Why NFL players love the dark visor — and why it could be on the verge of a comeback

About five minutes into the 2019 Pro Bowl, Ezekiel Elliott caught a short pass in the middle of the field. The Cowboys running back picked up 11 yards before he was gently tackled by Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley. It was a mostly inconsequential moment in a pointless game. There wasn’t much reason to think twice about it.

Only the most eagle-eyed NFL fans would’ve noticed something a little different about the play: Both Elliott and Mosley had dark-tinted visors attached to their respective facemasks.

It wasn’t just those two. For the Pro Bowl only, the NFL relaxed its strict uniform rules banning dark visors. Several players — even on a rainy day in Orlando — jumped at the chance to put them on.

Go to any NFL practice and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. While clear visors are allowed in games, their tinted counterparts are only permitted for the few players with a rare medical exemption. The NFL tweaked those rules ahead of the 2019 season to allow players to wear slightly tinted shields with a light pinkish hue, but darker ones are still banned.

Those rules don’t apply to practice fields, where usually a handful of players have their eyes hidden behind dark plastic.

Why? There are a couple of advantages: It dulls the brightness of the sun, and it keeps opponents from seeing where those players are looking.

“It’s bright every day. I feel their pain,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said in June. “I wear sunglasses, so they can wear visors.”

Some of his players took him up on the offer. Kyler Murray, David Johnson, Patrick Peterson, Terrell Suggs, and Christian Kirk all sported visors during practices in the Arizona sun.

But mostly, players wear one because it looks cool.

“Everybody wants to look good out there,” Cardinals safety D.J. Swearinger told AZCardinals.com. “Get a good picture for Instagram.”

At a recent Titans practice, some of the team’s most prominent players wore a visor.

“Look good, feel good, play good,” safety Kenny Vaccaro told SB Nation. “I just played years of football with it. … It looks meaner, cleaner. To me, it’s like I’m naked if I don’t have a visor on.”

“It’s mainly just a look,” receiver Tajae Sharpe said. “If I could wear it in a game, I definitely would.”

Fashion may be the reason so many players like the tinted visor, but that wasn’t always the case. It was introduced to the game out of medical necessity, but — when it started to become a trend — was disallowed for all players who don’t require one.

Neither Vaccaro nor Sharpe meets the criteria to wear a dark visor. Hardly any players do. National Athletic Trainers’ Association president Tory Lindley told SB Nation the list of conditions and injuries that would justify the exemption is “very, very limited.” Just 14 players qualified for an exemption in 2018, according to Sports Illustrated.

And yet, dark visors remain popular among players in practice. When Philip Rivers donned one in June, the team celebrated by posting a sizzle reel on Twitter. It included Chargers players Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon raving about Rivers’ “old-school swag.”

Shaded visors are a well-received look, and the NFL was willing to approve them for the Pro Bowl. Despite that temporary exception, they’re still illegal — for now.

Dark visors were only legal for about a decade

In one of the rooms in the Pro Football Hall of Fame sits a Minnesota Vikings helmet that dates back to the late 1980s. Attached to the front is a gigantic facemask with a dark visor.

The helmet belonged to longtime Vikings offensive lineman Randall McDaniel who, according to the Hall of Fame, is believed to be the first to wear the tinted eye shield in the NFL.

His path as an unwitting fashion trailblazer happened because of an accident in a 1988 practice, just days before his rookie season was set to begin.

“I got poked in the eye the Friday before I was going to start my first game, and I didn’t want anyone to see the big patch over my left eye,” McDaniel said to SB Nation. “So the equipment guy, Dennis Ryan, walked in with this dark shield attached to my helmet and said, ‘No one will know you have a patch on your eye,’ which was perfect.

“It had little zip tie straps with four holes to hook into your facemask. You’d zip tie it on and then clip off the ends. I broke one in a game and it took him less than a minute to snap on when I came over to the sideline.”

When it was time for the patch to come off McDaniel’s eye, he still struggled with light sensitivity. The bright sun made his eye water, so he continued to wear a visor for the rest of his career. It wasn’t until 1998, when the NFL banned dark visors for players without a medical exemption — one McDaniel couldn’t get anymore because his eye healed — that he switched to a lighter tint for the final seasons of his career.

“Everyone at that point was so used to me having the dark shield, they weren’t even looking at my eyes anyway.”

McDaniel wasn’t trying to start a trend, although he does think wearing a visor gave him a a slight edge during his Hall of Fame career.

“A lot of D-linemen would look at your eyes and see if you’re going to peek at who you’re blocking or what direction you’re going,” McDaniel said. “At the snap of the ball, they’re reading your eyes — which a lot of players do without even knowing that they’re doing it — and it gives them an advantage. But they couldn’t see my eyes.”

Soon, visors were all the rage in the 90s, as they still are today.

“I think a lot of kids aren’t wearing it for eye protection anymore,” McDaniel said. “They’re wearing it because they think it looks cool or they want to look more intimidating. They’ve got this image they want people to perceive about them, so they’re sticking in the dark shield.”

And then it came to a screeching halt.

There’s good reason for the current visor ban

In a 2016 preseason game, Colin Kaepernick came out for warmups wearing a tinted visor. He hoped it would help block out sunlight while he got used to new contact lenses. But after a conversation with officials, the 49ers quarterback was forced to leave the field and return with a clear shield.

Kaepernick told reporters he thought he’d be cleared to wear one in preseason, even if he didn’t have a doctor’s permission. The NFL said that wasn’t the case.

“A player needs approval to wear it in any game, including the preseason,” an NFL spokesman told CSN Bay Area.

That’s been the NFL’s stance for two decades now. It wasn’t just being the fun police when it made the change, either. The league’s operations page on uniform inspections gives a legitimate reason for eliminating dark visors in most situations:

If a player suffers from migraines or is sensitive to sunlight, he’ll need a medical exemption to put a tinted visor on his helmet as a replacement for the permitted clear visor. The restriction isn’t arbitrary; at times medical personnel need to see an injured player’s eyes without removing his helmet, and tinted visors interfere with that.

That aligns well with the NFL’s concussion protocol, implemented in 2009. It’s far from a perfect system, but it’s in the league’s and players’ best interest to do whatever possible to prevent injuries, and be able to identify and properly treat them when they do happen.

Lindley, who has spent about 30 years on football sidelines as an athletic trainer, says visors make concussions and other injuries harder to spot.

“If you take away the ability to look into the eyes of an athlete — even from a distance — that’s going to be a challenge,” Lindley told SB Nation. “The assessment of a number of things, not just concussions, is tremendously challenging when you find your way onto the field for an athlete who’s down.

“There are also situations where you don’t know where the origin of blood might be, so sometimes the helmet comes down on the bridge of the nose and there’s a laceration on the face. If you can’t identify where that’s from, you can certainly understand what type of challenge and what type of urgency that would bring.”

Removal of the visor is impossible without taking off the helmet completely. That’s a potentially dangerous choice for athletic trainers, who can’t be sure — especially without seeing the player’s eyes — if there’s reason to be wary of a neck or spinal injury.

However, a solution to that problem could be in the works.

There’s still hope for visors to make a return

The Pro Bowl is about as low risk as football games get, but injuries still occur. Even in a setting like that, it seems counterintuitive for the NFL to temporarily shelf its hardline stance against tinted shields and instead celebrate a new partnership with sunglasses manufacturer Oakley.

Oakley is relatively new to football. It first dipped its toes in the water in 2017 with redesigned visors. That project began when Oakley was contacted by a helmet design company called VICIS about creating a visor to fit its first product, the Zero1 helmet.

That helmet, and its specially designed visor, has become a popular option among players in the three seasons since its introduction. Russell Wilson, Julian Edelman, and Golden Tate are just a few stars who have made the Zero1 their helmet of choice.

“What we did with Zero1 helmets is we designed the broadest field of view you could put in the helmet, because you want to be able to see out the edges and the side of the helmet in case someone is approaching you,” VICIS vice president Tony Titus said. “We ended up with a very wide facemask opening and as we looked at that with a standard, generic shield you can buy off the shelves, it was too narrow. So we approached Oakley and said ‘Can we make a good, optically correct shield with them?’”

Oakley took the opportunity seriously. A couple years after first working with VICIS, Oakley signed an endorsement deal with Chiefs quarterback and NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes — its first with a pro football player. Deals with Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chargers safety Derwin James soon followed.

But more importantly, it got the NFL on board to use its product in the Pro Bowl. Now, the league is partnering up with Oakley on a four-year deal heading into the regular season too. That’s a step in the right direction for players who want the dark tint.

While there were no incidents in the Pro Bowl, the NFL isn’t ready to take that chance in a regular game. Wearing a dark visor still requires a medical exemption so athletic trainers can see the eyes of players.

“The question is at what gradient of tint can a trainer no longer effectively do that,” Titus said. “I know there’s been ongoing discussion in the league that there is some line that there can be adequate, uncompromised neurological evaluation by a professional in the presence of some level of tint.”

What could eventually facilitate its return — on an unrestricted basis — would be a dark visor that can easily come free. That’d remove the necessity to take the helmet off an injured player.

“There’s a lot of development going on in how a shield affixes to the facemask,” Titus said. “It’s obviously got to pass a lot of testing, so that it doesn’t do that unintentionally — the shield doesn’t come loose. But there’s been a lot of development on quick-release type of attachment points. There’s nothing on the market yet, but there’s things in development.”

If that day comes, expect a boom in players wearing tinted visors on the field. How that’d affect the game is hard to know, though.

An NFL with more dark visors might not be much different

McDaniel thought having his eyes shielded by a visor helped his play, and a couple decades later, current players mostly agree.

Sharpe, a receiver, and Vaccaro, a safety, both felt they had a small advantage wearing visors at Titans camp.

“I just try to keep my eyes on the defense and look where I’m going a little bit more in practice because they can’t see my eyes,” Sharpe said.

But Sharpe didn’t think it would matter much if a defender wore a visor, and Vaccaro said the same about following the eyes of a quarterback.

“I’m following their shoulders more. I mean, Patrick Mahomes no-looks players without a visor, and it hasn’t mattered for him. Nah, I don’t think it would matter for a quarterback much.”

Still, it’s hard enough as it is to slow offensive players. Give a quarterback, or even a running back, the opportunity to hide their eyes and life is going to be more difficult for defensive players.

LaDainian Tomlinson was proof of that during his Hall of Fame career. In 11 seasons, he tallied 13,684 rushing yards and 145 touchdowns. Part of Tomlinson’s mystique was that for almost of his time in the NFL, his face was concealed.

Former Raiders linebacker Kirk Morrison told SB Nation that it was one of the reasons Tomlinson was a nightmare to bring down.

The one thing as a linebacker you always wanted to do was look at a guy’s eyes and see where he was looking or even just thinking about. Possibly looking at safeties coming down late, maybe looking at the shifts and alignments of the linebackers.

You could never do that with LaDainian because he wore that dark visor. And I thought that dark visor gave him an edge because it was just so hard to figure out what he was thinking or what he was doing. He gave no indicators each play, and I thought that’s something that should be talked about as well. He came out with that visor, and you just didn’t know what was going on.

In a 2009 memoir, Tomlinson’s mother, Loreane, revealed that the running back started started wearing the visor due to migraines. A public reason for a medical exemption is rare, though. Most of the time, patient confidentiality means we don’t know who has one or why.

Tomlinson also said in an interview with Gang Green Nation that it gave him more than just medical benefits.

“It became a part of who I am,” Tomlinson said in 2011. “I want it to show the kind of bravado you have to have to succeed playing the sport.”

And that’s simply what it comes down to for most players who don a visor: Bravado.

“You honestly feel like you’re in your own little zone,” receiver Jermaine Kearse told the Seattle Times in 2016. “No one can really see your eyes. You just feel like you’re in your own little place. It’s weird. You ever seen the movie Big Daddy? You know when the kid puts the sunglasses on and he’s invincible? It’s kind of like that effect.”

It’s an effect that existed in McDaniel’s era, Tomlinson’s era, and still exists today.

“Really, it’s sun and swag, that’s it,” Washington defensive tackle Daron Payne told SB Nation about his tinted visor in training camp.

While opinions vary on its competitive edge, players agree that a visor gives a confidence boost. That’s a feeling that’s universal in the NFL, regardless of the position.

The NFL isn’t going to shelve its safety-driven ban for the sake of style. But the technological advances that could make visors both fun and safe to wear may finally not be far off on the horizon.

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