Slim Down Shoulder Pads in Faster, Sleeker NFL

Terrance Knighton, a 6-3, 335-pound defensive tackle for the Denver Broncos, has the lavish nickname Pot Roast. Perched on such a massive frame, its epaulettes seem almost decorative, as if they were tassels on a drum major.

If they light up the Super Bowl on Sunday, casual football fans who haven’t watched a game in a few years might be wondering, “Who shrunk the shoulder pads?” As players have gotten heavier in the NFL, shoulder pads have gotten 50% lighter over the past 10 to 15 years, the manufacturers said. Gone are the ways of other 1980s fashion excesses, the huge pads that once protruded from the shoulders and seemed to engulf a player like a treehouse to the head.

A number of factors have contributed to more streamlined shoulder pads: advancements in plastic and foam harness technology and design; an evolution of the technique of blocking linemen towards a more permissive use of the hands and a perceived reduction in shoulder-to-shoulder collisions; an ever-increasing emphasis on speed and athleticism; an attempt by players to avoid getting caught.

“It’s like the fast and sleek car now rather than the big dump truck – nothing to hang on or hang on,” said Tom Cable, Seattle Seahawks offensive line coach. .

During Super Bowl on Sunday, Knighton said he would use double-sided tape to keep his jersey and shoulder pads together as he prepares to engage in the brutal ballet of a lineman.

“I think that’s what the league has evolved into – guys want smaller pads,” Knighton said. “Some guys don’t even want to wear them.” He added: “The game is more about the speed now and the game.”

Seeking to improve player safety, the NFL has mandated the use of thigh and knee pads this season. And concussions remain a serious problem. With shoulder pads, many players said they seek a balance between protection and comfort, preferring those that allow a greater range of motion and provide a lightweight feel and increased speed.

“I just want them to sit on my shoulders,” Knighton said. “I don’t really need it to protect anything.”

The NFL said it had seen no change in the rate of shoulder injuries with the smaller pads, and the manufacturers said they had maintained the same commitment to safety. Nic Gay, founder of Simple Therapy and an Oakland-based orthopedic surgeon, conducted an independent investigation, based on NFL injury reports released weekly this season, which indicated that 116 shoulder injuries had occurred, or 8.6% of over 1,300 injuries sustained in the field.

Overall, shoulder injuries have been of much less concern in the league than concussions and knee injuries. Max Unger, the Seattle starting center, said players have straddled agility and well-being by choosing smaller shoulder pads.

“You want something that you can move in, and players are willing to sacrifice their body condition for performance on the pitch,” Unger said.

The shoulder pads, which weigh less than four pounds today, weighed between six and eight pounds about 15 years ago, according to Riddell, a major supplier to the NFL. They are now thinner, flatter, more flexible and more resistant to engorgement by sweat.

Players sometimes do their own personalization, cutting or removing some of the flaps and padding. Some defensive ends and linebackers prefer shoulder pads that don’t look much bigger than those worn by receivers and cornerbacks.

“It started, in the Little League and everything, the bigger the better,” said Champ Bailey, the Denver All-Pro cornerback who is playing his first Super Bowl after 15 seasons in the league. “In high school, the bigger the better. Now it’s smaller the better. You want to be as light as possible.

Few, if any, players wear hip pads more, Bailey said. And referring to a protective cup, he added: “I haven’t seen a cup since playing football in the 80s.”

David Bruton, a Broncos goaltender, said when he saw video of players wearing bulky shoulder pads from decades past, he wondered how well they could get around with such restrictive equipment.

Shoulder pads first appeared in the late 1800s, according to manufacturers, and the first rudimentary models were leather with felt padding.

In the 1980s, plastic and foam cushions protruded, much like a backyard patio. Herschel Walker, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner who had an enduring professional career albeit traveling as a running back, might have needed a building permit if his pads had protruded yet.

“He was well padded and needed to be,” said Vince Dooley, who coached Walker at the University of Georgia, where he averaged 30.1 races per game over three seasons. “He took a lot of punishment. “

Cliff Avril, a Seattle defensive end, said he appreciated the fact that players once wore more padding as they often played on artificial turf more ruthless than players today.

“Guys in the ’80s, they were basically playing on cement,” Avril said. “So I would wear big pads for that too. “

Eventually, volume became less important than mobility for some players. Tony Boselli, considered the NFL’s best offensive tackle in the late 1990s with the Jacksonville Jaguars, wore shoulder pads so small they were once described as being “a few sponges and duct tape.”

Ed McCaffrey, a wide receiver who won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and two with Denver in the 1990s, wore tiny, outdated shoulder pads and went to the extreme by even cutting off his athletic supporter to make him lighter.

“It was like a thong,” said Mark Schlereth, a former McCaffrey teammate in Denver.

When Boselli retired in 2003, much speculation surfaced in the media that the small size of his shoulder pads contributed to chronic shoulder injuries. He said he didn’t believe that was the cause.

Back in October, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said players were becoming more vulnerable to shoulder injuries now that helmet-to-helmet contact was limited in an effort to reduce concussion.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll said: “I’m sure the towels are safer today than they used to be.”

Either way, small shoulder pads seem unlikely to disappear anytime soon from the NFL. Johnny Manziel, quarterback and 2012 Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner, is set to enter the league, which is expected to be a top pick in the May draft.

“He looks like he’s playing peewee football,” Dooley, the former Georgia coach, said admiringly of Manziel.

“He’s got the smallest shoulder pads I’ve ever seen. He looks like a mouse among men.

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