Football is a tough game that can't be 100 percent safe. But players enjoy much better protection these days, thanks to a wide array of available face masks. Each mask is designed to protect various parts of the face while providing players the visibility they need to play the game. Typically made of carbon steel with a protective coating, face masks are generally not interchangeable, so certain face masks are only offered by certain helmet manufacturers.
Horizontal Face Masks
Open-cage face masks have no vertical bar above the nose to obstruct your vision, so they're the preferred face masks of most players at ballhandling positions, such as quarterback, receiver and running back. The masks usually contain two or three horizontal bars and a few vertical bars, but none of the vertical bars go above the nose inside your normal range of vision.
Manufacturers typically use acronyms to describe the areas the face mask best protects. Open-cage face masks are usually labeled as ROPO, or reinforced oral protection only; EGOP, or eyeglass and oral protection; OPO, or oral protection only; EGJOP, or eyeglass, jaw and oral protection; JOP, or jaw and oral protection; and RJOP, or reinforced jaw and oral protection.
Full Masks for Linemen
If you're a lineman, a closed-cage face mask will typically be your choice because the mask offers a long vertical bar that runs straight up the middle in front of your face, above the nose, to the top of the mask. They typically have two to four horizontal bars to keep other players' fingers out of your face and eyes. Closed-cage face masks are usually classified as NOPO, or nose and oral protection only, and NJOP, or nose, jaw and oral protection.
Most face masks are reinforced. This refers to the extra horizontal bar at the top of the mask that adds strength and allows for better spreading of energy throughout the mask.
Extra Bars for Safety
Some helmets include extra horizontal bars in front of your face. The additional bars add stability and strength and decrease the size of the face mask's opening to prevent hands, fingers and feet from hitting your face.
Old-Time Single-Bar Masks
You'll likely encounter single-bar masks in museums or old photos only. Helmets with just a single horizontal bar protecting the face were once common among ballhandling players who depended on better visibility. Single-wire face masks are not used much anymore because they offer you little protection.
U-Bar on Top
Sometimes called a bull ring, the U-bar attaches to the upper part of the face mask. It's normally used on open-cage masks and is designed to prevent other players from getting their fingers inside your face mask around your eyes and nose.
Extra Eye Protection
Facemasks with two small vertical bars on each side -- usually in the area of your peripheral vision -- help protect your eyes without obscuring your vision the way a closed cage facemask does.