Figuring out how and where to tackle an opponent is becoming a progressively trickier conundrum for NFL defenders. They can't hit too high for fear of a reprimand from the league. If they target a ball-carrier's lower extremities, then there's an increased risk of causing a debilitating knee or ankle injury.
As a result, defensive players are getting help from an unexpected source: offensive players. ESPN.com's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Simon Baumgart reported on Outside the Lines that the two sides will oftentimes come to a mutual agreement as to how to approach tackling:
Speaking to "Outside the Lines" before that incident, (Brandon) Meriweather, (Ryan) Clark and (Michael) Griffin each described scenarios that would have seemed unthinkable in the days of Jack Tatum or Ronnie Lott, or even more recently, John Lynch: Offensive players approaching them before games and pleading to be hit high rather than low.
"I've had a lot of guys say, 'Just hit me high, just knock me out. I don't care, as long as I'd be able to play next week, I'm perfectly fine, but don't go low,'" said Griffin, who was fined and suspended one game last season as a "repeat offender."
Meriweather and Clark both said offensive players have offered to pay their fines if they hit them high rather than low. Asked how often that has happened, Meriweather said: "All the time. All the time."
Former Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller backed up the claim, speaking about how he must ensure as high a quality of life off the field as possible:
Absolutely, 100 percent I'd rather be hit high . . . just like anybody else . . . you get hit high, say you get a concussion: That's tough to deal with, you may miss a game or two or something like that. But you still get to go home, walk home to your family.
In the wake of the revelations about concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the league has attempted to eradicate the sort of targeting that often leads to head injuries. By forcing defenders to aim lower, however, they've inadvertently increased the likelihood for an offensive player to suffer a major leg injury that wipes out his entire season and maybe even more.
Meriweather talked about how his options were limited after getting suspended by the league last season for tackling too high.
"To be honest, you've just got to go low now. You gotta end people's careers," he said, per ESPN 980's Chris Russell, via Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke. "You gotta tear people's ACLs. Mess up people's knees. You can't him (sic) them high anymore. You've just got to go low."
Sports writer Patrick Hruby thinks the OTL report undercuts a lot of what the NFL is trying to accomplish:
This isn't the first time that players have made it known that tackles above the shoulders might be more preferable to tackles below the waist. USA Today's Peter Barzilai and Erik Brady reported in January that career-ending knee injuries were as big of a concern, in some cases larger, than concussions: "USA TODAY Sports surveyed 293 players on 20 NFL teams and asked what body part they were most concerned about injuring in a game: 46% said knees or other parts of their legs, 24% said head and neck and 26% said none."
Said then-Chicago Bears running back Michael Bush: "Anytime you can avoid hits to the head it's great, but if you get hit in your knees, that's your career."
This is the Catch-22 the NFL faces.
In order to truly make the game safe, the league would have to almost eliminate tackling altogether, or at the very least radically alter the idea of what a tackle is so as to make it less violent for the ball-carrier.
By doing that, though, the NFL would lose the essence of what makes football football. Fans would inevitably revolt, and thus revenues would drop precipitously.
No perfect solution exists. The NFL simply has to make the best out of what is becoming an increasingly bad situation.