Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

24 Oct 2010

The NFL's Head Cases

Former Denver tight end Nate Jackson makes a lot of good points in this New York Times op-ed about the new "crackdown" on hard hits. Hard hitting is an ingrained part of the game. Jackson points out that tackling head-first is by far the most successful tackling technique. That's why all those guys who break down game film call it "getting a hat on a hat." More importantly, even if players try not to hit a receiver in the head, you have this problem: "When a receiver is trying to catch a ball or avoid being tackled, the height of his head is constantly changing, often making it impossible for a defensive player to judge the point of impact." In my opinion, that's the biggest problem with the crackdown on hard hits: The NFL seems to be trying to legislate accidents out of existence.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 24 Oct 2010

45 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2010, 5:30pm by the cat in the box is dead

Comments

1
by Vicious Chicken Of Bristol (not verified) :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 2:37pm

"When a receiver is trying to catch a ball or avoid being tackled, the height of his head is constantly changing, often making it impossible for a defensive player to judge the point of impact."

Exactly, and the NFL is quite obviously adopting the stance that "hat on hat" will be treated as the defense's fault 100% of the time.

14
by R. Johnston (not verified) :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 8:27pm

"Exactly, and the NFL is quite obviously adopting the stance that "hat on hat" will be treated as the defense's fault 100% of the time."

Not even a little bit true. The NFL is adopting the stance that helmet-to-helmet hits can be reduced to a minimum, regardless of fault, by automatically suspending the player who makes the hit. That may or may not be true, but it's not an unreasonable position to take and, absent evidence to the contrary, of which there isn't any, it's the position that you should assume the NFL is taking. This is a safety measure, not a judgment of fault, and a safety measure is most surely warranted.

16
by CraigInDC :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 9:14pm

The judgement of fault is implied by only one of the players being suspended. If they weren't making a judgement of fault, then both players would be suspended.

2
by Pat Swinnegan :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 2:54pm

If the sort of devastating blows to the head that took out Massoquoi and Cribbs were just a function of the way football is played at the NFL level, then the responsibility for those hits would be much more uniformly distributed among the defensive players in the league. Instead, certain players, like Harrison and Meriweather, are distinguished for dealing out big hits. If those guys are just playing the game the way it's meant to be played, then what exactly are all the other defenders doing?

22
by RichC (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 9:01am

I don't think Merriweather has ever been fined before, so I'm not sure its fair to say hes doing this a disproportionate amount of the time.

3
by Aaron Schatz :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:00pm

The problem with last week's big hits is not Harrison or Meriweather. It is Dunta Robinson.

5
by Pat Swinnegan :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:08pm

Meriweather hit Todd Heap helmet-to-helmet twice in that game. If you are perfectly comfortable with hits like those, then that's one thing. Otherwise, you have to account for the fact that certain guys are responsible for a disproportionately large number of them. Then, if you want, you can try to explain how that fact could fail to imply differences in the technique that those guys employ.

11
by dmb :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 6:16pm

I'm guessing Aaron meant that the problem with the penalization of big hits last week was the response to the Robinson play. I would agree.

12
by billsfan :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 8:00pm

By the looks of it, three refs immediately saw a problem with Meriweather's more visible hit on Heap.

(I also like the Eagles)

13
by billsfan :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 8:11pm

Dunta Robinson, I think, received sufficient punishment from his own brain. Still not sure I get the gist of that comment.

Harrison and Meriweather are both adamant that they did nothing wrong... shouldn't *they* be the problem(s)?

(I also like the Eagles)

15
by Aaron Schatz :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 8:30pm

Yes, sorry. What I meant was "the problem with the crackdown on big hits after last week was that a lot of people acted like Dunta Robinson's hit was a similar cheap shot but the helmet-to-helmet contact there was pretty clearly an accident."

23
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 11:16am

It was an accident, but it was also really terrible tackling technique. I mean, Harrison's tackles (and Meriweather's) were obviously awful, flat out aiming for the other guy's head/shoulder/neck.

But Robinson's technique was just awful. Basically completely straight up, and led with his head, not his shoulder. If you watch the replay, I'm amazed that Robinson wasn't injured a lot worse. The helmet-to-helmet contact was an accident, sure, but Robinson's poor technique *led* to it being an accident.

It may seem crazy to fine players for poor technique, but I don't have a problem with it. Lots of personal fouls are poor technique - shots out of bounds, roughing the passer, etc. All they're saying is that you've got to be aware of where you are and what you're doing to play in the NFL.

(It was also pointless, too. Hitting Jackson high like that did nothing at all. If he had hit him in the midsection/torso, he would've flattened him just the same, but with no risk to himself.)

19
by Dales :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 6:05am

Hmm. By far the biggest cheap shot out of that list was Meriweather's.

4
by Pat Swinnegan :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:01pm

Also, I would have gone with "cortical custard" myself.

6
by ASmitty (not verified) :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:52pm

Tackling head first is the most successful way to tackle? As proven by what? In my opinion, and experience, the most successful way to tackle is to drive shoulder into body hinge (hip), and wrap hands to knees.

Leading with your head may be the best way to cause a fumble or knock someone unconscious, but it's not the most effective way to actually surehandedly tackle someone. That's why freestyle wrestlers don't dive head first at their opponents in order to take them down. They drop levels, keep their head up, and go in with their shoulders.

And head to head collisions are unavoidable? Again, as proven by what? Rugby players don't even wear helmets. Keep your head up, target properly, and don't launch yourself mindlessly.

I'm obviously not a professional, but I was an all state safety for four years in high school at a whopping 145 pounds, and played rugby at a high club level in college, at about the same weight. I can't ever remember being involved in a head to head collision and my greatest asset in both was sure tackling, usually against players up to 100 pounds heavier than I was. Then again I wasn't concerned with blowing people up, but just stopping them in their tracks and actually bringing them to the ground.

And putting hat on a hat? Who uses that to describe tackling? It's a description of blocking, which is totally different from tackling.

Dunta Robinson's fine WAS a mistake, but it also wasn't a helmet to helmet hit, or even a penalty. If the league goes after helmet to helmet hits, launches, and headshots, then they won't be legislating against accidents. If they go after the Robinson's of the world and say "causing concussions is a fine" then they'll be legislating against accidents.

20
by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 7:28am

To add to your two-sport comparison, I went from Rugby to American Football as a player, and the change I saw in the very short time I played football was that whilst I was told to get my head OUT of the way in rugby, I was told to get it IN the way in Football. This wasn't explicit, but it was about getting as much of my body across the other guy's as possible, and driving the him back so they didn't get that extra yard for falling forwards. As a rugby player, I was told to just wrap, turn the opponent like a judo throw and let them fall forwards if it wasn't going to result in a try.

I imagine things would be a little different playing at a higher level, but it simply wasn't possible for me to put my head in harm's way wihout getting obliterated. As a tackler, I'd target the near hip and hit with nearest shoulder, Ie my right if coming in from the left. As a Football player, my understanding was that I should be going ACROSS the opponent's body a lot more, and using the opposite shoulder to obstruct the ballcarrier as much as possible. Maybe that was just how I was coached- I'm UK based, so maybe that makes a difference.

I also found the psychological effect of putting on a helmet and pads made me feel a lot more aggressive, and a lot more like launching myself at an opponent. I found myself bouncing about like a caged animal and hopping from foot to foot like someone in those taped pre-game huddles where everyone shouts, which I'd previously thought was just guys showing off.

I think the padding and the helmets make all the difference. I'd be interested to know if people had different opinions, though.

24
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 11:24am

"I was told to get it IN the way in Football. This wasn't explicit, but it was about getting as much of my body across the other guy's as possible, and driving the him back so they didn't get that extra yard for falling forwards."

Yeah, I've heard that too, but it's just poor communication. You say something like "get your head across his body" but what they're really trying to say is "get your body across his body" and apparently the easiest way to teach it is by saying "put your head across his path." You still have to get your head out of the way, because you need your shoulder to hit him first.

But really, if you look at what's going on in the NFL, that's not the problem. The problem is that people are tackling high - shoulder level - rather than low (torso/hip level). Most likely because it's a heckuva lot easier to stop a player by knocking their feet out from under them than it is to stop them by actually opposing their momentum.

33
by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 4:55pm

I take your point about miscommunication. It is still a complete turnaround from what you're told to do in Rugby, though.

Re: tackling high, the problem is also that the runners are being told to go low. There was a hit by an Eagles player, possibly Ernie Sims, during a Calvin Johnson run last night which was a fairly good example. They were both trying to go for 'lowest man wins' in a fairly tight hole on an interior run, and it ended up being helmet-to-helmet just by default. Both guys were displaying good technique, playing hard but fair, and there was still a pretty hefty subconcussive impact for both players.

It was within the rules, and with the game as it is and helmets being what they are, it'll happen more often than not on your standard running play in the NFL.

37
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 10/26/2010 - 2:27pm

"There was a hit by an Eagles player, possibly Ernie Sims, during a Calvin Johnson run last night which was a fairly good example. They were both trying to go for 'lowest man wins' in a fairly tight hole on an interior run, and it ended up being helmet-to-helmet just by default. Both guys were displaying good technique, playing hard but fair, and there was still a pretty hefty subconcussive impact for both players."

Chris, not Calvin.

I doubt it was as bad as you think - it's really velocity that really kills you, and the difference in speeds between an interior run and an open-field run is huge. Plus, when you both try to go low, you've got to slow down. Helmet to helmet isn't really that bad - after all, helmet to some other guy's knee, or helmet to ground, or heck, helmet to chest - all of those things are going to cause concussions at high enough speeds.

But those kind of collisions don't typically happen at high speed in football, because high speeds only really happen when a guy's running. So really, all you're mainly concerned with is eliminating hits to the head when a guy's at high speed. It's not really the helmet that's the issue here. It's the target area.

"It was within the rules, and with the game as it is and helmets being what they are"

I don't understand that comment - helmets shouldn't make an impact worse. They exist to absorb a blow to the head better than the human skull should, which means they quite possibly make an impact *better*.

Unless you're making the 'psychology' argument - that without helmets, they'd be less reckless? I've never been convinced of that. I don't think rugby's advantage has anything to do with a lack of a helmet - I think it has everything to do with the fact that the two games emphasize entirely different things. Football's rules were constructed to really allow specialization, which, given that the game's about strength and speed, just makes it dangerous. Rugby's more of a balance between the two, thanks to the lack of free substitution.

39
by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 2:22pm

'Chris, not Calvin.'

Oh yes, my bad.

typos aside, I see your point, but I'm also thinking about subconcussive impacts- whilst the big impacts are the ones that make you wince, there's growing evidence to suggest that it's the repeated lower-level impacts that are a problem. It's the same conclusion people came to about boxing gloves allowing you to hit harder, more often.

You're right that that kind of hit isn't all that bad, relatively speaking, but my point is it's part of the problem. A player puts his whole body in the way of a runner and the minor head-to-head impact doesn't knock him out or cut his forehead open, both guys just get dinged around a bit. Without a helmet, that isn't an innocuous hit.

With a helmet, you get hit like that once, no big deal. It's like coming off a motorbike and a helmet saving you. Ten or twelve times a game, and maybe three or four times a week every day in practice (caveat-figures plucked out of the air a bit, but I've tried to go low on numbers there) and then this starts to add up to a pattern of low-level head trauma.

It IS the psychology argument, to an extent- you feel like a minor head-to-head collision won't hurt you because of your padding, so you don't worry about it and expose yourself to greater danger of cumulative damage, rather than one catastrophic event. I found it really startling how differently I played when I was in full pads- it was like there was a barrier between me and my opponent, and I felt violent and reckless in a way I hadn't when playing rugby. Afterwards, it hurt WAY more than rugby had.

You're right about the specialization thing, though- it's a cardio issue as much as anything else. I remember a 90-yard fumble return by DT Mike Patterson of the Eagles which was referred to as the longest distance he'd run for years. His equivalent in rugby, a prop forward, is probably running at various degrees of intensity for periods of ten to fifteen minutes at a time, for a full 80 minutes. You can't build muscle at the expense of fitness in the same way, so the NFL player ends up heavier, slower, but more able to hit hard.

42
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 4:54pm

"It IS the psychology argument, to an extent- you feel like a minor head-to-head collision won't hurt you because of your padding,"

Yeah, I just don't buy it that much. Now, maybe at the lower levels, sure, and I'll agree that you need to think about that considering that's where the most people are and that's where the most damage will be. At the professional level, though, I think that sort of behavior can be coached/regulated out.

"so the NFL player ends up heavier, slower, but more able to hit hard."

NFL linemen, you mean. WRs/DBs are probably equivalent to rugby counterparts.

45
by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Thu, 10/28/2010 - 5:30pm

I don't know. I think that by the time that you get to the pros, you've been playing for almost a decade, depending upon when you start playing. That's longer than most people's playing career. I would argue that by the time you're drafted, your habits are pretty ingrained.

I'd also say you've got a LOT more pressure to play like a madman at the pro level. At the college level, I would say players are more aware that they have to stay healthy during college to get to that big payday. In the NFL, you're going all-out against the strongest and quickest adult players, with more money at stake, more people in the stands, more cameras on you. It's a pressure cooker environment. In that situation, wild and reckless play is more likely to emerge.

And yeah, I'm talking about linemen versus forwards when I mention size. Linemen the ones suffering regular subconcussive impacts on each and every play, banging heads a lot, and that is the cumulative trauma I'm talking about. WRs and DBs, even with the odd Dunta Robinson/Desean Jackson tryst factored in, tend to have lower rates of head injury.

34
by Stefan (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 5:13pm

Agreed -- in football you are taught to tackle with your head into a guy, while in rugby your are to put your head to the side. I play rugby and putting your head into a guy makes a big difference in how hard you can hit someone, but chances of breaking your nose/cheekbone/jaw skyrocket.

I think the big difference in how you play is not a helmet per se (rugby players often wear scrum caps), but a face mask -- without it your face is much more likely to get hurt, and people instinctively protect their faces much better than they protect the top of their heads.

So if the NFL wants to eliminate tackling with the head, they should remove facemasks. My guess is they'll never do it because it will result in many more graphic injuries like catastrophically broken noses, but from a player safety perspective it's much better to have an occassionally broken nose (and maybe even cheekbone) than repeated concussions.

35
by John Doe (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 6:05pm

"And head to head collisions are unavoidable? Again, as proven by what? Rugby players don't even wear helmets. "

In Rugby neither player has a weapon strapped to their head which causes BOTH players to look out for their respective heads. If I'm a WR in the NFL catching a pass over the middle and I sense a defender coming in to make the tackle I am now going to lower my head immediately following the catch. That way I can hit an incoming defender with my head, drawing a penalty on the defender and possibly a suspension.

In baseball you are expected to attempt to avoid a ball thrown at you for exactly this reason. If the NFL doesn't do something to prevent WRs from gaming the system then either helmet to helmet hits will skyrocket or every QB in the league will be breaking passing records throwing over the middle against defenses that essentially need to let the receiver clearly catch the ball and begin moving before they can attempt a tackle.

38
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 10/26/2010 - 3:18pm

"If I'm a WR in the NFL catching a pass over the middle and I sense a defender coming in to make the tackle I am now going to lower my head immediately following the catch. That way I can hit an incoming defender with my head, drawing a penalty on the defender and possibly a suspension."

No, you're not. You're going to lower your head because that's the natural thing to do, to curl up prior to an impact. But you're not going to lower your head hoping that he'll hit you. You do that, and you'll suffer enough injuries that you wouldn't stick around in the NFL.

40
by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 2:28pm

I don't think that receivers would actively expose themselves to head trauma, but people will sometimes do odd, unsafe things to get a short-term gain in a competitive situation.

I've done a lot of medieval re-enactment and in the system I play in, they actually tried to make the head an off-limits area to discourage heat hits. Seems sensible but they had to change the rule once they noticed people actually were parrying swords with their skulls to stop their opponents scoring a legal hit. That was without multimillion dollar contracts on the line.

41
by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Wed, 10/27/2010 - 2:30pm

Head hits, not heat hits. Obviously.

7
by tuluse :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 4:12pm

I always thought a "hat on a hat" was describing blocking.

9
by bubqr :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 5:04pm

I'm pretty sure it's the case too.

8
by bigtencrazy (not verified) :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 4:41pm

The only headshot penalty that bugs me is when the offensive ducks his head initiating the contact and the ref still throws the flag.

Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers is getting creamed on sacks at what is now once a game pace and I don't believe GB has gotten one flag for some flagrant hits.

Anyone know if there is a story on that? Is Rodgers disliked? Because even though he holds the ball he still takes some horrendous hits near the head and the ref stares blankly as if it's flag football.

27
by Ezra Johnson :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 12:04pm

I don't think Rodgers is personally disliked as much as he is viewed as the key to the Packers' success. Knock him out and the team goes with him. Also, the Packers' O-line simply isn't very good at sustaining blocks, so even when he's not sacked he takes a lot of free shots.

10
by Jonadan :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 6:16pm

The biggest problem with the rule - and I say this as somebody who thinks the hard hits may be excessive (though kneejerk reactions won't help things) - is that most people's heads are at more or less the same general height. Yes, you want to get low and wrap up, but if you can't, a high contact/tackle/shove/hit is better (strategically, ignoring safety concerns) than none. The majority of helmet-to-helmet is going to be incidental, even if it does occasionally result in injuries (and a perfectly legal tack can break ankles, tear muscles, etc), so the trick is to punish intentionally violent/excessive without destroying the game by calling everything that might possibly hurt somebody a penalty. But the NFL seems to be going with that latter option, at least publicly.

17
by Sergio :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 9:51pm

I don't think they would call facemask to facemask, which is probably what they want to get - tacklers facing the ballcarrier when bringing them down. Either that, or diving at their knees...

Hey, it's a perfectly legal alternative, right?

-- Go Phins!

18
by RichC (not verified) :: Sun, 10/24/2010 - 10:11pm

"
I don't think they would call facemask to facemask,
"

I've seen it called quite a few times. Its helmet to helmet.

21
by NHPatsFan (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 7:33am

This is where the yellow/red card system from soccer might be useful: straight red = out of that game, suspended next game. 2 yellows in the same game = red. Multiple yellows over an extended stretch of games (TBD) = next game suspension. For straight red cards, suspensions extendable by league review for grave misconduct.

THAT might actually be a more effective control mechanism. Empower the refs to toss a player out on his ass, knowing he'll cost his team this game AND next, and misbehavior may settle down quickly.

30
by tuluse :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 4:11pm

That's the way the NBA does technicals too.

Of course they give yellows sand technicals for stupid things in their respective sports.

25
by tomrigid (not verified) :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 11:33am

Defenders have a unilateral responsibility to avoid tackling in such a way as to seriously injure an offensive player. There is no other way; they are the ones doing the tackling.

I'd like to say that James Harrison has as much to fear from helmet-tackling as his target, but it's just not true. His technique is well-designed to protect him, given his enormous neck and the opportunity to line up the crown of his hat on the forward strike.

The defenders, relatively chicken-necked young men, have no time to square up; they are taking those hits wherever they land.

26
by Ezra Johnson :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 11:55am

The idea that the fundamental nature of the game is being changed is absolute garbage, as is the claim by some players that that was the way they were taught. You watch a Pee Wee football game lately, or even a high school game? Those guys aren't running around tackling with their heads. Even if the game *is* being changed, isn't it worth it? And isn't it worth it to get a few calls wrong if it saves a few skulls?

28
by smutsboy :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 1:01pm

The NFL's haphazard new policy may be useless, as have been a lot of Gooddell's kneejerk reaction to things. But that is beside the point.

Tackling with your head down isn't the most effective way to tackle, it's not good technique and it's extremely dangerous for everyone involved.

From pee wee on up, technique and player safety need to be reemphasized and much better taught. If the NFL and NCAA instituted campaigns against tackling with your head down, it would have a significant trickle down effect.

The technique instruction in high school and lower levels is awful, if not completely non existent.

Proper education and coaching needs to be installed at virtually every level of the game.

29
by Arkaein :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 3:55pm

I figured before this weekend that all the talk about football being completely changed by these new rule enforcements was bunk, and after nearly one weekend of play I think I'm right. Players still managed to play hard, they just avoided a few cases where they might have gotten in a cheap shot.

The reason why the game will NOT fundamentally change is that the hits that caused the rule emphasis are such a small percentage of total plays. The whole change was precipitated by a total of 4 plays in a single weekend of 14 games.

The average team gets something like 65-70 snaps from scrimmage in a game. For two teams and adding in special teams plays there will be close to 150 plays in an NFL game. With an average of about 15 games per week in the NFL, that means there are something like 2250 plays each week.

4 out of 2250 is 0.18%. Rule emphasis that affects about 1 in 500 plays simply will not have a significant effect on how the game is played, other than the intended effect of eliminating a few cheap shots. And no, it won't prevent Dunta Robinson type plays, but it still seems like a good trade-off.

31
by Ezra Johnson :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 4:42pm

Yes, but on the other hand, by some accounts the real damage is suffered by the linemen crashing together on nearly every play. See Kyle Turley, for example. Of course, that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands because the solution isn't 100% perfect. That's why I'm quite surprised by the position Aaron seems to be taking on this.

32
by Arkaein :: Mon, 10/25/2010 - 4:51pm

Oh, I quite agree that the NFL will have to look into protecting the health of lineman at some point, and the sooner, the better. However, that actually might require some fundamental changes to the game that would effect every snap from scrimmage, and really deserves a lot of careful consideration.

Eliminating a few cheap shots per game via simple rule emphasis is a much easier task, and a step in the right direction.

36
by ChicagoRaider :: Tue, 10/26/2010 - 11:46am

At least the league, football players (or former players) and fans are having a serious conversation about all of this. I have to believe that if this keeps up, over the next couple of years the game will be safer and no less interesting.

After all, cutting the defensive back to wide receiver contact supposedly made the game more interesting, right?

43
by JL (not verified) :: Thu, 10/28/2010 - 10:40am

Not to nitpick, but the expression 'getting a hat on a hat' is used to describe blocking as opposed to tacking.

44
by Mosi's Mullet (not verified) :: Thu, 10/28/2010 - 12:21pm

Another significant difference b/t football and rugby which impacts how tackling is done: the concept of downs. On nearly every tackle, a player is looking to knock the opponent back as much as possible. If the tackle takes place close to the first down marker, all the more reason. And with good reason obviously - stopping first downs is a good thing for a defense.

In rugby, the name of the game is possession, not yardage. A defender is generally not interested in saving 2 yards by knocking a ball carrier back. He is interested in getting the ball carrier down, of course, but its OK (strategically) to allow him to fall forward. In fact, it may help his team gain possession of the ball if the ball carrier cannot present the ball to his own team well enough.

I played 4A high school football in the American south and later club rugby. In both cases undersized but a sound tackler. It took exactly 1 b-side rugby game for me to pretty much totally change my tackling technique. This was done with self preservation in mind.

Each new rugby season would bring a new batch of former football players who either learned/listened how to tackle properly, or broke collarbones. There really was no in between.