|A brief look at how tackling changed--and was changed by--elements of the game over the past 150 years.|
John Gallagher, Jan. 22nd 2019
As we approach the 150th anniversary of college football in America—Rutgers vs Princeton in 1869--we at Atavus thought it might be interesting to write about some key developments in our favorite game’s history. The following post is the first in a series planned to celebrate 150 years of determination, teamwork, sweat, and joy delivered by the game we love.
Our first post is, understandably, on tackling.
In August of 2018, the NFL began enforcing a pair of new tackling rules and the football world lost its mind. With the “Use of Helmet” and “Body Weight” rules the NFL took significant steps toward improving player safety. Unfortunately for the NFL, nobody seemed to want it.
With the new rules, fans and players agreed that changes to tackling had strayed too far, stripping the tackle of its essence. But on what was the current idea of tackling based? How did we get here?
Early tackling techniques were rooted in rugby, and we can assume they were rough. The game was nearly banned in 1905 after 18 deaths and hundreds of player injuries that year. According to the Washington Post, at least 45 players died between 1900 and 1905.
Helmets were not required in college until 1939, and NFL followed suit in 1943. Tackling remained influenced by rugby as players, even with helmets, were inclined to keep their heads out of the tackle rather than putting their faces into the path of the onrushing ball carrier.
A 2011 article in Sports Illustrated explains that shoulder-led tackling was the favored technique:
For a very long time, coaches at all levels taught players to tackle with their shoulders. "It goes all the way back to playing the game without face masks," says Patriots coach Bill Belichick, for whom the history of the game is an avocation. "Guys were taught to lead with their shoulder and turn their head to the side to protect their faces. Then equipment changed, and techniques changed. Players were taught to generate all their power in a straight line. Both hips, both legs. That allowed you to put your face in the middle of the runner, keeping your eyes up."
It’s hard to overestimate the influence of equipment, specifically the face mask, on tackling. Prior to the 1950’s face masks were rare. Shoulder-led tackling was not only an effective means of bringing down a runner, but it also kept your nose in one piece. According to Beverly Bird’s history of the face mask, the first modern mask was worn by Otto Graham in 1953. (Note: The origin of the face mask is a point of contention with some historians who point out that improvised masks date back to the 1920’s, including one of barbed wire. However, for the purposes of this blog post we’re going with Graham because it sparked increased adoption by players.)
The face mask changed the game. For the first time, players felt protected enough to put their faces in front of the runner:
This change occurred not in a single season but over time, from the 1960s into the '90s—a gradual but constant shift toward more straight-on, powerful collisions that coincided with players' getting bigger, faster and stronger. The last several generations of NFL players came up playing by a common set of tackling rules. (SI article)
This common set of tackling rules led coaches to phrases like, “lead with your head,” and “bite the ball,” among others. The new technique, dubbed “head across” for the way players tackled with their heads across the front of the ball carrier, became popular in the 1960’s and remained the primary way to teach tackling for the next 50 years.
Tackling drills were part of every practice in the 1970’s. Players participated in drills like “Bull in the Ring,” the “Oklahoma Drill,” and others designed to teach toughness and bring players to the ground. In this article by Erik Brady and Jarret Bell, coach Mike Riley describes practices:
[Riley] remembers at one coaching stop early in his 42-year career “one of the coaching points we used to tell kids was, ‘Hit with your face.’ Those are words that would be taboo today.”
Riley, 64, recalls a drill where players would line up 10 yards apart and run full speed into one another: “And the emphasis from the coach was, ‘Put your head in there.’ I don’t know how somebody didn’t break a neck.”
By the 1980’s, a focus on “big hits” replaced wrapping-up for many coaches and players, a fact reinforced by the popularity of NFL Films highlight reels of bone-crunching collisions. Bigger, stronger, faster players meant, in theory, technique was less important than crashing at speed into the ball carrier.
Football has always adapted. With every innovation in equipment, approach, and athleticism, the stewards of the game sought to keep players from injury. Some rule changes made through the years aimed at keeping tackling safe:
In the inevitable ebb and flow of tackling fashion, the game has recently swung away from ‘head across’ to new interpretations of older techniques.
In 2012, USA Football introduced “Heads Up,” a player safety program aimed at the youth market. Teaching a technique that keeps the head up at all times, the program was an attempt to reduce concussions. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and in 2017 USA Football changed their approach to focus on shoulder-led tackling.
However, the biggest development in tackling in the past 50 years happened in the summer of 2014. Super Bowl winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Pete Carroll, released a video called “The Hawk Tackle.” With his assistant, Rocky Seto, Carroll explains that the Seahawks tackle using a rugby-inspired technique that places the head behind the ball carrier. Tacklers track the ball carriers near hip, hitting the thighs, and wrapping up.
Not only did the Seahawks own the top of the defensive ranking for years with this technique, but they had comparatively fewer concussions vs other teams in the NFL.
As it turns out, “safer” tackling technique is actually high-performance.
The Atavus Tackle System launched in August 2015, bringing high-performance, shoulder-led tackling to several top college programs and continuing the trend.
Michigan State embraced rugby-style tackling before the 2017 season. In 2016, the Spartans ranked #83 nationally in defensive efficiency. By 2017 they ranked #15, and the team finished the 2018 season ranked #3. Similarly, in 2018, the University of Cincinnati rocketed from #106 to #9 in defensive efficiency just one year after adopting the approach.
Changes are happening at all levels of the game. In March of 2018, the Texas High School Coaches Association (THSCA) and the University Interscholastic League (UIL) mandated that every football coach in the state must be certified in Atavus' shoulder-led tackling technique. In becoming the first state to mandate coach certification, Texas is leading the nation toward a safer tackling: “Preventing injuries is paramount for all coaches and players and we felt that as an organization it was our duty to seek out the best possible solutions to keeping our players safe,” said Joe Martin, executive director at THSCA.
The pace of change, in football and elsewhere, is accelerating. We’ll likely see more rule changes in coming years, more emphasis on player safety, and more techniques designed improve on-field performance.
Tackling is just one aspect of the game, but a crucial one. Football legend Pop Warner said, in 1927, "Good, hard, sharp, and sure tackling is the very essence of a successful defense. No team is going to be severely beaten, even if it has no offense at all, if it is composed of eleven good tacklers."
Well said, Pop.