Earlier this season, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford was sacked when a defender grabbed his jersey sleeves and yanked him to the ground. There was no escape for Bradford, no way to spin free, with a massive defensive lineman holding on to an oversized jersey that would be better suited for a Halloween costume. It was a "C'mon, man!" moment. You lost yards because of a flapping sleeve.
Now, uniform tech in the NFL gets better every year, so rigging jerseys or pads isn't as essential as it used to be. But it does still happen in today's NFL.
Here's a quick guide to how players skirt the rules -- and a reminder that they will do just about anything if they think it gives them an edge on Sundays. Got more? Send 'em my way.
Double-sided tape on shoulder pads
The equipment managers layer the shoulder pads with this double-sided tape and squeeze the jersey on top. The result? It acts like glue for the jersey, and there isn't much to latch onto unless you want to lose a couple of finger nails in the process. This stuff is a must for the big boys up front, linebackers that are asked to defeat blocks and even for defensive backs. The new Nike digs have made the jerseys fit much better than back in the day, but the guys I talk to in the league are still relying on double-sided tape. There's holding on every play in a pro game, so why not look for a little edge?
Pre-tape spray (the new stickum)
"Stickum" has been out of the league for decades and really exists only in movies now, but there are still ways to coat your gloves (or hands) with a substance that gives you a little more grip to catch the football. For many players, that's the pre-tape spray, the stuff trainers coat your ankles with before they start taping. It isn't as strong as "stickum," and it wears off pretty quickly, but it still adds a little more than the standard receiver glove can provide. Plus, it's all over the sidelines during the game. Grab a towel, have a player shield you from a possible camera, and start spraying that grimy juice on your gloves. Maybe that's the difference between catching a fade route for six or picking off a pass in the fourth quarter. I doubt it, but any little edge is going to help.
Cutting down thigh boards/knee pads
Back when I played, defensive backs and wide receivers didn't even bother with thigh boards or knee pads. That was more of a speed thing, but also the realization that leg pads wouldn't save you on a direct shot to the thigh or knee. It was going to hurt regardless, so why not drop the extra gear to play faster? But now, with the NFL enforcing rules that require all players to wear lower body pads, players are becoming amateur surgeons in the locker rooms across the league on Sunday mornings. Go grab scissors or a scalpel from the training room and drop those pads on the operating table. That's where guys chop down the knee pads into small circles and cut the plastic out of the thigh boards. This gives players the option of wearing just the plastic or going with outer foam. The "uniform police" that walk the field before the game, looking to hand out fines for violations, don't know the difference, and the player, most likely a defensive back or wide receiver, gains that slight (mental) edge in speed.
Players still tape up, or "spat," their cleats in the NFL, but the numbers have gone down thanks to better cleats from Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. But before, the spat was key for skill players. That made the cleats actually fit and locked the heel in. Plus, it looked smooth. There is nothing better than black cleats and a white spat (which is now an automatic fine). That is the best look, a classic '90s style that needs to come back, but with players getting paid more cash with shoe deals (need to see the logo), the spats are slowly going away.
Cutting more room in the shoulder pads
The hole, or neck area, in the shoulder pads is pretty tight. And that's understandable. You want these things to fit pretty snug when you tackle as a safety or carry the ball as a running back. Every play is a mini-car accident. But for a long snapper, a player who has to increase his range of motion in the neck area to snap the ball between his legs, snug pads can hinder performance. A long snapper I spoke with said he will cut more room in the neck area of his shoulder pads so they don't pinch when he drops his head to snap the ball back on field goals, PATs and punts.
The new dri-fit gear with extra shoulder padding has replaced the old-school "spider" pad, but the effect is the same. The actual padding under the shoulder pads is thin, and you will feel the plastic bite down when you have a serious collision at the point of attack. That stuff hurts. But with that "spider" pad lifting the shoulder pads up a couple of inches, players feel like gladiators. It's just a small cushion, but that does wonders for the mentality of players delivering a shot. And it might just save your shoulders over the course of a 16-game season.
Soaking the jersey pregame
A former NFL linebacker told me last week about his pregame ritual of soaking his jersey in water. Just dunk that thing and get it wet. Why? He felt that would help him get off blocks, or make him slippery. I love it. That's classic. And, just maybe, this is the alternative to players spraying their jerseys with an illegal substance, such as a can of cooking oil. The refs are going to randomly check players for foreign substances on the jerseys, so this linebacker could be onto something.
Cut the jerseys
The new Nike jerseys come with the perfect fit (outside of Bradford's pro shop gear), so the days of cutting, ripping and altering game issued digs has faded. But that used to be the first thing players would do in the preseason. The old Reebok, Puma and Starter jerseys came in wedding-dress length. They didn't fit properly and were too baggy at the waist. The solution? Break out the scissors or have the team seamstress hem it up for the rest of the season.
Shoe laces to tighten the sleeves
Remember the uniform sleeves Dan Marino used to rock? Cool for a quarterback, but an ugly look for a skill player. Again, that's been taken care of with the new Nike uniforms, but not too long ago players were still cutting holes in the sleeves and threading shoe laces through to tighten it down. That eliminated the possibility of a defender grabbing (or tackling) a wide receiver by the sleeves, and it also made those guys look like pros.
Soccer shin guards
If you have ever taken a direct shot from a cleat right to the shin, then you know how brutal the pain is. And it doesn't just go away; it lingers for the entire game. When Clinton Portis came to Washington and ran the ball in Joe Gibbs' power offense, he countered that by wearing soccer shin guards for extra protection. Is that gaining an edge? Probably not, but it helped C.P. eclipse 1,500 yards and carry the entire Redskins team on his back to the playoffs in 2005.