View Full Version : On the Steelers: Safety first? Not always

12-06-2009, 06:53 AM
On the Steelers: Safety first? Not always
But you might be surprised to know why, when it comes to helmets, it isn't necessarily a player's first thought
Sunday, December 06, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The scene was ugly, brutal, inhumane and somewhat sickly humorous, if you were a fan of the Steelers and saw it happening. Al Toon, wide receiver for the New York Jets, was knocked out cold by the Steelers defense and he lay very still on the Giants Stadium turf.

Today, if that occurred, players for both teams would clasp hands, kneel along the sideline and say a prayer together. But this was 1989 and the only one kneeling was Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd. He rushed in next to the unconscious Toon, took a knee and slapped the ground three times as if he were a 'rassling referee -- yooooooou're, out!

Toon retired after the 1992 season, after nine concussions during his eight-year NFL career. Thankfully, he remains a contributing member of society. He competed in a triathlon in 2004. He is on the board of directors of a life insurance company and the Green Bay Packers.

Twenty years after Lloyd counted Toon out, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is trying to do something about head injuries in his league. His office has stepped up fines for players leading with their head or to the head of a foe, and his league has passed stricter rules and guidelines about what is lawful and what is not on the field.

Goodell even wants a player to sit out an entire game, including the one he is currently playing, if he shows symptoms of a concussion.

Here are two simple solutions toward limiting head injuries that calls for neither fines, suspensions nor pulling from the game some of its stars -- produce a safer helmet, then make it mandatory the players wear it.

There are other safer helmets available right now than the standard most players wear. There is the Revolution by Riddell and several by a relatively new company, Xenith. Players refuse to wear them. You know why? They do not like how they look in them.

Three Steelers quarterbacks admitted as much this week.

"The problem is the newer model is not necessarily that attractive," d Charlie Batch said. "Guys don't want to use it because more or less the helmet and facemask that come along with it are not necessarily attractive so that's why guys don't use it."

Dennis Dixon acknowledged that the more protective helmet is not cool.

"That's totally right, but at the same time you have to protect your head. Whatever it takes, everybody has to be willing to do it."

Roethlisberger, despite his history of concussions, wears the old standard Riddell with its traditional look because he is "comfortable" with it. He will not change to another this season but said he will look into a more protective helmet for 2010.

"I know the helmet companies are all doing a bunch of tests," Roethlisberger said. "We'll do what's smart and I'll do what's best, but you still have to have a helmet you feel comfortable playing in."

No, you do not. Not in this new NFL world where protecting the head has become a priority. With a snap of his fingers, Goodell can take the choices out of players' hands and make it mandatory they wear one of two helmets the league deems safest. It will not happen without it.

Through the years, sports have forced players to wear helmets, which were not mandatory in the NFL until 1943. Baseball batting helmets did not become mandatory until 1971, and they will make the new Rawlings S100 helmet -- designed to protect the noggin when hit by 100 mph pitches -- mandatory in all minor leagues next year with an eye toward doing so in the majors. The NHL did not make hockey players wear helmets until 1979, but only for new players entering the league, the others were grandfathered; Craig MacTavish became the last to go helmetless in 1997.

If the NFL does not make the wearing of safer helmets mandatory, most players will not wear them. A UPMC study of high school players showed that those wearing the safer Revolution helmets had an annual concussion rate of 5.3 percent compared to 7.6 percent wearing standard helmets. Yet many NFL players like Ben Roethlisberger prefer the ones that look better.

Steelers long snapper Greg Warren, for example, says he would not switch to a safer helmet unless the league mandates it.

"It looks terrible. It doesn't have that traditional football helmet look," Warren said. "It looks more like a motorcycle helmet."

Isn't he worried more about his brain than the look of his helmet?

"No," Warren answered.

Once upon a time, in a backfield far, far away ...

News: Passes thrown from the shotgun formation have virtually doubled over the past four years to about 56 percent in the NFL.

Reaction: A vision, a day somewhere in the next decade, when a young son turns to his father as they watch the Steelers play the London Jaguars. The Steelers line up on offense and the son notices something different. "Dad, who is that out there with Big Ben?" The father cannot believe what he sees. There is a player lined up beside ol' Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers' backfield. "Why, son, that looks like what we used to call a running back! I have not seen one of those in years."

Far-fetched? Not that far. This may come as a shock to those under 45, but offenses once lined up with three backs plus the quarterback. They called it the T-formation, it revolutionized offenses and was quite popular in the 1950s and '60s. By the 1970s, most offenses went with two backs. Then it became one. Now, the growing trend is the empty set backfield with only a quarterback and all 10 others standing on or near the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers this season went with the fewest backs on their roster than perhaps in their history, four. Think of that. At one time, even with rosters only in the 30s, teams would start three backs. They, or at least coordinator Bruce Arians, already eliminated the fullback, once the most desired and popular member of the offense after the quarterback. Franco Harris, believe it or not, was considered the fullback in the Steelers offense under Chuck Noll.

I covered the USFL in 1984 when Jim Kelly worked out of the new run-and-shoot passing offense with the Houston Gamblers. The Houston Oilers of the NFL adopted that radical offensive style and the Steelers not only made fun of it but loved playing against it back in the late 1980s and early '90s. Now, run-and-shoot techniques are common throughout the NFL, including the Steelers, although no one calls them by that name.

It does not surprise Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau that passes from the shotgun formation have doubled in four years; he said he expects that number to continue to climb.

As the NFL moves to protect quarterbacks to greater degrees and continues to adopt rules favoring passing offenses, coaches will take advantage of it. Do not blame them for adjusting to a game that has changed dramatically.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.

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