The new NFL “use of the helmet” rule is receiving about as warm of a reaction as one could have expected it to since preseason games kicked on on August 2nd earlier this month. Reactions have ranged from mildly cynical to “OH MY GOD THIS IS THE END OF FOOTBALL.” Each week in each preseason game there seem to be one or two hits that draw the ire of fans and analysts alike as screenshot videos and gifs make their way through social media.
Getting lost in all of this, however, is the NFL is collecting video of each hit flagged and not flagged under the new helmet rule and what NFL teams have been doing to avoid conflict with the new rule. Standard practice throughout the season is to collect all available angles for every play, and select certain plays for training videos specifically targeted to officials, teams, and the media. With a new rule, this is no different; the officiating department pulls all the helmet calls or no-calls in its video database, which the league officials would reviews each week with senior vice-president of officiating Al Riveron to determine what hits are legal and illegal. In the last two officiating videos (Preseason Week 1 and Week 2), Riveron showed plays where flags were thrown but were actually determined later to be legal hits. The intent is to give the officiating crews, players, and coaches clear guidance and criteria so that by Week 1 of the regular season, crews have a better idea what angles and characteristics to look for.
For the teams themselves, some have stated they do not teach their players to lower their head and lead with the crown of their helmet to make contact. On WEEI in Boston, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick stated that the new rule is not a big concern.
From my standpoint, it’s not a change for us, not a change for our coaching staff. We’ve never taught that. We’ve never taught tackling with the crown of our helmet, putting our head down, and leaning our body forward in that type of position. I don’t think fundamentally that’s a good position to be in. It’s not effective. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong besides getting hurt, and that’s an important one. So, we’ve always tackled and blocked with our head up, and our eyes open, and our head back, so we can see what we hit. That’s the only way I’ve ever coached it. If we do it that way then we’ll be within the rules. That’s what we’ve tried to teach.
Other coaches have taken the same tack. Last week before practices between the Los Angeles Chargers and the New Orleans Saints kicked off, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn stated, “if you can take a side or strike with your head up, that’s what we’re trying to teach and trying to promote.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh of the San Francisco 49ers addressed a flagged hit by defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu against the Texans.
We know what we teach. We’ve got great conviction on what we teach, and one thing that we don’t teach is using our helmet … We’re trying to find the balance of what exactly do we tell a defensive player when he’s in a great football position, he’s standing his ground and he’s about to get trucked over. When you go to make a tackle, your head follows. But, we teach head leverage side, shoulder leverage tackling, so our helmet is not designed to make contact.
Dan Quinn, in implementing the tackling technique he teaches as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, says it is all about finding an acceptable alternative.
The goal here is to improve the game and protect the players while still playing a game and style we all want — one of toughness and physicality.
There are two common themes among the staffs of the Chargers (defensive coordinator Gus Bradley), 49ers (Saleh), and the Falcons (Quinn). One is that they are implementing and teaching a “leverage-based” tackling style that emphasizes leading with the shoulder rather than with the head. Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said in a training session during the preseason that “the posture is what we’re working on a lot — what hits first. We cannot lead with the helmet. The helmet cannot be the first part of contact for anyone.”
The second theme among this group of coaches is that they all coached together on Pete Carroll’s staff with the Seattle Seahawks. The are six types of leverage-based tackles (video) that Carroll’s staff first began teaching with the USC Trojans and then with the Seahawks: the hawk tackle, the hawk roll tackle, the profile tackle, the strike zone, tracking, and the compression tackle. Each type of tackle emphasizes leading with the shoulder, wrapping up the ball carrier at the hips, and driving through the opponent to take him down. The hits can be jarring but essentially the idea is to protect not only the ball carrier, but the defender as well from unnecessary head injuries.
Carroll said that while he doesn’t anticipate this changing anything for his team, and there will be renewed emphasis on keeping the head and face up, the new rule change is “not new for us at all, but I do think that we can get better at some areas of it and it really has to do with leverage and keeping our face up when we make contact so we stay out of the penalty situation and stay in the safety mode.”
Carroll’s leverage-based tackling video was posted online in 2014 to instruct coaches and players at all levels of the game, including NFL teams.
Has this tackling style made game safer? It’s too early tell any overall net benefit for the league, but for the Seahawks, the results have been better than expected. In Pete Carroll’s first years as head coach, the Seahawks ranked 27th in 2010 and 24th in 2011 in Football Outsiders “adjusted games lost” metric, a measure of a team’s overall health by measuring the games lost by starters and backups plus those who take the field not fully 100%. By 2012, they ranked as the 4th healthiest team in AGL. In 2013 and 2014, those numbers were 13th and 18th respectively, but mainly due to injuries on offense.
However, Seattle ranked 3rd and 5th in 2015 and 2016 with minimal injuries to the defense outside of an Earl Thomas broken leg. For 2015, the only year data is fully available by defensive unit, their defensive backs ranked 11th, the defensive line ranked 10th, and the linebackers ranked 9th healthiest. Injuries are random to be sure, but there can reasonably be some correlation with teaching a new style of tackling and sustaining a lower rate of injuries to defensive players.
It presumably would take some time for players to adjust to a new style of play than they’re accustomed to. The NFL recognizes this and is going to great lengths to minimize the impact potential flags would have on games in the regular season. It would serve teams well to help this transition by teaching a tackling style that is safer yet still effective and doesn’t detract from the overall physicality of the game. As more and more players and teams implement this style of tackling, the number of flags will be reduced and it will not be “the end of football as we know it.”