The undefeated New Orleans Saints are putting their money where their mouth is.
Forty of them are wearing custom-fitted mouthguards that retail for $2,000 each and are designed to give them increased strength, flexibility and endurance by optimizing their bite.
"I wouldn't have dreamed in a million years that I'd be wearing a $2,000 mouthpiece," Saints cornerback Tracy Porter said. "That's like a grill."
Regardless, Porter does wear one, and he and other proponents of the device -- the Makkar PPM (Pure Power Mouthguard) -- swear that, for them, it's worth the investment.
"If there's 2 percent, 5 percent, any percent of benefit, and it's good for your safety, who are we kidding?" NFL coach-turned-broadcaster Jon Gruden said. "This is a game of inches, man."
Gruden gave the PPM some priceless publicity this week, when he raved about it on "Monday Night Football" during the Saints' victory over Atlanta. He said the mouthguards -- the mouthguards! -- were among the factors that gave the Saints an advantage.
A few days earlier, Gruden had undergone his own PPM fitting, and he plans to wear it while working out. The company has trained about 400 dental experts around the country to conduct the fitting sessions, which can take up to two hours. The company doesn't just make mouthguards for football players, but for all types of athletes including baseball and basketball players (Shaquille O'Neal is a client), boxers, and even swimmers and golfers.
During the fitting, a computer monitors the muscles in an athlete's face and a low voltage is delivered through the jaw to determine the optimal bite location. The mouthguard -- an upper, lower or both -- is then built to those specifications.
(According to a spokesman for PPM, which is based in Ontario, Canada, neither Gruden nor the Saints are affiliated with the company but did receive their mouthguards at cost, about half the retail price.)
So what makes the PPM the Maybach of mouthpieces, setting it apart from the boil-and-mold versions you would find in a sporting-goods store?
The difference is what the devices are meant to achieve. Both protect teeth. The PPM, based on neuromuscular dentistry, is designed to align the lower jaw in an optimal position and thereby help align the rest of the body.
"When the jaw is down and forward, the back of your neck starts aligning with the back of your spine," said Dr. Anil Makkar, a dental surgeon who developed the product in 2006. "When you have total alignment you have increased strength, balance, range of motion, and an increase in flexibility and endurance."
There are three versions of the PPM, ranging in price from $595 (a basic model that doesn't require computer fitting) to $2,000.
Research funded by PPM and conducted at Rutgers University concluded the mouthguard "appears to enhance peak power output and performance in explosive, short duration bouts of exercise. However, it does not appear to enhance sustainable power output or muscular endurance."
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The study looked at 22 amateur and professional athletes and conducted several tests comparing their performances while wearing traditional mouthguards versus the PPM.
"I was fairly surprised at what it did to the power output, at least to the magnitude that it did it," said Dr. Shawn Arent, who conducted the study as the school's director of the Human Performance Lab. "We didn't test aerobic or cardiovascular endurance for, say, a distance runner or a cyclist. What we were testing was more like a sprinter, or a football player, or a wrestler."
The mouthguard doesn't work magic. Arent said the PPM had beneficial effects when the subjects were biting into it, but "when you start breathing real heavily and you open your mouth, now it's just a mouthpiece. Your jaw goes back into its normal position."
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Gruden, for one, is convinced. He said players have told him the mouthguard makes a difference, and he believes that sets it apart from the constant stream of gimmicks and devices people have pitched to him.
"I'm the most skeptical guy there is," he said. "I've heard people say, 'Hey, I've got a gimmick for you. You'll have washboard abs in three days, and a 48-inch vertical jump in three weeks.' I've had people try to sell me things, 'Hey, wear this jersey and you won't have any heat problems. Put this sunscreen on and this will work for you.' There's a billion gimmicks, and I'm skeptical of all of them.
"But this thing is worth people looking into, I'll say that. It's one of the most interesting things I've seen. ... You'd have a hard time fooling with pro players. An NFL player would not put a $2,000 mouthpiece in his mouth if it didn't work. That I do know."
Because, even for a millionaire athlete, that isn't chump change for a chomp change.