Tackling: The Rugby Ideal and the NFL’s Catch 22

The NFL has a problem when it comes to tackling. For years players have been launching themselves face first at opponents to knock them to the ground and make the tackle, notching a stat on the unofficial tally and doing untold damage to their brains and the brains of those they’re hitting.

Steve Senne • Associated Press

Steve Senne • Associated Press

Adding pads and a solid helmet to football players seemed to encourage the practice of players using their bodies as projectiles, aiming not to wrap up and take an opponent to the ground, but to intercept him and detonate on contact, blowing him up with a big hit. Even of the phraseology of big hits consists of explosive, munitions metaphors. This was fine until it became apparent that this practice was slowly but inevitably scrambling the brains of the participants, with hit building on hit to slowly corrode brain function as a strong link between football and CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) was proven.

The NFL’s response has been to fine players mercilessly for contact straying near the helmet of the recipients of these hits or for the player delivering the hit leading with the crown of his helmet. Their theoretical goal is to try and change the aiming point of these shots. They can also point to this practice as a serious attempt to change the culture of reckless brain-damaging hits that had been allowed to flourish and was celebrated for decades. In a time when the NFL is forced to pay $765m as part of a settlement in a concussions lawsuit brought by 4500 former players covering their back legally speaking is not an insignificant sidebar to any motive.

The problem is that it won’t work. The fining system is already being derided because the hits it picks up tend to be sheer accidents of physics. If you tackle somebody using the textbook football technique coached at every level, helmet contact is inevitable to one if not both of the players involved.

It might just about work when you’re dealing with 9-year olds who weight about as much as my shoes – the inertia simply isn’t there – but when you’re talking about 250lb men running at eye-watering speeds, the kind of whip-lash force that generates is unsurmountable.

The NFL’s own video promoting ‘heads up tackling’ shows a kid getting a face full of helmet (1:39 in this video)

The technique taught at a fundamental level dictates that the head will be involved in hits – you cannot avoid that anatomically with that kind of tackle. That led me to wonder, why does the NFL teach tackling that way?

As someone who came to football after first playing rugby the fundamental rugby tackle always seemed like a more efficient and safer way to tackle to me anyway. I’ve been taught both methods and I feel far more comfortable tackling rugby style. The chances of me getting a face full of impact are far less, and as someone who isn’t wild about being hit in the head, I consider that a plus.

Take a look at this video:

The approach to the tackle is much the same as a football tackle, but instead of going in heads up (but face first!) and square, rugby players lead with a shoulder, wrap the arms around the ball-carrier and drive through that point of contact. The head goes to the side of the player not straight into him or directly in front crossing your fingers that the contact isn’t hard enough to make both heads snap forward together.

The side on tackle from that video shows the key difference between rugby and football. Rugby tackles have actually developed to protect the head from injury but at the cost of something else – ground given up in the tackle. While rugby players in that side on tackle place their head away from potential contact football teaches the opposite, to get your head across the player to again get as much body as possible directly in the runner’s path.

This is the fundamental ethos, and the poison pill at the heart of the football tackle – it has been designed to halt momentum, because in football yardage is everything.

In rugby it rarely matters too much if you lose a yard or two in bringing your man to the ground. As long as one guy can make the tackle without drawing in too much support around him, the loss of the extra yard or two won’t make much difference. Runners often receiving the ball well back from the gain line (a rough equivalent to football’s line of scrimmage) because laterals are the only legal passes in rugby also means that the defender is working with more yardage to begin with.

The same isn’t true in football. Linebackers can’t afford to surrender an additional two or three yards every tackle they make. It’s not the end of the world on 1st and 10, but on 2nd and 5 it’s a problem, 3rd and short it’s game over. In order to ensure you stop a guy dead at the point of contact you need to hit him square, and when you hit somebody square then head contact is absolutely inevitable.

There is no avoiding that.

The NFL can fine people all they want, but at some point they need to realise they are battling against anatomy and physics. Their own fundamental ‘safe’ tackling technique leads directly to plenty of hits that have drawn fines for helmet contact. You can try and change a defender’s aiming point, but to do anything more you need to fundamentally change the nature of tackling in football, which in turn chops the legs out from under the game as it has evolved.

The difference between rugby and football is that in rugby it is just about possible to do everything by the book, fundamentally sound and get away without suffering a series of concussions in a player’s career. Concussions in rugby tend to come only on accidentally mis-timed hits or with sloppy technique leading to a head ending up where it shouldn’t be – in the path of something hard. In the NFL if you execute everything 100% according to the book, if you hit like a Heads Up poster boy and block like an offensive line coach’s wet dream every week, you will get concussed before too long. Even if you don’t the series of sub-concussive blows you receive every play has been shown to damage the brain regardless of concussions.

Football has become an inherently hazardous game to play. Fixing NFL tackling isn’t as simple as asking players to try and wrap up when they tackle. That certainly helps, and for certain positions I think tackling rugby-style is the smart play most of the time, but the NFL’s tackling problem is far more fundamental than that.

The game has evolved to require a tackling technique that inevitably contributes to brain injuries, and I honestly don’t know if you can fix that.

Doctors, Team allowed KO’d player to play on

In a lot of ways I think the NFL could learn a great deal from rugby, especially when it comes to player safety through sound fundamental tackling and hitting techniques. Rugby has gone out of its way to remove some of the more reckless and dangerous aspects of play from the game, and the development of the sport through the decades has resulted in far fewer catastrophic injuries than pro football despite an equally violent nature.

During the final British and Irish Lions test match against Australia though rugby’s stance on concussions and head trauma became at best a joke, and at worst a disgraceful disaster.

Whether you believe their motives to be pure or not there is little doubt that the NFL is doing almost everything in its power to treat head injuries and concussions seriously. If a player is knocked out, much like Stevan Ridley in the playoffs this January, there is no chance they would make it back onto the field anymore. In fact, there is a good chance they wouldn’t make it near the field the next week either.


In theory rugby has added some concussion safeguards too. They remain unenforced and ignored.

After being called up during the week and inserted into the starting lineup, Australia flanker George Smith was involved in a collision within the first five minutes of the game, clashing heads with Lions hooker Richard Hibbard and dropping to the ground – out cold.

Smith was eventually roused by the medical staff and helped off the field, barely able to support his own weight as he wobbled his way from foot to foot. Everything to this point was a perfect parallel with Ridley’s knock out, right down to the fact it was the man running with the ball and initiating contact that came off worse.

From this point though rugby disgraced itself. Smith was allowed back onto the field just a few minutes later, and played on. For the Australian medical staff to allow that is almost beyond belief given their knowledge of the dangers. For the team to allow it is also highly questionable, and lastly referee Roman Poitre, who stopped the game immediately at the time of the hit because he saw Smith knocked out cold, should be asked serious questions.

It became worse during the game as Smith was allowed to take breaks as he became woozy again, ostensibly as a blood substitution (rugby mandates any bleeding player be replaced until that blood flow is staunched). The risk that Smith was exposed to by multiple parties there is enormous. Whatever the damage of one concussive blow to the head, getting another while still reeling from the effects of the first compounds the damage to a virtually catastrophic level.

To make matters worse, there was no outcry. The commentary made no mention of the risk, and directed virtually no attention to the fact that minutes before Smith had been out cold on the floor and then unable to walk without assistance. The reports after the game were buried in ignorant attitudes from the past with no place in the modern world with the way they treated the whole episode. Instead of lambasting people for letting Smith play on, the Australian media heralded him for heroically and bravely playing on.

But almost four years after his last Test appearance, Smith defied the odds to make a miraculous return to the field.

It was brave, gutsy and proof of his determination.

Another word for that would be stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t blame Smith. Players will always want to go back out and play on, especially if the hit happened just minutes into the game, but that is precisely why they need to be protected from themselves. The NFL has taken matters well out of the players hands, and rugby has done likewise in theory.

This was a complete and total breakdown of the system the IRB has put in place, showing its painful fragility compared to that of the NFL, and the lack of attention the incident has drawn only highlights how buried in the dark ages rugby remains when it comes to brain injury and concussive trauma.

I am a massive rugby fan, and there are many ways that rugby outstrips the NFL, but on that day I was ashamed by how far behind the sport is in one critical area of player safety.

Barry Sanders – Better Than You Remember

Barry Sanders is the greatest running back ever to play professional football. That’s it said, done, over.

The rest of this is going to be dedicated to showing why. All too often we get caught up in the conversation regarding who is the greatest and we settle on a committee compromise of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, a trio, designed to appease everybody and give an answer without actually committing to an informed decision.

As time passes and people’s memories haze, we’re even seeing Emmitt Smith start to enter into the conversation as his all-time rushing total acts as an all-too easy way of making his case. 27270_335537679180_1421693_n

Well this is different, we’re not going to water down the truth, Barry Sanders is the greatest running back ever to play, and he’s better than the other members of that committee.

The first thing to do is a little Barry Sanders 101. Barry Sanders grew up in Wichita Kansas, and began to develop the skills and unique running style that would become his trademark (literally). He did this by playing a game with his older brothers where the ball carrier had to make it from one end of the field to the other without being tackled. He made up for his lack of size by being simply impossible to catch.

During his senior season at North High School in Wichita, Sanders averaged a whopping 10.2 yards per carry. He was only 33 yards shy of the league rushing title when Coach Dale Burkholder, having pulled his starters, called Barry over and asked him if he wanted to stay in the game to get enough yards for the title. Barry Sanders told him without hesitation to “let the young kids play, coach”. This would be a theme throughout his career. Barry wasn’t a guy who went after the stats, he did what he could in order to win, but he didn’t care about the records, as Detroit Lions fans would first discover in 1989 and finally in 1999.

00barryDespite this great season in High School, Sanders wasn’t heavily recruited, and settled on Oklahoma St, when his beloved Oklahoma Sooners never showed an interest. He began his career as a Cowboy in the shadow of Heisman candidate and now Hall of Fame RB, Thurman Thomas. Even as the backup and kick returner, people could see the talent that he had. Whilst preparing to play OSU, Coach Barry Switzer famously saw enough of Sanders whilst watching game film to say to his coaching staff, “Guys, we’ve got a problem. You’d better hope that Thurman Thomas doesn’t get hurt. You don’t want to play against this freshman named Barry Sanders!” Despite his coaching staff looking at him like he was crazy, Switzer would be proved correct the next year. After Thomas left for the NFL, Sanders assumed the starting position, and set about re-writing the NCAA record books. In his 1988 junior season, Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards, scored 39 TDs, and set or tied 34 NCAA records in just 11 games. It was the greatest single season a college RB has ever had, arguably the greatest college season period, and it earned him the Heisman trophy.

Barry Sanders declared for the draft after that season, and held out after being drafted, eventually signing only 4 days before their first regular season game. Despite only 1 day of non-padded practice, and having rehearsed only one running play in the pre-game warm-ups, Sanders was eventually put in the game in the 3rd Quarter. On his first run from scrimmage Sanders reversed the field, and ran for 19 yards. Running a variation of just that one play, Sanders finished the day with 71 rushing yards and a TD on just 9 carries.

Barry Sanders went on to break the rookie rushing record set by fellow Lion, and fellow #20, Billy Simms. By the end of that season, he finished only 11 yards short of the league lead (having again turned down the opportunity to stay in the game to take the title from Christian Okoye), was named All-Pro, earned NFL Rookie of the Year Honours and was selected to the Pro-Bowl. Sanders was well on his way to the mesmerising figure that would baffle NFL players and coaches for his entire career. During his 5th game as a pro, Sanders gained 99 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, and made so many would-be tacklers miss that Vikings Head Coach, Jerry Burns, actually asked the officials to check his jersey – to ensure it hadn’t been sprayed with silicon so it couldn’t be grabbed.

Sanders was to be at the centre of a young team in Detroit, which Head Coach Wayne barryFontes hoped would restore the roar to the Silverdome. Things seemed to be going to plan as the Lions and Sanders found themselves in the 1991 NFC Championship game, having gone 12-4 during the regular season, and had 7 players selected to play in the Pro-Bowl.

In their first playoff game the young Lions team dismantled another young NFC team – the Dallas Cowboys – 38-6. This was the Dallas team that would go on to form a dynasty in the NFL, and that playoff game shows how far the Lions could have gone but for the want of some quality management. According to Lomas Brown, Offensive Tackle for the Detroit Lions at the time, the General Manager, Chuck Schmidt “didn’t like when players tried to use their power. He felt threatened. That’s why management ended up getting rid of so many guys on the team – Mel Gray, Bennie Blades, Jerry Ball, Chris Spielman, Brett Perriman, Willie Green, some others.” Had the Lions had better Front Office personnel, who knows where that team could have ended up, and what effect a better team would have had on Barry Sanders’ already breathtaking numbers? It’s also worth pointing out that in a Sanders/Smith meeting on the big stage Sanders had the biggest play despite the Cowboys loading up to try and take him away. The Lions passed 38 times in the game, but Sanders notched 99 yards and a touchdown on just 17 touches. Smith totalled 82 yards and no score from his 16 touches.

Barry SandersBarry Sanders had a running style all his own. Like all great running backs, everybody tried to find working comparisons, but none worked, because nobody has ever run like Barry Sanders. His style of being able to stop, change direction, and take off again, all in the same yard has never been matched, and it enabled him to break runs that nobody else could. As long as I have been watching football I have only ever seen one runner who moved like Barry Sanders, an ex Denver Bronco named Quentin Griffin (highlight video), and he wasn’t in the same ball-park in terms of talent.

The real skill he had that nobody has ever replicated was the ability to make people miss. One of my off-season projects is to go back and chart some Sanders games for PFF and I can’t even imagine the rate at which he forced missed tackles.

Former Bears LB Brian Cox once said that Barry Sanders made him miss 4 tackles on one play. Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary said “if you were able to get him running east to west, you had a chance. If he was moving north-south, forget about it. He was going to get you”. That’s one of the best linebackers ever to play essentially telling you he couldn’t stop Sanders one on one if he was coming right at him.

Teams game-planned for Sanders like no other back, because he could make plays even after everyone was convinced he had been stopped. On more than one occasion Sanders emerged from a pile of defenders, or was thrown to the ground, only to remain on his feet, spin out and break a big gain. The other backs in the discussion might have been productive, they might have been dominant, but nobody has ever run like Barry Sanders.

In 1997 Barry Sanders became only the 3rd player to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, after Eric Dickerson and OJ Simpson (Terrell Davis, Jamal Lewis, and Chris Johnson have since joined that group). After the first 2 games of the season, Sanders had only 53 yards. His final tally of 2,053 means that he gained 2000 yards in only 14 games, amassing over 100 in each of the last 14 games of the season, an NFL record. He finished the year with an average of 6.1 yards per attempt. This is second all-time only to Jim Brown’s 6.4 yards per attempt in 1963 and the yards gained that season moved him from 7th on the all-time list to 2nd, passing Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett and Eric Dickerson – Hall of Famers, all. Barry Sanders added another honor to his ever expanding list that year when he was named the league’s MVP.


Before the start of the 1999 season, Sanders retired from professional football, within touching distance of the all-time rushing record, then held by Walter Payton, and in the prime of his career. He explains in his book that it was no single thing that caused him to walk away from the game, but rather a multitude of factors all combining that led him to realise he just didn’t need it anymore. “Around the middle of my career, the game became something else, almost a burden in a lot of ways, and I stopped loving it. I lost my will”. Sanders felt betrayed by an organisation that showed no will to win, and after his 10 years in the league, the team had come full-circle, and was firmly back in rebuilding mode. Shocking the media and fans of the NFL, Sanders showed once again that the records weren’t enough to motivate him, when he walked away from becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, flipping the record to Emmit Smith in the same way as he flipped the ball to the official every time he scored a TD.

The day he retired Barry Sanders ranked 2nd on the all-time rushing list (he currently ranks 3rd). He is one of only 6 men to rush for over 2000 yards in a season, one of only 3 men to have multiple 1800 yard seasons. He holds the NFL record for most 1500 yard seasons with 5, and most consecutive 1500 yard seasons, with 4. He holds the NFL record for the most consecutive 100 yard games, most consecutive 100 yard games on the road, career TDs over 50 yards in length, most games of over 150 yards in a career, and is only two 100 yard rushing games away from the all time lead, in 73 fewer games than the holder of that record, Emmitt Smith. So why is there even a question of whether he was the greatest to ever play?

Barry SandersSanders suffers from some perceived negatives in his game, created by people looking for reasons to knock him off the spot at the top of the pyramid. These are the same people that said he was too small for the NFL, and they employ the same kind of thought process. These myths can be debunked:

Myth 1 – Barry Sanders could not run inside or at the goal line. 

This is a favourite of Barry Sanders critics. They point to his lack of TDs compared to other backs at the top of all-time lists, and the fact that his coaches took him out down at the goal line as evidence for a huge hole in his game. However, in the first 3 years of his career, Sanders scored 47 TDs, 21 of which came from within 4 yards, and 8 of which were from 1 yard out. The Lions coaching staff from 1992 onwards preferred having a bigger, power-back in on these situations, and took Sanders out of the game. He simply got shafted by a change in scheme philosophy. Does that mean that Sanders became a bad goal-line back overnight? The evidence of Sanders career, both college and pro, shows that Sanders could run as well as anybody around the goal line, but his numbers suffered because the Lions coaches preferred their own philosophy of using a heavy back in those situations. This is the same logic that sees Jamaal Charles being taken out of the game for Peyton Hillis when there is no clear evidence that he is actually better in tight quarters despite the size difference.

Myth 2 – Barry Sanders couldn’t catch.

The proponents of Walter Payton use this one a lot. ‘Barry Sanders was only a runner, he couldn’t do the other things that a RB has to be able to do, Walter Payton could do it all.’ Well, Barry Sanders finished his career with 352 catches over his 10 years – he averaged 35 catches a year. Walter Payton finished with 492 catches over his 13 years – he averaged 38 catches a year. Payton scored 15 receiving TDs, Barry Sanders scored 10. Payton averaged 9.2 yards per catch, and Sanders averaged 8.3. The statistics do indeed show that Payton edged Sanders in each category, but enough to rank one as an accomplished receiver, and the other as a guy who couldn’t catch? Of course not. We’re talking about a pretty small difference between the two. Nobody would confuse Sanders for Marshall Faulk but to suggest he was an incapable receiver is just foolish.  Similarly while Sanders may not have crushed people like Payton as a blocker, he was a capable blocking back able to pick up the blitz and do his job. At that point, who cares?

Myth 3 – Barry Sanders lost too much yardage to be the greatest. 

Another myth brought up a lot is that for every one of Barry Sanders’ great runs, he lost a ton of yardage, so much so that he is the NFL’s all-time leader in negative yardage from scrimmage. Whilst it’s true that Sanders is the all-time leader in negative yards, he averaged only 46 more lost yards a year than Payton did. Walter Payton, the man who always fell forward, who never said die. Despite the vast differences in perception between Sanders as a runner and Payton in a runner, the statistics amount to a difference in less than 3 yards a game. On the other hand Sanders overcame that to gain an average of 12 yards per game more than Payton throughout his entire career (99.8 vs 88).

Myth 4 – Barry Sanders could only run on turf, in the dome. 

This one’s the best myth of all. People will try and claim that Barry Sanders could only run on turf – ‘just look at his running style, it just wouldn’t work on grass!’ Unfortunately, these people have clearly never checked that out. During his career Sanders averaged 5.0 yards per carry both indoors and outdoors, on turf and on grass, at home and away. He was the very definition of consistency, averaging higher than 96 yards per game on any surface whether it was home or away.

Myth 5 – Barry Sanders couldn’t perform in the playoffs.

Well, whilst its true that Sanders didn’t perform outstandingly in the playoffs, he only played in 6 playoff games. The sample size just isn’t enough. That being said, the people who use this criticism rarely have a bad word to say about Payton in the same regard, yet Payton had only a lone 100 yard performance in 9 playoff games. Barry Sanders had only the one as well, but from 6 games, at a 4.2 average (as opposed to Walter Payton’s 3.5 yard per carry average. If this is a great flaw in Barry Sanders’ game, then we need to apply the same criticism to Walter Payton.

The only man to rival Barry Sanders statistically is Jim Brown, who shares some similarities to Sanders in his massive yards per carry averages, and the fact that he retired early in his career. The difference though is the eras in which they played, and how the yardage was gained. Jim Brown was a monster of a back, in an era where players weren’t as big as they are in the modern game. Brown was 232lbs at a time where linemen often weren’t any bigger, let alone linebackers. Brown could physically dominate, and could gain 6 yards just by lowering his head and charging. When Barry Sanders played, he played some of the greatest defensive players ever to step onto a field. He was running up against players like Reggie White, 300lb dominant forces. As well as players with the speed, and range of Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary. These guys are all Hall of Famers, and in White and Singletary, were players he would face twice a year within the division, yet Sanders would average 5 yards a carry against them, without being able to physically run over them.

Curtis Martin made this point in the program A Football Life (video above), claiming Brown would be different today, but Sanders would be the best back in the NFL in any era, regardless of what the players looked like.

Jim Brown also stepped onto what was already a dominant team, having been to the Championship game in 5 of the 6 seasons before they drafted him. By contrast, the Lions had failed to win more than 5 games in any of the 3 seasons before drafting Sanders. Brown has amazing statistics, but they were inflated by the opposition he faced. Sanders faced a list of the greatest defensive players to play the game, and made them all look foolish. The great Reggie White claimed that Barry Sanders was the only player he ever feared. “There was one guy since I’ve been playing that I was afraid of because he could beat us at any moment. That was Barry”.

Sanders re-wrote the record books during his college career and he re-wrote them during his professional career. He was so dangerous that teams had to invent new ways of defending against him, just to try and contain him from breaking that big run that would kill them. Despite being on some poor teams, with the franchise so mismanaged that it systematically removed its best talent during his career, Sanders racked up statistics that rival anybody’s. He retired within sight of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, and remains one of only a few backs to average 5 yards a carry every time they touched the ball.

Barry Sanders could do things nobody before or since has been able to do on a football field, and it shows in the damage he did to opposing defences throughout his career, despite being in a division with some elite units, and playing against a list of Hall of Fame defenders.

If all that still isn’t enough, just watch the videos.

Bert Bell – The Forgotten Commissioner

NFL commissioners get quite a lot of press these days. Pete Rozelle is remembered as arguably the greatest commissioner in professional sports, Paul Tagliabue oversaw the development of the NFL into the billion-dollar juggernaut it is today, and Roger Goodell is under endless scrutiny for his handling of things like player discipline and safety in today’s league.

But what about the men that went before them, and specifically the man that shaped the league as we know it, Bert Bell?

On October 11, 1959, Commissioner Bert Bell died of a heart attack in the stands of a game between the team he co-founded (The Eagles), and the team he had co-owned (The Steelers).

Bell, perhaps more than any other man, is responsible for the NFL that we know and love today, yet he remains largely forgotten in the mists of time, and his 50th anniversary went largely unnoticed as the league instead took to celebrating the AFL, inflicting those vertical striped socks that the Denver Broncos wore on us all.

By the time the upstart AFL took on the establishment of the NFL in 1960, the NFL was in excellent health, thanks largely to the work of Bell.

At the time of his appointment as Commissioner in 1946 the league was in danger of imploding. With ten strong-willed owners (think a room full of Jerry Jones clones) all vying for power and demanding that their plans be followed, the league was floundering in a money-losing stalemate. It had no direction, and was struggling simply to survive while owners fumed and railed at each other whenever they held a meeting. No league meeting was more chaotic and brutal than the annual meeting, because this was where the upcoming season’s schedule was decided.

The schedule at that time wasn’t decided the way it is today. With ten teams in the league divided into two divisions, the only requirement to a league schedule was that each team played a home and home series with every other team in their division. That accounted for 8 of the 12 games every team would play. The other 4 were up for grabs to the owner who argued the hardest and showed the most stamina in meetings. Teams wanted to play games that would net them a valuable gate receipt – games against the league glamour sides were at a premium.

Art Rooney once described the kind of staying power needed for these meetings: “The guys who snuck out to get some sleep wound up getting murdered the next season because they weren’t there to defend themselves, we’d give them all the dates we didn’t want.”

Over the 10-year span between 1937 and 1946 the Bears and Packers from the Western Division and the Giants and Redskins from the Eastern Division accounted for 19 of the 20 spots in the NFL Championship game. The league had become a tired exercise in professional football, and the teams that could win were the teams that turned a profit. The rest of the league more often than not was losing money and mounting debts. In the days where talent acquisition was simply a free for all those teams also found it increasingly hard to bid competitively on college players as they were in direct competition with every other NFL team.

Bell had had first hand experience of the pitfalls of ownership and the problems facing a struggling franchise. Early in his career he had bought the rights to the defunct Frankfort Yellow jackets and re-branded them the Philadelphia Eagles in time for the 1933 season. Under his leadership the Eagles were horrid, and Bell still accounts for one of the poorest winning percentages in NFL coaching history (Hey, I didn’t claim he was perfect!). Coming from that experience as the league’s doormat, Bell’s philosophy was that the league was like a chain, a chain that was only as strong as its weakest link, and he had experienced enough time as its weakest link to know better than anybody.

One of the first things he did when he took over as Commissioner was to take responsibility for the schedule away from the owners and begin to draw up the schedules himself, in his dining room, using cardboard, matchbooks and team-names. Think of the kind of crap Goodell takes these days for taking control of discipline, but Bell walked in and took the schedule away from the owners – the very foundation of the league and money revenue.

His plan going forward was that the weaker teams should play other weaker teams early in the season and the stronger teams should face each other. This would keep more teams in the race for longer, and also have the effect of helping out the weaker sides that had been losing fan support and crucial gate receipt dollars when their sides fell out of the race early in the season. He was aiming to make the league more competitive, and more of a spectacle for the fans.

Before he ever became league Commissioner, he had been responsible for another revolutionary change proposed whilst still owner of the Eagles – The Draft. Before Bell each NFL team had exactly the same rights to any available college player as any other team. The richer owners, the more successful teams naturally had a better chance of signing the elite players, and the divide between rich and poor within the league continued to widen. His proposal, 63 years ago, is more or less identical to what we all recognize as the NFL Draft: “At the end of each football season, we pool the names of all eligible college seniors. Then we make our selections in inverse order of the standings – that is, the lowest-ranked team picks first. We do this round after round until we have exhausted the supply of college players.”

Again, this is a fundamental shift in philosophy coming from one man. Rather than continue with a situation that could have led to a couple of rich teams owning the league in perpetuity, Bell proposed a change that would level the playing field one off-season at a time, or at least give everybody a shot at the talent.

The league’s first two scheduled title games, in 1933 and 1934, had featured the Giants and Bears, both controlled by strong owners, but Bell was a strong enough character to sell Tim Mara and George Halas on the necessity of such a plan. Bell’s vision was for the benefit of the league, and the fact that he was able to get even the most powerful owners with the most to lose to go along with it is a testament not only to the integrity of the plan, but to his standing within the league. It is also a striking demonstration that despite everything these longstanding owners did still value the NFL as a whole above everything else. They may have been prepared to bicker for days when necessary, but they were in this for the love of the game, not the pursuit of money or glory.

This was the first time the concept of parity, now a keystone of the NFL, began to be pursued, and it was Bell that started the chase. Indeed it was Bell that first coined the phrase “On any given Sunday”, referring to the competitive nature of the NFL after these changes. No Bell, no Al Pacino speech, or at least a crappier movie title for it.

The magnitude of these two revolutionary changes is impossible to overstate. Not only are they fundamental cornerstones of the league we recognize today, perhaps the only league in sports that strives to promote parity amongst its teams, but without those changes the NFL may never have made it through the next ten years. The league may not have survived the very real challenge of the upstart AAFC led by the powerhouse Cleveland Browns.

Bell not only reshaped the principles of the NFL, but he might well have saved its very existence.

The league was up against it in the battle with the new AAFC. The younger league had perhaps the country’s most recognized and respected coach in Paul Brown, and a group of owners significantly more wealthy than their NFL counterparts. The NFL had to rely on the good will it had already built up with the public. This good will was almost eroded completely in 1946 when an attempt to fix the NFL Championship game was uncovered by New York detectives. In the January 1947 meetings, the owners granted Bell the power to suspend for life any player or team official involved in a game-fixing attempt. Bell acted swiftly and suspended both of the players caught up in the scandal indefinitely. At a time when American sports was rife with corruption, Bell’s decisiveness in acting quickly and ruthlessly was instrumental in the NFL maintaining its standing in the eyes of the public. Bell knew for the league to survive the game had to be clean and beyond reproach. Public confidence in the NFL was everything. Goodell might be more draconian in his approach than the man he replaced, but he isn’t the first commissioner to act swiftly and harshly for what he perceived to be the good of the league.

As the war raged on between the NFL and the AAFC it was Bell’s earlier pursuit of parity and competition within the league that began to prove decisive. Whilst the AAFC was losing the interest of fans due to the runaway dominance of the Cleveland Browns, the NFL was enjoying spirited competition throughout. The nosedive in fan support of the AAFC ultimately led to the rival league capitulating in 1949 and the resultant ‘merger’ between the two leagues involved just 3 AAFC franchises being absorbed into the NFL: The Champion Cleveland Browns, the title game losing San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts.

Seen initially as a challenge that the NFL might not be able to survive, the AAFC ended up being simply another entity pistol whipped into shape by Bell. The NFL recorded a resounding victory that reasserted its primacy, and picked up the excellence of Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns as icing on the cake.

Bell was also instrumental in the way the NFL handled the emerging power of the TV markets, without which the NFL wouldn’t be the billion dollar corporate dynasty it is today. He came up with the unpopular, but undeniably effective blackout policy the league has employed for the better part of sixty years. This gave the league the benefit of TV money and exposure but without running the risk of losing gate receipt money as a trade.

He also created the 2-minute warning, a devise that would ensure that the TV companies would be able to air at least one commercial break per half during a game. This was the first concession to TV networks that has mutated into the modern coverage of the NFL with a commercial break every three seconds, so we might not look too kindly on old Bert for that one, but it’s important to realize that this is where the dollars come from – it’s advertising that makes the networks their money, and enables them to pay colossal sums for the NFL broadcasting rights in the first place. Bell also suggested the televising of night games, and his innovative policies surrounding TV coverage of the NFL were truly visionary for such a young technology, setting the template for the way the modern NFL works in many ways.

Bell’s reign as Commissioner of the NFL had seen him become such a shining beacon of integrity within the game, and develop such an unimpeachable powerbase that he was able to take on even the owners that had hired him. Going directly against their wishes, Bell recognized the NFL Players Association as a legitimate entity acting on the players’ behalf when it was formed. When the angry owners confronted him he simply referred them to the league’s constitution, which permitted him to act on any matter ‘in the interests of pro football’. Labor strife may not sound like a great bestowal, but the league benefits by players being looked after and protected independently.

His legacy was cemented in his lifetime and when the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1963 for the first 17 inductees, Bert Bell was the first name on the list of inductees. Of all the men the NFL had to thank for its success and prosperity by 1963, Bert Bell was the first man chosen.

In 1963 Bell was recognized as one of the men responsible for shaping the NFL, for bringing pro football into the consciousness of the American public and beyond, and he was rightly regarded as a colossus of the sport, deserved of his place at the very lead of the game’s heroes. It is now more than 50 years since he died in the stands of a game between the team he co-founded and the team he once co-owned, both franchises still active and successful, yet his name had faded from the memory of not only the average fan, but seemingly NFL reporters, and league offices as well.

The NFL owes too much to Bert Bell to allow his memory to fade into obscurity. Bert Bell may have done more for the NFL than any single other man, and deserves more than to be lost in the ether by anybody associated with the NFL, to be consigned merely to the history books.

P.S. Thanks to Pete Damilatis who alerted me to that video of Bell I hadn’t seen before.