An NFL safety rule is limiting the full potential of new uniform designs

(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the NFL revealed new Color Rush jerseys for all 32 teams, ones that will be worn at some point by most of them during Thursday Night Football appearances.

The eye-popping designs have gotten plenty of positive attention, but are nowhere near as transformative as they could be from head to toe, the “head” being the key part of that equation thanks to a rule that limits the full potential for great alternate and/or throwback uniforms.

Three years ago, the NFL established a policy that required every player in the league to wear just one helmet per season. The rule came after it was communicated to the league that changing helmet shells during the season may leave players more susceptible to head injuries.

“In 2013, we communicated to the clubs a recommendation from the Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the Player Safety Advisory Panel that players no longer wear different helmets during the season to accompany a different jersey design beyond the home and away uniforms,” a league official said in a statement when reached by email. “The outside of the helmet can be modified by removing or replacing decals, as long as it does not affect the integrity of the helmet.”

The league believes that new helmets need time to break in. By switching out helmets during the season, the NFL is afraid there's a chance players can get hurt if their new lids aren't broken in well enough. And while it's understandable that the NFL would want to take measures to limit brain damage to players (although there certainly seem to be more pressing practical concerns as far as that goes) — there's doubt as to whether this policy actually does that.

“It was true 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago. But helmet technology now is much better. There's really no break-in process for about 90 percent of the helmets, at least in my opinion,” an anonymous NFL team equipment staffer told Uni Watch's Paul Lukas shortly after the league policy change in 2013.

That certainly seems to be the mindset at the college level as well.

Several notable top college programs from around the country have gained notoriety for incorporating uniform variety throughout the season, often requiring different helmets from week to week. The University of Oregon is especially noteworthy in this regard, as the school has an extremely active partnership with Nike (the company was co-founded by Oregon alum Phil Knight) and frequently trots out drastically different looks — from throwbacks to new, cutting-edge designs.

For example, here are two looks the Ducks sported last season:

If evidence indicates that the use of multiple helmet shells presents a legitimate threat to the brain safety of football players, why are college programs being allowed to gamble with the well-being of their student-athletes? Shouldn't they be held to the same (or even stricter) safety standards as professional teams?

With the policy in place, the number of NFL teams that are actually able to wear throwback uniforms is limited. Those that are lucky enough to be able to pull it off are able to do so because the uniforms don't require them to switch out their primary helmet. Some teams, like the Green Bay Packers (below), are able to strip the decals off their typical helmets and make it work.

Other teams, such as the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, are simply able to swap out their present helmet decals with retro ones to complete a throwback look.

Some teams have even just gone into “screw it” mode and worn their regular helmets on top of a throwback uniform. The Redskins (below) did that, but the result looked pretty silly, considering the helmet was a completely different shade of red/maroon and featured a different logo than the jersey.

The Rams will find themselves in a similar position when they take the field this weekend for the franchise's first (meaningful) home game since returning to Los Angeles. The team made the right call by choosing to wear the fantastic royal blue and yellow uniforms that they donned in their previous L.A. tenure, but they will have to couple the jersey with their current helmet, which features a navy and yellow color scheme.

But for a lot of teams, the helmet mandate completely takes their best throwback threads off the table. The Buccaneers can't wear their Bucco Bruce creamsicle uniforms. Atlanta's '90s look is forced out.  The Patriots have to stash away their red Pat Patriot throwbacks. Plenty of others as well.

The NFL has a rich history, one that's full of pretty great uniforms. Many of them are still worthy of appreciation, so it sucks for fans that the league has effectively forced them into extinction, at least for the time being. With a significant lack of throwbacks injecting some visual excitement (and extra merchandise revenue) into the NFL, the league needed an initiative to spice up their jersey game a bit. That leads us to Nike's “Color Rush” uniforms.

Last season, the league's official outfitter introduced the uniform series, with select teams debuting special monochrome sets for primetime games — including the Cowboys and Panthers on Thanksgiving. At the very least, it forced teams to switch things up and roll out a look that deviated from their primary home and road sets. Some of them were crisp, some were terrible, some only provided subtle changes, and some were incredibly mean to color blind fans.

But it also seems like the NFL's helmet policy is even holding back Color Rush's potential. In most cases, Nike has to build the uniforms around the league's helmets, which somewhat limits the creative process and the results.

For example, look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers will be wearing in their Color Rush game:

The all-black look from head to toe is bold and may look odd on the field — though some are sure to enjoy the menacing nature of the set — but seemingly the only other option would have been for the team to go full gold from the shoulders down (which…no thanks) or do a full white set. This would be one of the better Color Rush uniforms across the league, if only the Steelers could bring back their yellow helmets to compliment the black-on-black. But they can't.

Very few teams can or will be sporting helmets that differ from what they wear-to-week. There are a few exceptions, including the Giants, who are going with retro (but similar) decals, and the Broncos, who are revitalizing their throwback 'D' logo/helmet but with the team's current color scheme.

The Broncos' approach is an interesting one that the rest of the league should draw from going forward if the one-helmet policy is here to stay.

Though Denver's navy base helmet prevents them from going with a legitimate throwback look, taking a retro logo and “remixing” it with the contemporary colors allows the set to provide a cool mix of nostalgia and modern appeal. (The Brooklyn Nets also did this recently and the result was phenomenal.) You can even argue that a uniform like this works to bridge a generational gap between fans, which often isn't easy to do.

It's likely not going to work for every team — there's no substitute for creamsicle in Tampa's Bucco Bruce look or the Eagles' kelly green — but there are certainly a significant number of squads that could produce enjoyable “modern retro” remixes. The Patriots, for instance, could keep their silver base helmet while still bringing back the Pat Patriot logo and reworking the lid's striping to accompany an updated version of their great red throwbacks.

Maybe it's the best solution to the one-helmet rule and the resulting throwback lull. Maybe teams need to consider switching to primary helmets that give them more options to work with, especially if the league thinks this one-helmet rule is actually protecting players.

Either way, it would be nice to see a little more effort put into getting throwbacks and alternates back in the mix. If we're going to showcase all of the great potential uniform options the NFL has to offer, it should be a head to toe effort.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
(Getty Images)