  Colt McCoy #12 of the Cleveland Browns lays on the ground while speaking to athletic trainers after a helmet to helmet hit from James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on December 8, 2011 at Heinz Field
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

You've seen the picture of Browns' quarterback Colt McCoy post-James Harrison hit from the 2011 season, right? It's there to our right.

You probably remember the aftershock as well. The talk that McCoy was dazed and shouldn't have played again but did. The allegations that he was not properly examined by team doctors. The outcry of several of his teammates for independent neurologists on the sidelines.

We didn't get neurologists on the sideline, but we did get independent trainers in the press or team booths!

That won't be the end of it either. Teams will have to be more and more careful about what they do with their players from now on, as the media and fans (as well as the League) will be watching for another example of poor effort on the part of franchises trying to get one more down out of their players.

Really, that's just a few of the most important examples of safety-minded rules and efforts the League has seen happen during it's existence.

It's hard not to see what is happening today and wonder if it's all too much. Are we losing the heart and soul of the game we love? Or is it just evolving, as it has for over a century?

In the end, only time will tell.


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