Uni Watch: Helmet of the future?

If you're a college football fan -- and especially if you're a fan of one of the big Division I programs like Texas, LSU, Florida or Alabama -- you may have noticed some recent tweets like these:

The helmet featured in those tweets (and in many others from lots of additional schools) is the Riddell SpeedFlex, and you'll likely be hearing a lot more about it later this year. Technically speaking, Riddell hasn't launched it yet -- there have been no press releases, no promotional videos, no ad campaigns. But Riddell has quietly been making the SpeedFlex available to NFL teams and several top college football programs. NFL minicamps and OTAs haven't started yet, but colleges are well into their spring practice season, and many of them have essentially created a soft launch for the SpeedFlex by using it in their spring games and tweeting photos of it.

As you can see in those tweets, the SpeedFlex's defining visual feature is a cutout on the crown, which creates a flexible panel designed to disperse the force of an impact. How flexible is it? Judging from a sample helmet that Riddell provided at Uni Watch's request, the panel definitely has some give -- if you push on it, it bends a bit, as you can see in this short but illustrative Uni Watch video:

Aside from its functionality, which we'll cover in greater detail in a minute, the flex panel also makes the SpeedFlex instantly recognizable, even from a distance, which no doubt pleases Riddell's marketing department (although the visual impact is diminished a bit if the helmet has center striping, because the stripe tape obscures the lower part of the cutout).

The SpeedFlex also has several features that are less apparent to the naked eye, the most interesting of which is a ratchet-driven chin-strap system. Here's a short video showing how it works:

Want to know more? Thad Ide, Riddell's senior vice president for research and development, recently agreed to discuss the SpeedFlex's details in a Uni Watch interview. Here's how it went:

Uni Watch: The most obvious new feature on the helmet is this flexible hinge panel on the crown.

Thad Ide: That's part of what we call the flex system. We found we could improve the impact response of the helmet by adding some selected flexibility to the shell and also to the face mask.

What, specifically, is the intent of that hinge panel?

It allows the shell to flex in that area in ways that it couldn't if it was a monolithic shell.

Right underneath that hinge panel -- is that the same padding that's found elsewhere in the helmet, or is there a special material that's found only under the hinge panel?

The front pad [underneath the shell] is a new composite energy-management system, and it makes use of some synthetic rubber materials and polyurethane materials that are combined to give you the best of both worlds. It's proprietary, so I'm not going to go into any further details on that, but it's unique to this helmet.

How much can that panel deform on impact? In other words, how much can it bend, like if we were watching it in super-slo-mo?

Realistically, maybe a quarter of an inch.

Do you have slow-motion video showing that that?

Yes, but we're not going to share that.

Come on -- fans would love to see that!

[Chuckles] They probably would. We'll run that by our marketing people.

Are there some impacts that could cause the hinged panel to break?

We have not yet discovered those impacts, and we've done a lot of testing in the lab and in the field.

What about the rest of the shell -- does it flex any more than a traditional shell?

No. That's a great question, because we tested this flex concept at different points of the shell. We made shells with different flex points all over them, and we found that it didn't have the desired effect in other areas. So we put it where it was a benefit and left the rest of the shell monolithic.

Is the shell made of the same materials as your other helmets?

Yes -- it's a polycarbonate alloy. It's the same blend we've been using for about a decade.

We're always hearing how players shouldn't lead with their head, and now there are rules and penalties about leading with your head. Are you at all concerned that the hinge panel may make some players more likely to lead with their heads, because now they have this extra bit of flexibility and force dispersion right on the crown?

I think we have to plan on the players following the rules of the game and the officials enforcing those rules. Helmet-to-helmet contact is illegal. It can happen incidentally, and that's part of what the helmet is there for, but the rules of the game should be enforced.

There's flexibility built into the face mask, too, right? But that isn't as visually obvious as the hinge panel on the crown.

The big difference is that the attachment points are moved to the sides of the helmet, instead of up [by the nose bumper]. And that allows the face guard to flex when it's struck and then return to shape after the impact is over.

So just by moving the clips or the anchor points farther away from each other, by spreading them out, that provides the flex?

It does, and it redirects the impact forces when the front of the face guard is struck. When the fasteners are in the top-center area, the impact force is transferred more quickly to the shell, the padding and the wearer's head. But by allowing the face guard to flex -- and all of this happens in a few milliseconds -- you can interrupt the force transfer and improve the helmet's impact response.

That seems so intuitive and obvious. Why didn't someone figure that out sooner? Why has everyone been using those top-center clips all this time?

Innovation and inspiration come in bits and spurts, and what seems obvious in retrospect isn't really all that obvious.

Fair enough. Another really interesting aspect of the design is this ratchet chin strap. Tell me about that.

Helmets coming off during play is a growing concern. So we talked to people, we did focus groups, and one thing we found was that veteran NFL players were surprised that their chin-strap snaps weren't all that different from the ones they were issued in fifth grade. So we took that to heart and tried to come up with something better.

Can this system also be incorporated into your other helmets?

Possibly. It's a modular system. But you can see that there's some recessed areas on the shell to accommodate the system, so we'd have to account for that. Right now, frankly, we're focused on getting every detail right on the SpeedFlex.

Lots of college teams have been tweeting about the SpeedFlex, but I haven't seen anything from the NFL. What's up with that?

That's not intentional. It's just that the NFL season ended in February and they haven't started their OTAs [organized team activities] yet, while college teams have started their spring practices.

So will NFL teams be using the SpeedFlex?

Yes. Right now the SpeedFlex is only available in one size -- large -- and in somewhat limited quantities. We didn't intend to roll it out on a large scale until this coming fall. So this is a limited rollout for early adopters. Most NFL teams have expressed interest and placed orders for it.

Put it this way: If I'm an NFL player and I go to my equipment manager and say, "Hey, I want to try out this new helmet," am I going to be able to do that?

I would say yes, as long as you fit into a size large. Even by this fall, that's the only size we're going to have available in any kind of quantity. That said, the most common size in college and the NFL is large.

Will there be greater availability in 2015?

Yes, and possibly by the end of 2014. We'll have a full range of sizes and unlimited quantities -- or at least as many as our tooling can make.

What about high schools -- can they buy the SpeedFlex?

By this fall they'll be able to. So far the focus has been large colleges and the NFL.

What about your InSite system, which can help detect concussions -- can that be used with the SpeedFlex?

Yes. InSite for the SpeedFlex will be rolled out in September.

• • •

Obviously, Ide's a biased observer. But equipment managers who've had access to the helmet seem to like it, and they say their players like it as well.

Air Force equipment manager Scott Richardson was one of the first equipment guys to get his hands on the SpeedFlex -- Air Force's spring practice schedule is accelerated due to the players' military training commitments -- and he likes what he's seen so far. "Our players love it," he said. "They like the fit, they like how it feels. Right now we only have two guys wearing it, but we anticipate having a lot more guys using it for the upcoming season.

Detroit Lions equipment manager Tim O'Neill, who's been showing the SpeedFlex to some of his players, made a point of praising the helmet's "occipital lockdown" (in layman's terms, that's how well the helmet fits over that bump on the back of your head), a feature Ide hadn't even mentioned during our interview.

"Forward rotation of the helmet can be a problem for some of our guys, so occipital lockdown is a big issue," said O'Neill. "Some players commented on that as soon as they tried it on -- they said they could feel it fitting better back there, almost like wearing a hat."

There's a widespread impression in uniform and equipment circles that today's players don't really care about a helmet's functionality -- they just want to see how cool it looks. Is that the case with the SpeedFlex?

"Back when concussion-reduction helmets first came on the market, the first thing a player would do when he put one on was run to the bathroom so he could see how it looked in the mirror," O'Neill acknowledged. "Is that element still there? Absolutely, but not as much. Today's players are more educated. They ask better questions, and it all creates better dialogue. You can't go a week now without seeing an article about concussions in USA Today or wherever, and the players read that stuff."

So when it comes to the SpeedFlex's hinge panel, are the players into its distinctive look or the way it will help protect them?

"Let's say they're intrigued by it, and they're anxious to see how it feels," said O'Neill. "The proof'll be in the pudding when they get out there and start banging heads."

Paul Lukas tried on the SpeedFlex but didn't bang heads with anyone. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, 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.