A lot can happen in six years. If you're a Major League Baseball player, that's how long it takes to go from rookie to free agent. If you're a politician, that's how long it takes to serve a full term in the United States Senate.
And if you're Michael Princip, six years is how long it takes to turn an idea into a reality.
Here's the deal: In January of 2011 -- six years ago, almost to the day -- we ran a story about Princip, an industrial engineer who had come up with an innovative football helmet design he called the Bulwark. The helmet's outer shell, which was designed to minimize concussions, consisted of five mix-and-match panels that could be swapped out. At the time, Princip had created a prototype and was hoping one of the major helmet manufacturers -- Riddell or Schutt -- would develop the concept and bring it to market.
This is pretty much the standard inventor's fantasy -- come up with an idea and get a big company to bankroll it. Most inventors never take it past the fantasy stage.
But for Princip, the fantasy has come true. Thanks in part to the attention generated by that 2011 story, he ended up partnering with Schutt. Six years later, he's the lead designer on Schutt's latest helmet, the F7, an innovative new design that's likely to become the latest salvo in the helmet industry's anti-concussion arms race. And while the F7 isn't quite the same thing as Princip's original Bulwark concept, which turned out to be too costly and complicated for Schutt to produce, it's definitely related.
"The F7 is a variant on my original concept," said Princip. "I knew it would be difficult to do that original design, at least as a starting point, so you could consider this version 1.0. It's like baby steps -- you have to walk before you can run."
Even without the backstory of an independent inventor made good, the F7 would be a notable new chapter in the evolution of football helmet design. It features two removable exterior plates -- one running lengthwise across the top of the helmet, and another one toward the back.
Beneath each plate is a cushioning layer of blue thermoplastic urethane (TPU), with the plate and the TPU sitting within a recessed area in the helmet's plastic shell. Upon impact, the plate can shift and flex within that cavity, which helps to disperse the force of the blow before it reaches the player.
The F7 may remind fans of the Riddell SpeedFlex, the helmet with the now-familiar flex panel in its crown area, which was released in the spring of 2014. "The difference is that their flex panel is still connected to the helmet shell," said Schutt promotions manager Tim Hornak. "The plates on the F7 are independent from the shell, so you actually have external three layers of protection in that area: the plate, the TPU layer beneath it, and then the helmet shell itself. We think that does a more effective job of dispersing the impact."
Princip believes those separate, removable plates provide other possibilities. "You could switch out the plate you use on game day and replace it with one for practices that's equipped with an accessory clip or a camera system mount, or you could include a built-in accelerometer or other kind of data tracker in the plate," he said. "You can also make the plate out of a different plastic or composite, so it's lighter, or you can add different venting to it. Basically, we can keep improving the design of the plates even if we haven't changed the rest of the helmet design."
Schutt hopes to make the F7 available to colleges in time for their spring practices in March and April, and to NFL teams in time for OTAs in May. For now, though, only four prototypes exist. Several of them were displayed earlier this month at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Nashville (a Schutt executive said the response was "overwhelming," although that's what you'd expect him to say), and one of them was made available for me to examine in New York last week.
The F7 is definitely unlike any football helmet currently on the market. It raises lots of questions, so let's shift into Q&A mode:
Why are the two exterior plates positioned in those particular locations?
According to research by Virginia Tech, which has a highly respected helmet safety rating system, more than 80 percent of major helmet impacts occur in the regions covered by the F7's plates. That includes impacts from players hitting the backs of their heads on the turf as they fall backwards, which is why the F7 has that rear plate.
So this helmet will eliminate concussions?
No. There's no "magic bullet" helmet that can eliminate concussions on the football field, and there probably never will be. The F7, like the SpeedFlex before it, is the latest attempt to limit concussions, and to improve player safety over previous designs.
The layer of TPU padding beneath each plate is blue. What if a team's color scheme doesn't include blue? Can the TPU be rendered in a different color?
Schutt likes to use blue TPU -- it's a branding thing. The company's helmets typically have a layer of blue TPU interior padding (the F7 has it too), which is sometimes visible during a game. If you look at close-ups of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, for example, you can see the blue TPU padding peeking out around his ears.
Still, having a color that doesn't fit with the team's color scheme being clearly visible on the helmet's exterior shell -- instead of just on the interior padding -- seems like a more serious aesthetic issue. Hornak, the Schutt promotions manager, acknowledged this. "We'd prefer it to be blue," he said. "But if that's a problem for a team, we could do it in a different color, or make it clear."
The exterior plates have lots of vents. How will that work for teams that use striping tape down the center of the helmet?
Hornak said equipment managers will probably have to cut the stripes each time they pass over a vent, just as most teams do when stripes pass over the SpeedFlex's flex panel. Given the number of vents and gaps and the degree to which striping tape can get beat up during a game, that could end up being a lot of work.
Let's say you have a green F7 helmet, including green exterior plates. Couldn't you just swap out the green plates for, say, yellow ones and basically create a whole new design while using the same helmet shell?
Sure. But that wouldn't work on a team-wide basis unless all the players on the entire team were wearing the F7 (or some other helmet with a similar plate system), which isn't likely to happen anytime soon.
Will my favorite team's logo fit on this helmet shell?
Good question. The F7's exterior shell has ridges and contours that may present a challenge for many standard football logo decals. Even if the decals can wrap around those ridges without peeling or coming loose during a game, the logos will likely look distorted or awkward. This side-by-side comparison of a blank F7 prototype and a more conventional Schutt helmet with South Carolina Gamecocks branding shows how tricky it might be to position a team's logo decal on the F7:
"Some people raised that issue when we unveiled the helmet at the AFCA convention," said Hornak. "But most of them didn't seem too worried about it. They basically said, 'You just design a safe helmet -- that's your job. Figuring out how the logos will fit on it is our job.'"
Maybe so, but with modern football helmets increasingly featuring flex panels, plates, and ridges, the established design model of treating the side of the helmet as a relatively flat canvas for logos and other graphics, which has been in place for about 60 years, may not work much longer. If helmets like the F7 become more the rule than the exception, teams and designers may need to rethink how a helmet will fit into a team's visual program.
Does the F7 have any other notable features?
Yes. Facemasks have traditionally been anchored to helmets via screws, so equipment managers typically use power screwdrivers or drills to install or remove the masks -- a particularly tedious task if you're swapping out dozens of masks at a time, which is often the case. But the F7's facemask is anchored to the shell by a pair of snap-fit clips, which eliminates the need for tools -- an industry first -- and makes the process much simpler:
"There's also a safety advantage," said Glenn Beckmann, Schutt's director of marketing communications. "If the medical staff needs to access the player's face or airway, this system allows the mask be removed in less than five seconds, compared with the usual 15 to 45 seconds for a conventional mask. That could be a big deal."
How many players are going to wear this helmet?
Rome wasn't built in a day. Hornak said Schutt will be happy if 20 to 30 pro and college players combined end up wearing the F7 for the 2017 season, and maybe two to three times that many in 2018.
Are those goals realistic?
It's too soon to say because players and equipment managers haven't seen the helmet yet. We'll start getting a better idea this spring.