By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Several Browns players will sport a new look Thursday night in the preseason opener against the St. Louis Rams at FirstEnergy Stadium, and some of them aren’t happy about it.
Beginning with this summer’s exhibition games, the NFL is forcing players, excluding kickers and punters, to wear knee and thigh pads for the first time since 1994. Players who refuse to comply will simply not be allowed to play until they submit to the rule, which NFL owners passed last year.
“I’m not a fan of it at all,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said.
Haden and other players opposed to the change believe the pads restrict movement, are uncomfortable and just don’t look good. Defensive backs and wide receivers seem to have the most beef with the new rule.
The pads were mandatory in the NFL from 1979-94 and have since been optional, with about only 30 percent of players wearing them, according to the league.
“Ownership, at the end of the day, wanted to make sure the player had every opportunity to be protected and not have the player feel that he was at a disadvantage for protecting himself when you have one player wearing a helmet and shoulder pads versus another player wearing the full ensemble of padding,” said Merton Hanks, the NFL’s vice president of football operations and a former defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. “So we wanted to standardize that a little bit more.”
The other side of the coin
Critics of the rule point to the concussion-related lawsuits more than 4,000 former players have filed against the NFL as a motive for the new measure.
“It’s annoying because it’s a big, big thing with the lawsuits and the concussions, and the league trying to protect themselves and trying to make the game quote, unquote safer,” Browns wide receiver Greg Little said. “But guys aren’t coming back and suing for a thigh bruise or ’cause they bumped knees with somebody.”
When asked if the league has data that show leg injuries increased since 1995, Hanks said, “The data was inconclusive because the sample was skewed. You had only 30 percent of players wearing thigh and knee pads and then we didn’t have an idea of, quite frankly, the quality of the padding.”
Hanks said the league and the NFL Players Association partnered with the University of Virginia’s biomedical facility to test pads and ensure they protect to a sufficient level. There are 37 high-performance pads available to choose from, he said. The pads fall into two categories: compression shorts with pads included or traditional pads that are inserted into the uniform pants.
“The player can have complete knowledge that this pad has been tested and it actually does what it says it does on the package,” Hanks said.
Browns strong safety T.J. Ward is skeptical to some degree.
“A lot of times the thigh pads won’t help anyway because I wore thigh pads and still got a leg contusion,” Ward said. “I guess it helps if you get in a car accident and you have a seat belt on. You might still get hurt, but not as bad.”
More than one reason
The league not only identifies the new rule as part of its ongoing player health and safety effort, but also as a way to set a good example for youth players. The pads are required at all other levels of the sport, including the NCAA.
Although Haden, Little and Ward wore the pads in college, they ditched them as professionals. The last time Haden wore any leg pads was in 2010, when former Browns coach Eric Mangini made them mandatory under a team rule. Little, drafted in 2011, had never worn them since he entered the league. Ward had worn thigh pads most of the time but never knee pads, conceding he “bent the rules” Mangini had in place.
“I’ve never worn them in the league at all,” Little said. “There’s not a need for it.
“It’s not a speed issue. It’s just a comfortability thing. It’s just smoother. I feel like you can just move smoother.”
Haden conceded that vanity is also part of the equation.
“It’s a fashion thing, too,” Haden said. “It looks cool, your pants all the way slick.”
Little added: “People are blowing the look thing out of proportion. This is the main point: Running backs, linebackers, linemen, guys who need to wear them, wear them. Other guys that don’t feel like they need to, don’t.”
Ward believes players will sacrifice some speed by wearing all of the pads.
“It’s less weight [when you don’t wear them],” Ward said. “You’re definitely going to be quicker and more mobile without them, but we might be more vulnerable. It’s a give and take.”
And it’s also a decision the league has taken out of players’ hands.
Former Brown to be inspector
The league will rely on 32 uniform inspectors, all of whom are former players, to ensure compliance. Former Browns safety Felix Wright is the inspector assigned to every game at FirstEnergy Stadium.
If the inspector notices a violation of the knee and thigh pad rule during a game, he is supposed to notify a team designee, usually a strength and conditioning coach or an equipment manager, who’s responsible for relaying the message to the player. The uniform inspector will also notify the back judge during a stop in play. The back judge will alert the referee, who will tell the head coach that the player is not eligible to play until the pad violation is corrected.
“[The uniform inspector would] say, ‘No. 74 doesn’t have knee pads, and then we’d go over to 74 and say, ‘Hey, you got to leave the game until you get the knee pads,’ ” referee Ed Hochuli said. “If he comes back in without the knee pads, it’s a 5-yard penalty. If it happens a second time, it’s a 15-yard penalty.”
Still, Ward wouldn’t be surprised if someone tries to sneak onto the field without the required pads.
“For every rule, someone’s going to try to bend them a little bit,” Ward said. “But I don’t think they’ll want to risk getting sit down for any time for not having pads in. Every play you miss is a play you could’ve made, so assess your own risk.”
Practicing in the pads
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski has made his players wear knee and thigh pads during training camp so they can grow accustomed to them.
“Guys need to get used to it,” Chudzinski said. “It’s the way things are going to be. We are going to practice that way with them. There is a variety of different pads, size of pads and styles of pads that guys can use. I know they have been testing them out, and it’s been part of the reason why I want to make sure they have them on and along with the safety factors.”
Of course, wearing all the padding is status quo for some players. Browns defensive lineman John Hughes played without thigh pads for one game last season, and he still regrets it.
“A helmet went right into my thigh, and I had a thigh contusion,” Hughes said. “It was rough. After that, I never went a day without thigh pads.”
Hughes will no longer be in the minority, even if some of his peers are irritated about being forced to join him.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.