This is part one of a series on poor tackling technique in football today.
This series was developed during a conversation over Twitter with Andrew Garda, writer for http://thunderingblurb.com.
The De-Evolution of Tackling in Professional Football
In the National Football League today, missed and broken tackles are becoming the norm. On any given Sunday, you can see defenders either completely whiffing on tackles or ball carriers simply shrugging off hits. Why is that?
Most of today's defenders lack proper tackling techniques, or fail to follow them on the field. Either they're seeking the big flashy hits that make the highlight reel, or they are shying away from contact on the field. Yes, some of those broken tackles are simply the ball carriers getting the better of the defender. However, usually the defender is doing something wrong.
One of the common instances of poor technique is going for the big hit rather than the wrap-up tackle. Let’s face it, big hits sell. How many NFL and college football commercials have huge bone-crushing hits in them? How many football video games try to make big hits a consistent part of the game? Look at the evolution of the hit stick in the Madden and NCAA franchises of EA Sports.
Big hits make money. You can go on YouTube and search for big football hits and you will find a lot of videos. I would know. I’ve watched a good number of them. I’m guilty of it.
However, just because it sells doesn't mean it works all the time. In fact, it rarely works. Attempted big hits usually result in missed and broken tackles, or sometimes, injuries. They’re nice when they work out, but it’s a high-risk low-reward proposition, and it’s a big part of the de-evolution of tackling technique in football.
Big hits by defenders in college get them noticed by scouts and fans alike, which leads to players habitually attempting those types of hits. Once it becomes a habit, it’s quite hard to shake it, of course. Matt Bowen, former safety from the University of Iowa who spent seven years in the NFL, was kind enough to field my question regarding tackling technique.
In his experiences, there was more of an emphasis on sound tackling technique at Iowa than in his seven years in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams, Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins, and Buffalo Bills.
So, at least in his experience, his college coaches placed a bigger emphasis on proper tackling technique. Now that doesn’t mean that NFL coaches don't care about proper tackling. To me, it suggests that NFL coaches might have expectations that defensive players coming out of college know how to tackle properly. That’s not really anyone’s fault, but it can complicate things for defenders who have formed poor tackling habits.
Another cause of poor tackling technique could very well be the advent of the salary cap back in the 1990s. It severely restricts flexibility for a team suffering through injuries. How does that affect defenders' tackling techniques?
I answer that with another question. How often do teams practice in pads now? Before the salary cap, teams didn’t have trouble replacing injured players. However, with the advent of the salary cap, teams have to juggle money and roster spots. Therefore, coaches are much more hesitant to risk injury to important defenders by having them practice all week in pads.
If players aren't practicing in pads, it's hard to commit tackling techniques to muscle memory and getting proper technique down. If game day is the only day a player is making tackle motions, that player is probably not going to be making many tackles.
Hand-in-hand with that cause of poor tackling is the possibility that defenders do not want to risk injuring themselves. It's possible some defenders might rather just make a show of attempting a tackle rather than risk injuring themselves and losing money. Now I've met a good number of defensive players for the Buffalo Bills, and I do not doubt their willingness to lay it down on the field.
However, there have been notable players in the past on the defensive side of the ball that were not so willing to risk injury on tackles. They hesitate, then lunge rather than attempt to get in the way and wrap up the ball carrier. That sometimes can lead to pretty devastating consequences either on the scoreboard or in terms of injuries.
Just remember, it's simply another idea as to why there are so many missed tackles in football today, and definitely not true for the majority of defensive players.
So what say you? What do you think is the leading cause of poor tackling technique? Weigh in and stay tuned for the rest of the series where I discuss the consequences of poor tackling techniques. Thanks to Andrew Garda and Matt Bowen for talking to me about this subject. I also hope to talk to some more former and current NFL players about tackling.