On at least one play in the first half of the Chiefs’ exhibition win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, wide receiver Chris Conley did his job — and he thinks his new helmet did, too.
The Chiefs dialed up a running play on which Conley was called upon to deliver a crack-back block — where the receiver runs back toward the ball to seal off a defender on the edge.
Conley’s target was Bengals safety Shawn Williams, a 6-foot, 210-pound man with a reputation for hitting people hard. Conley found this to be true on the play, as he executed his assignment but received a blow from Williams in the process.
Conley felt fine afterward, which isn’t a given after such collisions.
He credited his new helmet for softening the impact.
“He hit me pretty hard,” said Conley, who had a concussion scare in the Chiefs’ divisional-round loss to Pittsburgh in January. “I mean, I felt the hit. But I wonder what it would have felt like in an old helmet.”
Conley’s new helmet is the Vicis Zero1. A startup based in Seattle, Vicis has invested three years and $20 million into the Zero1 helmet, which features an outer shell it says yields like a car bumper upon impact.
Vicis does not claim that the helmet reduces concussions, but it does tout it as a highly engineered piece of equipment designed to reduce “impact forces.” Multiple built-in layers include a soft outer shell and flexible, underlying columns that work together to absorb blows.
The Zero1 helmet ranked first out of 33 options — including some provided by notable helmet makers Schutt and Riddell — in laboratory testing conducted jointly this year by the NFL and NFL Players Association. No helmet is perfect, but some believe the Zero1 takes another step in the right direction.
“Vicis did better than the rest of them by a fraction,” said former NFL team doctor David Chao, noting that even the best helmets cannot prevent concussions. “It’s like if Vicis was a 96-point wine for a wine spectator, and the others are 95 and 94. Is it going to revolutionize the business in terms of getting rid of concussions? That would be asking a lot. Is it a good step? Sure.”
Last year, the league earmarked $60 million for helmet research as part of a $100 million player-safety initiative. Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear that the NFL is counting on helmet companies to come up with improvements in technology.
Vicis has also received two research and development grants totaling $750,000 from GE, Under Armour and the NFL.
“Everything gets better, and a large part of that is technology,” Goodell said. “The technology that is coming into the helmets is making them better. We used to have leather helmets back in the day, and we’re trying to speed that up through investment and research.”
Conley isn’t the only Chiefs player wearing the new helmet this season. Quarterback Alex Smith was so impressed with its technology that he became an initial investor after meeting with Vicis CEO Dave Marver last offseason.
Smith wasn’t wearing the new helmet when he suffered two instances of what the Chiefs termed “head trauma” during last season’s win at Indianapolis.
“Obviously, I’ve had a little history with head stuff (injuries), and for the first time, there seemed to be new technology in the helmet,” Smith said. “For me, it was just finally this big science push (behind it). You actually had real scientists developing this and thinking about it.”
A handful of Chiefs who have tried the helmet, which was offered to them by the Chiefs’ equipment managers this spring, became intrigued after seeing a simple “drop” test: a comparison of how the top of the Vicis helmet and a regular helmet fared when dropped to the ground.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said center Mitch Morse, who now uses the Zero1. “Your (old) helmet makes this big clack, and this one kind of bounces like, ‘Boing ... boing ...’ It seemed to absorb the impact, rather than take the brunt-force action.”
Smith, Conley and Morse have all experienced at least one documented concussion or concussion scare, and outside linebacker Frank Zombo is another Chief who wears the new helmet. Players from other teams, such as Texans linebacker Brian Cushing and teammate and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, also wear the Zero1, which sells for $1,500 — or $500 to $1,000 more than traditional helmets.
Washington and Oregon are among the college programs using them.
After pledging his investment in March of 2016, Smith said he’d hoped the Zero1 would be approved by the NFL for use last season. He can’t help wondering if it might’ve made a difference for him in the Colts game.
“Could have, for sure,” Smith said. “I know they were pushing hard and it was going down to crunch time, but for whatever reason it didn’t get done (approved).
“It’s funny how offseason demand pushes things, right? There’s all this stuff coming out about head injuries now, and it’s finally pushed the technology, because to be honest, it hasn’t really changed for 30 years, you know?”
Today, Smith sits on Vicis’ advisory board, along with Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin and cornerback Richard Sherman. The two Seahawks will be wearing their Zero1 helmets on Friday when they play host to Smith and the Chiefs.
“Baldwin and Sherman are early, early guys on it, which is cool because they’re both really smart guys,” Smith said. “These are Stanford guys who obviously have big futures and are outspoken, so I think it’s been cool to have them on board.”
So far, Smith has found Vicis to be responsive to players’ feedback. He initially was unhappy with the new helmet’s facemask, he said, and the company has worked since May to improve it.
“They have a lot of engineers developing this helmet taking direct feedback from players,” Smith said.
Despite his belief and investment in the helmet, Smith has gone out of his way to avoid suggesting his teammates use it. He said he wants them to come to their own conclusions.
“After the first preseason game, like Zombo and Chris and these guys, I’m kinda like ‘Hey, how did it go, man?’” Smith said. “I talk to these guys like, what’s the feedback. Because I’m interested, you know? Obviously it’s a little bit of an unknown.”
So far, that feedback has been positive.
“Even for those subconcussive hits — the repetitive ones — it helps a ton,” Morse said. “And in the long run, I think it will help with mental clarity throughout the season, and just overall feeling better.”
“In training camp, obviously you’re doing a lot of banging, and I could tell the difference,” Zombo said. “You know, you still feel the initial hit, but the days of kind of being dazed for maybe a play or two after that, I didn’t have any of that. So I did notice the difference. I truly did.”
The helmet is noticeably larger than its predecessors — it’s said to offer the widest field of view of any helmet in the NFL — and some players are turned off by its size. Smith said Vicis is working on that, too.
“I just talked to them, and it’s going to get smaller,” he said.
In the meantime, guys like Smith, Conley, Morse and Zombo agree that the trade-off of safety over style is worth it, now and for the long-term.
“I talk many times about longevity in the NFL,” Zombo said. “If you want to stay in the league for a while, you’ve got to stay healthy.
“Obviously, concussions are part of that, because as soon as you start adding a few of those concussions on, teams kind of stay away from you a little bit because you can’t be on the field when you’re concussed. So yeah, I think it helps in that aspect, too.”