If the NFL actually wants to be safer, it’s time to re-evaluate tackling

Not long after Jordan Mailata arrived at IMG Academy to begin the process of learning American football, the former rugby player from Australia noticed something strange about the way defenders were taught to tackle. During workouts and film sessions, he and fellow rugby convert Christian Scott Williamson would watch with equal parts confusion and concern as defenders launched themselves into ballcarriers like they were locked doors in an emergency: head lowered, shoulder following like a battering ram, arms often trailing behind.

“That’s not bleepin’ tackling,” Mailata said to Williamson.

Here’s a thought: maybe it shouldn’t be.

Ever since the NFL’s competition committee passed a rule that forbids tacklers from lowering their heads to initiate contact with their helmets, defensive players across the league have complained about the impact that the additional regulation will have on their ability to do their job. But there’s a strong argument to be made that the biggest problem with the new rule is that it does not go far enough. If the NFL is serious about its desire to make the game safer, then limiting its focus to plays on which a player makes contact with his helmet is far too narrow in scope.

Instead, what the league really needs is a fundamental re-evaluation of tackling itself, from a philosophical reconsideration of its overall purpose to an explicit redefinition of the technique that player must utilize in order to legally bring a ballcarrier to the ground. What it needs to do is turn tackling from an act of violent collision to an act of wrapping up and bringing to the ground. And that’s not nearly as far-fetched an idea as it sounds.

The solution to the problem that the NFL supposedly wants to solve already exists in Mailata’s former sport: two sentences, both tucked neatly within rugby’s official laws of the game.

1. A player must not charge or knock down an opponent carrying the ball without attempting to grasp that player.

2. A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders.

That’s it. That’s all the NFL needs, assuming that it is sincere in its quest to lessen the physical toll that the sport of football places upon those who play it. Wrap up.

If the NFL really wants to make the game safer, the hit that it needs to eliminate doesn’t start with the helmet. The most dangerous version of those hits is already covered by the rules. What it needs is to take the violence out of all hits. Instead of policing the game by defining what constitutes an illegal tackle, why not start with the definition of a legal tackle and penalize anything else that does not fit the criteria?

In it’s simplest form: a legal tackle is a tackle in which a player leads with his arms, a tackle in which a player’s shoulders are externally rotated, his biceps above his clavicle.

“The Seahawks do it already,” Mailata said. “They have a rugby guy come in and teach them how to tackle.”

To be clear, Mailata was not advocating a change to the NFL’s rules. He was simply asked by a writer to explain how tackling works in rugby compared with tackling the NFL. He complied by treating the aforementioned (and increasingly unnerved) writer to a hands-on demonstration of proper rugby tackling technique. The tackler targets a spot on the ballcarrier’s body. He reaches with his arms, makes contact with his shoulder, ensures that his head is to the side of the ballcarrier’s body.

“Even when we tackle up top, we find anchors,” Mailata said.

If the NFL really wants to reduce the risk of concussions, the hit that it needs to eliminate is the one that all of us saw Brian Dawkins put on Alge Crumpler in the NFC playoffs 15 years ago. It’s the hit that almost knocked DeSean Jackson out cold in a regular-season game against the Falcons several years later. It’s the hit that Malcolm Jenkins laid on Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl.

Defenders don’t want to hear it. And they shouldn’t. Because most of them got to where they are by excelling at the sport within the framework of the current rule book. But the question we’re considering is how does the NFL make the sport less destructive? And the answer is, by eliminating that devastating, knockout hit.

Now, football is not rugby. Over the last month, I’ve approached a number of the members of the Eagles defense with the idea of a rule change that requires players to make an attempt to wrap up. Every single one of them has raised the same objection.

“You’ve got to think about the running back as well,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “If he’s coming at you, and you’re trying to wrap up? You’re gonna get run over.”

Chris Long: “You’d have to tell the ballcarrier that he has to run straight up[right].”

Chris Maragos: “It’s easier said than done. You’ve got a guy coming at you with world-class size, at world-class speed, you’re just doing anything you can to bring him down.”

I bounced that scenario off of Mailata.

“You have to get lower,” he said. “If he comes in low, you just have to come in lower, and get the anchor, and then fall with him.”

The reality is, we’ve come to equate tackling with violent, knockout blows. It does not have to be that way. Maybe that changes the complexion of the game as we know it. But, then, isn’t that the point?

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