Friday, March 15, 2013

Going halfway with the NFL

The National Football League got it half right.

The league’s powerful competition committee is sending a recommendation to the owners to ban helmet hits by running backs in order to cut down on head-to-head collisions.

The new rule would penalize running backs, or any ball carrier, from using the crown of his helmet outside the tackle box. It’s just another attempt to limit head injuries and thus make the game safer.

The proposed rule says nothing about defensive players who use the helmet crown to make plays. In fact, they are the real culprits in the rising number of concussions around the NFL.

That’s what I mean when I say the league got it half right. All helmet hits should be penalized. Players on both sides of the ball should not be permitted to use the helmet as a weapon.

The helmet is designed to protect, not injure. Because it is constructed so well, players on both sides of the ball have become a lot braver when it comes to dipping the helmet to either absorb a blow or deliver it.

The rule against spearing is so vague, officials have no idea how or when to call it. Too many times we have seen violent helmet-to-helmet hits go unpunished because officials swallow their whistles.

Any wonder the concussion rate is going up all around football, not just the NFL? A lot of the blame should be placed with the coaching of players on all levels. Improper techniques are being taught. All the players are doing is following instruction.

Before the helmet was improved from a safety standpoint, you never saw concussions. That’s because there were no helmet hits. Proper tackling technique made it so.

No one in the dark ages of the NFL wanted to use his head as a weapon for fear of seriously hurting himself. Helmets were a lot softer and far less protective. Tackling back then was much more efficient. Wrapping and falling in order to drop ball carriers was the norm. Shoulders and arms were sufficient enough to get the job done.

It’s true, though, that today’s athletes are bigger, faster and quicker. And that’s what they are: athletes. The NFL landscape is dotted with many more athletes than pure football players.

Today, we see players launch themselves at ball carriers rather than employ good, old-fashioned techniques. An old coaching caveat goes like this: Leave your feet and you take yourself out of the play if you don’t make the tackle. Stay on your feet and you have a much better chance of making the play.

When he heard about the new proposal, Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith was dumbfounded. “If I’m a running back and I’m running into a linebacker, you’re telling me I have to keep my head up so he can take my chin off?” he said during an interview with a Dallas radio station. “You’ve absolutely lost your mind.”

If that linebacker doesn’t have his helmet tucked to make the tackle, there’s nothing wrong with using a straight arm against him or dropping a shoulder and powering through him. That’s perfectly legitimate. No need to use the helmet.

That’s why the rule should also take into consideration what the defensive players should not be allowed to do with regard to the helmet. Reteach today’s defensive players to use their arms and shoulders to make a play rather than their helmets. Level the competitive field. That way, reactions like Smith’s will be rendered moot.

Take the helmet out of the game completely and permanently. Reword the new proposal to make the helmet nothing more than an instrument for protection, not harm.

And watch the concussion rate begin to drop.

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