A new helmet, designed specifically to offer greater protection when a quarterback's head hits the ground, will be available for the first time to NFL players this season.
The helmet, made by VICIS, is the first designed especially for quarterbacks and it comes just months after the end of the 2022 season, which saw the number of diagnosed concussions rise by 18% league-wide, with much of the rise attributed to a spike in concussions suffered by quarterbacks.
The Zero2 Matrix QB helmet has already undergone lab testing that simulated concussion-causing impacts sustained by quarterbacks, the league told teams in a memo.
The NFL said helmet-to-ground impact accounts for about half of quarterback in-game concussions and, according to Dr. Ann Bailey Good, a mechanical engineer for Biocore, which conducts the lab tests, the new quarterback helmet did 7% better at reducing impact severity compared with the most popular helmet worn by quarterbacks last season.
"The thing that distinguishes quarterbacks and their concussions is they have a disproportionate number of head-to-ground impacts that cause concussions," said Jeff Miller, the NFL's executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy. "This past year we had an increase in the number of quarterback concussions, and it was the same helmet-to-ground dynamic. Many people would say it's because quarterbacks are scrambling more often, but we didn't see that. It was still the quarterback in the pocket, getting hit and the head hitting the ground as they were holding onto the ball."
The NFL and NFL Players Association produce a poster each year that shows how helmets rank based on their performance in lab tests, and also lists helmets that are not recommended and some that are prohibited from use. In the new poster that was just released, the quarterback helmet is ranked third, just behind two helmets, also made by VICIS, which are designed specifically for offensive and defensive linemen. Those helmets were tested for how they responded to impacts typically absorbed by linemen -- who take more blows to the forehead and front of the helmet. The NFL said only a handful of players wore the linemen-specific helmets in 2022 (the first season they were available), attributing the small number of users to a lack of familiarity with the new product and VICIS still being a relatively new helmet manufacturer. Meetings with team equipment managers are held each year to educate them about new helmets -- the equipment managers, then, can advise players.
The quarterback-specific helmet has been in the works for several years. Data on different impact locations and the frequency of impacts had begun to be shared with helmet makers starting in 2020, and VICIS spent most of 2022 working on the helmet, according to Jason Neubauer, the company's vice president of product development.
From the outside, the quarterback helmet does not look any different. On the inside is an engineered column structure. The tiny columns might be just 1.5 millimeters in diameter, but by changing their diameter, how many there are and the stiffness of the material they are made of, engineers can modify the way the helmet absorbs impact at the location of the hit without changing the weight of the fit of the helmet. Neubauer said that in VICIS' internal testing, the quarterback helmet showed a more than 20% improvement in impact mitigation for helmet-to-ground hits compared with the company's standard helmet that is designed to mitigate helmet-to-helmet impacts.
The next question is whether quarterbacks will try the new helmet. Players have proven to be reluctant to move on from equipment they have grown comfortable with, which is why the NFL and NFLPA give players a one-season grace period to change out of helmets that have been put on the prohibited list. Because of quarterbacks' concerns about their sight lines with a helmet, they have been especially slow to change.
The pace of helmet innovation has been rapid in recent years, particularly since the NFL and NFLPA started testing and ranking them. The seven helmets on the newly prohibited list this year -- which means they cannot be worn by new players or anyone who did not wear them in the 2022 season, and may not be worn by anyone during the 2024 season -- were all among those that were listed among the better performing helmets and were permitted just three years ago.
"That tells you that helmets that have been designed around the NFL environment have taken older models and found ways to make those models perform better for the NFL environment," Good said. "As that happens, the older models get phased out. It's not that they are performing any different, but all the other helmets are performing so much better, that players don't need those older helmets anymore."
The next position-specific helmets are likely to be made for wide receivers and defensive backs. Specific lab tests that simulate the impacts they receive -- less frequent, but often coming at high speed -- are expected to be available in 2024.