Knee and thigh pads are just a few inches long and weigh next to nothing.
But for many NFL players, they might as well be anvils — and unnecessary ones at that, some say.
With training camps now open across the nation, NFL athletes are for the first time subjected to the added bulk below the waist. League rules now mandate that all players, except for kickers and punters, must wear protective padding that covers the knees and thighs.
“I don’t like them,” Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline said last week. “Really, they don’t do a whole lot.
“I appreciate them taking the initiative, trying to protect the players, but I don’t think the biggest [injuries] are prevented from knee and thigh pads.”
Hartline was one of the hundreds of NFL players who chose to go without knee and thigh pads before this season. By the league’s estimate, just three in 10 pros used the pads when they were voluntary. Skill-position players, who rely on speed and agility, tend to loathe them.
But Merton Hanks, the NFL’s vice president of football operations, said complaints will fade in time. Hanks, a former Pro Bowl defensive back, always wore the extra padding as a player — when the league mandated it, and when it did not.
From 1979 through 1994, every player had to wear the four upper-leg pads (two on each leg), but the NFL eventually dropped the mandate because they were bulky and the rule was hard to enforce, the league said.
But with advances in technology, protective pads have become lighter and less restrictive, to the point where they no longer impact performance, the NFL argued. Furthermore, the league believes the benefits in mandating them will outweigh challenges in enforcement.
“Intuitively, whenever you have a protective barrier between you and any contact, we would state that it would probably bring about a safer condition,” Hanks said. “We wanted to minimize thigh and knee bruises, contusions. Our primary concern is the safety of our player.”
Not surprisingly, some players have a different take.
“I think when you look statistically at the amount of injuries that occur in this league due to the lack of knee or thigh pads, it is minimal and [the rule] is silly,” said Dolphins tackle Tyson Clabo, who nonetheless wore them the first eight years of his career, even when it wasn’t mandatory.
Bryson Lesniak, an orthopedist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said the extra padding will help minimize the effect of deep thigh and knee bruises, which can sideline players for weeks.
But the idea they will prevent a broken leg or a torn ACL — catastrophic injuries that can cost players months if not an entire season — could be a flight of fancy.
Lesniak, who does not treat NFL players but speaks regularly with several league physicians, believes the rule change has a secondary intent: To help reduce the instances and severity of concussions.
The long-term effects of head trauma are a huge concern for the league, which is being sued by hundreds of former players who said the league hid information linking football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries, including dementia.
The multibillion-dollar lawsuit, which has helped bring about player-protecting rule changes, was ordered into mediation by a federal judge this month.
So how, exactly, does covering the legs in padding protect the head? Lesniak said many defensive players sustain concussions when they get kneed in the helmet while trying to make a tackle.
“It’s not unreasonable to have the assumption that it’ll decrease concussion severity,” Lesniak said. “Any time there’s padding between two colliding forces, it protects both colliding athletes.
“It’s another thing the NFL can say: ‘We’re doing everything we can to protect the player without sacrificing the integrity of the game.’ ”
Concussion prevention was not among the explanations the league used when defending the rule change. Hanks focused more on what he believes will be the tangible impact — the reduction in missed time because of bruises.
Plus, the league argued, because everyone will be wearing them, it will provide a level playing field. And it will set an example for players at all levels of the game, from Pop Warner on up.
As for complaints that the extra padding will be restrictive for backs and receivers, Hanks had a ready-made response: Adrian Peterson, wore them throughout the 2012 season en route to rushing for 2,097 yards.
“That complaint rings hollow,” Hanks said. “I think that, obviously, when you go from wearing absolutely nothing on your legs, there is a difference. The big thing we want to reinforce is that there’s equity in the rule.”
Uniform inspectors will be on the lookout for scofflaws on Sundays, before the opening kickoff and after. Players who enter the game without proper padding will be removed from the field until the violation is corrected.
Dolphins players who spoke on the issue this week said that, regardless of what they think of the new rules, they have no choice but to abide by them.
“I played five years and I never had them, so it felt a little weird the first day, but I’m getting used to them,” tight end Dustin Keller said.
Added Clabo: “I don’t know what they’re thinking. [But] they have to pay the medical bills, so you can’t fault them for trying to keep us as healthy as they possibly can.”