One of the more intriguing storylines from last Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game in Denver was the return of Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, who had been out with a concussion since Dec. 8. And as many fans and media outlets noticed, Welker had a new helmet for the occasion.
Lots of observers felt Welker's new headgear looked gigantic, which prompted some predictable jokes. It also led many people to assume Welker was wearing some sort of special anti-concussion helmet.
But was he?
Welker told the Denver Post, "I wouldn't say it's a concussion helmet. It's the next size up. A few players in here wear one. It's something they had me wear for safety."
Broncos officials, including the team's equipment staff, have said the same thing, insisting that Welker wore a factory-issue Riddell helmet one size larger than his old model, with no special modifications.
So why did everyone think Welker's noggin looked so huge last Sunday? Let's start by taking a before-and-after look at Welker's headgear (click on the photo and then click on it again to see a larger version):
Here's a before/after comparison of Wes Welker's new post-concussion helmet: pic.twitter.com/mNR6B1SwYh
— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) January 14, 2014
A few thoughts:
1. Those are two completely different helmet models. The one on the left, which Welker wore throughout the 2013 regular season until his concussion, is the Riddell Revolution Speed; the one on the right, which he wore Sunday, is the Riddell 360. It's easy to see the difference just by looking at the vent holes.
2. Although the new helmet is clearly larger than the old one, the feeling here is that it looks larger than it really is. One reason for this is that the Riddell 360's face mask clips, especially the upper ones, give the helmet more of a block-ish, almost horizontal-seeming front view.
3. Also, the 360's dark interior padding seems to have had the visual effect of making Welker's face look smaller, which in turn makes the helmet itself seem larger.
Also, it's tough to be sure but it looks like a bit of extra padding may have been added to the new helmet, which would further distort Welker's helmet-to-head ratio.
"The industry term for the distance from the player's head to the shell is standoff," explained Michael Princip, an industrial designer who has been working on his own anti-concussion helmet design. "So if you're adding more padding in there, you're increasing the standoff. Generally speaking, a larger standoff is better. But the larger you get, the more problems you can have with the weight, the balance, and that bobblehead effect, which can work against you. You have to balance everything out."
The "bobblehead effect," as Princip put it, is what fans tend to fixate on. Back in the 1990s, Steve Wallace of the 49ers and Mark Kelso of the Bills wore the ProCap, a padded layer that fit over their helmets. They were promptly greeted with cries of "Gazoo!" (that's a Flintstones reference, kids). Over on the baseball diamond, similar ridicule was aimed at MLB players who wore the Rawlings S100, a larger, more protective batting helmet that was eventually retooled to look a bit less ridiculous.
In any case, two things appear to be certain: Helmet engineers are going to keep trying to find the magic bullet of an anti-concussion helmet, and fans are going to keep making fun of helmets that look outlandishly large.
ESPN Denver Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold contributed to this report.
Paul Lukas wore a pretty bobblehead-ish helmet in youth league football but has destroyed all the photographic evidence. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.