One of the more controversial rules changes in the NFL in years will probably go unnoticed by most fans watching from their stadium seats or from the couch in their homes.
Until, that is, a star player is ushered to the sideline at a key moment in the game by the back judge for not wearing thigh and knee pads — an equipment violation voted in by NFL owners in 2012.
It likely won’t happen much considering what’s riding on every game, but the rule that was put in for safety is stirring up lots of reaction across the league from the players it was implemented to help protect.
So when the New Orleans Saints put on full gear for the first time in training camp Sunday, most did so with the idea of getting used to wearing leg pads that were mandatory from 1979-94 and optional for the past two decades.
Former San Francisco 49ers safety Merton Hanks, who played from 1991-99, said he understands what the uproar is about.
But as the NFL’s vice president of football operations, he’ll serve as judge and jury for those who don’t comply with the latest player-safety mandate — which was also endorsed by the NFL Players Association.
The rule, which officially goes into effect with the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday, does not apply to punters and kickers. The rule only covers thigh and knee pads; hip and butt pads are still optional.
During his career, Hanks said, players — especially skill players — shed the pads because it made them feel lighter and faster. When wide receivers started playing without them, defensive backs followed suit.
Comfort is another consideration for most, he said, but pads have come a long way since then. Hanks said he always wore thigh pads, but wore knee pads depending on the game and field conditions.
“When I played, the quality of the padding wasn’t as good,” he said. “If you’re not made to do something and you think you’re going to gain a competitive advantage, you’re going to do it.
“But playing rules have changed over the years and the emphasis, No. 1, is on having an equal playing field. No one should be at an advantage or a disadvantage.”
An NFL survey in December showed about 30 percent of players wore lower leg padding, either in pads inserted into their game pants or as part of compression shorts/protective girdle.
Hanks said uniform and equipment inspectors hired by the NFL in every league city to police socks, shoes and other game-day equipment, will check players during pregame warm-ups and report violations to a designated club equipment man.
Players will be checked again when they come out for the game, and if a player is found to be in violation, the back judge will let the head coach know the individual must leave the field and can return when he’s in compliance.
Hanks said fines will start at $5,000.
Most players said the change won’t make a big difference because, they said, wearing a thin plastic pad won’t prevent thigh contusions and knee pads will not prevent a torn anterior cruciate ligament or other major knee injury.
Saints outside linebacker Will Smith said hasn’t worn thigh or knee pads since he entered the NFL in 2004 even though it’s mandatory in the NCAA.
“You don’t need them,” he said. “If you get hit in the thigh, it’s not going to help. It’s also uncomfortable, but I’ll do it because I don’t like getting fined.”
“It looks like a good move, but I don’t know if it’ll actually prevent injuries,” Saints wide receiver Lance Moore said. “Guys are going to get thigh bruises even with pads. It’s the nature of the game.”
“They don’t really protect anything,” free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Players are always trying to streamline the uniforms, so it’s something we’re just going to have to adapt to.”
Adapt they must, or risk forking over some of their pay and hurting their team.
“We’re just trying to keep our young men out of harm’s way,” Hanks said.
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