Commentary

Uni Watch: Tampa Bay drops Bruce

Bucs cancel throwback plans after helmets don't meet league safety rules

Updated: September 18, 2013, 5:49 PM ET
By Paul Lukas | ESPN.com

Doug MartinJ. Meric/Getty ImagesSwitching to a throwback helmet is no longer allowed under league rules as a safety precaution.

Free Bucco Bruce!

That's the cry emanating from Tampa, Fla., where the Buccaneers have announced that they won't be wearing their Creamsicle throwbacks Sept. 29, as had originally been scheduled.

Uni Watch

The change in plans is due to a new, previously undisclosed NFL rule that forbids the use of alternate helmets. The Bucs' throwback helmets, emblazoned with the old Bucco Bruce logo, have a white shell, while their regular helmets have a pewter shell. There was no way for the throwback look to work with the pewter helmets, so the team has scrapped the throwbacks.

This development has led to a lot of confusion among fans and media members. Let's try to sort some of it out:

Who came up with this new guideline?

The NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the Player Safety Advisory Panel, both of which are independent, unpaid panels that advise the league on safety issues. They felt that it's safer for a player to stick with the same helmet for the entire season because new helmets take time to be broken in properly.

Do these panels have the power to change or enforce rules?

No. But the league has taken their recommendation in this case.

Is this new guideline a recommendation or a hard rule?

It is not an advisory, and it is not optional. It is a rule. Teams must follow it.

Was the rule ever disclosed to the public or the media prior to the Bucs' announcement?

No.

When was the rule communicated to the teams?

The league sent this memo to all teams and equipment managers on Aug. 22. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says teams with throwback uniforms in the works were advised of the new rule earlier in the offseason.

If that's the case, why did the Buccaneers plan to wear their throwbacks in the first place?

The Bucs say they didn't learn about the new rule until the Aug. 22 memo was issued. That presented a problem because they had already put the throwback game on their schedule in early July. They spent the next few weeks trying to come up with a work-around but ultimately decided that there was no suitable solution, so they scrapped their plans for the throwbacks.

Wait a minute -- didn't the Bills and Bears wear throwbacks on Sunday?

Yes. But they were able to wear their existing helmets. The Bears just removed all the decals from their helmets, and the Bills swapped out their primary logo decal for their throwback decal. That's still kosher because alternate helmet designs aren't banned -- just alternate helmet shells.

Couldn't a team just repaint its helmets to the throwback color and then paint them back afterward?

Apparently that isn't practical.

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
Kim Klement/US PresswireOther teams are adapting this season's helmets to work with the throwback uniforms. Unfortunately, the Bucs did not come up with a similar solution.

The Packers are supposed to wear their throwbacks Oct. 20. That uniform calls for a brown helmet. Will they scrap their throwbacks too?

No. The Packers have announced that they'll wear a plain yellow helmet. The final effect should look something like this Photoshopped image (created by Uni Watch bench coach Phil Hecken).

What about the Rams' throwbacks, which are supposed to be worn twice this season?

Trying to find out. If you look at their throwback design, it seems like they could probably use their existing helmets and just swap out the bronze ram horn decals for yellow ones.

Lots of other teams have throwback helmets that are a different color than their main helmet, including the Falcons, Patriots, Cowboys and Skins. Are those throwbacks all illegal now?

Well, the jerseys and pants could still be worn, but not the helmets. Those teams would either have to adapt their current helmets to the rest of the throwback uni, like the Packers are doing, or stop wearing their throwbacks.

What's the underlying basis for this rule? Wouldn't a new helmet actually be safer than a helmet that's gotten banged up over the course of eight or nine games?

That does seem somewhat logical, or at least intuitive. But the league says those two advisory committees -- Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the Player Safety Advisory Panel -- found that it's safer, on balance, for a player to stick with one helmet for the entire season.

Have they presented any data to back this up?

No. That doesn't mean such data doesn't exist, but for now, the league hasn't provided much substantiation for this move.

Have you been able to talk to anyone on those committees?

No. The league declined a request to make them available for interviews.

You've interviewed NFL equipment managers in the past. Can't you talk to some of them about this?

Nobody is talking, at least for now.

What if a player's helmet is damaged or if he's released by one team and signs with a new team? Won't he need a new helmet?

Of course. The idea isn't to force a player to wear the same helmet all season long. The idea is to minimize the switching out of helmets.

Isn't this just some sort of PR stunt by the league?

That seems unlikely. If you're looking for good PR, you don't enact a rule without telling anyone and then have it disclosed months later by a team that's forced to cancel a fan-friendly initiative, causing lots of confusion along the way. This is bad PR for the league.

But the league is so safety-conscious now. Isn't this just another example of the league grandstanding and covering its butt on liability issues?

Again, it's hard to consider this grandstanding when the rule was enacted with zero publicity and disclosed due a communications mix-up with the Bucs. As for liability issues, there's no doubt that the league is always concerned about that, but that doesn't mean every safety initiative is just a butt-covering maneuver.

Couldn't they have handled this a lot better?

Yes. Fans love throwbacks, so it's a bit harsh to snatch them away with no advance warning and little explanation. If this initiative really does enhance player safety, then it's worth it. But the NFL should have announced it well ahead of time, and it should be much more transparent about the data and methodology that underlie the new rule. As it stands, this is going to go down as a muddled, chaotic chapter in NFL uniform history.

What about all those college football teams with three, four or even five helmets? Is the NFL saying they're being unsafe?

That would appear to be the implicit message. Look for more Uni Watch coverage of that topic in the near future.

Last but not least, does this mean we've seen the last of Bucco Bruce?

Hope not. But that's how it looks for now.

Paul Lukas hopes to resolve those remaining unanswered questions soon. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, 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.

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