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.