I grew up watching and playing football in the 1970s. Football was a much different game then, so it’s understandable why I have a hard time embracing today’s game. From talking with others in my age group I know I’m not alone in feeling that way.
The biggest topic of conversation in football these days is concussions and CTE. It saddens me to see former players suffering. But, at the same time, it frustrates me to see penalty after penalty being called for what’s nothing more than clean and aggressive defensive play.
I say that because I’ve always been a big fan of defense. When I was growing up my favorite players were on defense and I always wanted to be on the defensive side of the ball.
Back then we didn’t get flagged unless it was a blatant ‘cheap shot.’ I understand that rule changes are needed to protect players, but I don’t think it should be to the point where a defender can no longer play aggressively without having to worry about getting penalized.
Let’s be clear: a defender’s job is to stop the offense from advancing the ball. That means attacking the man with the ball or the man who’s about to catch the ball. A defender has a split second to make a tackle. That means it’s a matter of speed and timing because there usually isn’t time to decide where or how you’re going to make a tackle. You use your instincts.
I was taught to get low, drive my shoulder into the ball carrier’s stomach or hip, wrap my arms around his legs, and drive him to the ground. While that was my intention and preference, executing that approach wasn’t always possible. That’s because a defender has to be able to react and adjust to what the ball carrier is doing. It’s obvious that an offensive player isn’t going to stand there and allow you to tackle him.
So just how should a defender tackle or sack a quarterback? If he tackles him low, he may be penalized for going after his knees. If he tackles him high, he may be penalized for going after his head. And if he hits him just a fraction after he releases the ball, he’s likely to be penalized for roughing the passer.
A defender faces similar challenges with a receiver. Hit him too high, too low, or too hard and you’re likely to be penalized. If you touch him before the ball gets there, then that’s interference. But isn’t it the defender’s job to stop the receiver from catching the ball? And, if he does catch it, isn’t it the defender’s job to make him drop the ball?
I believe that tackling restrictions are the reason we see so many missed tackles in today’s game. I understand that today’s players are bigger, faster, and stronger than years ago. And I also understand that officials are trying to stop helmet-to-helmet contact from happening. But in a high-speed contact game, like football, some of those hits aren’t intentional. Throwing a flag every time it happens isn’t going to stop it from happening. At some point you have to let players play.
I’m not trying to minimize the seriousness of head injuries. The easy answer is to make more rule changes. But, honestly, there are just so many rule changes you can make. Football is a game of contact and collisions. Take that away and you take away the essence of the game.
So let’s explore what could and also shouldn’t be done.
# 1 – Are improvements to football helmets really helping? Adding padding and increasing the thickness of the shell also increases helmet weight. Heavier helmets make for better battering rams.
# 2 – Nobody can deny that there’s an increase in criminal behavior among football players, particularly in the NFL. Much of this criminal behavior is in the form of domestic violence. The NFL needs to take a tougher stance on this. If a player is found guilty of domestic violence (or any other type of off-field violence that’s not in self-defense) then he should be suspended for a full season. A second offense should be a lifetime suspension. What does this have to do with concussions? If a player is willing to hit, beat, and hurt his wife, girlfriend, or anybody else, what makes you think he would stop short of intentionally injuring an opponent?
# 3 – Stricter testing and suspensions is needed for steroid use. It’s a well-known fact that anabolic steroids will help you get bigger, faster, and stronger. They’ll also make you more aggressive. Most football players, especially those on the defensive side of the ball, are already aggressive. Taking steroids will make them even more aggressive. I’m sure most people have heard the term, “roid rage.” Now imagine, if you would, a very large, strong, and fast defensive football player with roid rage. He’s probably not going to be too concerned about helmet-to-helmet contact and he’s probably not going to be all that concerned about injuring his opponent.
# 4 – Reduce the amount of full contact in practice. Most NFL, college, high school, and youth football leagues have already done this, but some are suggesting taking it a step further. I recently read an article about eliminating full contact in practice all together. The Ivy League has done that. The League is using robots/tackling dummies to simulate the moves of offensive players. At first I scoffed at the idea–as did many coaches and players–but it has paid off in the win and loss category. When you really start to think about it, it’s not a bad idea. Most players at the college and NFL level already know how to tackle. Aren’t they already taking too many hits in games? Do they really need to take more hits in practice? I don’t think so.
# 5 – Many of the rule changes that were made during the 1980s and 1990s were designed to make the game more exciting, to open up the passing game… no more ‘three yards and a cloud of dust.’ So these days it’s not uncommon for an NFL quarterback to throw the ball fifty times a game. That means more chances for a QB and receiver to get hit and, with that, more chances for head-to-head contact. What we easily forget is that the game lasts longer today with all that passing: the clock stops on every incomplete pass. So there are more offensive plays in today’s game, which means more chances to hit offensive players. Want proof? Bob Griese threw a total of 18 passes in Super Bowls VII and VIII. That’s right, fewer than twenty passes in two championship games. In today’s game a QB is likely to throw twenty passes by halftime. So an unintended consequence of making the game more exciting is that it has made the game more dangerous, especially for QBs and receivers.
I’ve commented on only five (of many) possible ways to make the game safer. We need to take a balanced approach to figuring out how to proceed. Otherwise we run the risk of solving the safety problem but ending up with a game that’s not worth playing or watching.