The play that had T.J. Ward clip Rob Gronkowski’s knee in the Browns Patriots game was technically legal; legal, but not right. Ward went low, hit Gronkowki with his upper body and possibly his helmet which hit Gronkowski in his right knee as he was trying to plant. He went down in immense pain, left on a cart and the Patriots are down a tight end and for the time being, Gronkowski is reportedly without a working ACL. That does not mean that Ward needs to be fined, suspended or anything else, but this play is an example of a bad logic that players within the NFL seem to have adopted and a well-meaning rule in need of serious adjustment.
The rule that has been adopted in the NFL in regards to targeting makes sense on the surface. A league that is conscious of concussions now (better late than never) is working to reduce the number of them for the sake of their survival. Flagging opponents for targeting the head, hitting the quarterback in the head and all of that make sense in theory, but has some logistical issues that are backfiring.
The first issue is having officials try to call the penalties live and have no ability to review and check to see if the call was right. The NFL’s refusal to have an official standing by while watching video that can just sits there, watching video and can relay it down to the head official on the field is absurd and old-fashioned, especially when compared to the NCAA that has embraced the concept of an in booth referee which makes reviews go much faster or be prevented altogether.
As a result, there have been a number of plays called incorrectly because they look wrong when they are in fact legal and ‘clean’. The result is that players on NFL teams are so terrified that they will get flagged and fined going high that they are going overboard to go low. While the number of injuries to this method of tackling is actually relatively low, the danger is there and situations like with Gronkowski or Miami Dolphins Dustin Keller are incredibly unfortunate.
The second problem is the idea that every play that has helmets hitting helmets be a penalty. The hope is this is a temporary way to scare players from doing it with the intention to pull back after making their point. Helmets are going to hit by virtue of the fact they are pretty big and players end up being close in height. The issue that needs to be resolved better is where the source of the brute force originates. If the helmet and head are applying all of the force, it should be a penalty. If the body makes contact first and absorbs the contact, the incidental contact from helmets is less powerful and reduces the force. All of the helmet to helmet contact cannot be eliminated as it is simply not possible. The intent and where the force comes from needs to be the issue and that can better be addressed with an in booth referee watching the game live and being able to look at it as the game is going on, avoiding the need to stop it. The accuracy of the call is better and what should be the emphasis of the rule is enforced and protected.
The misguided reality from the players’ standpoint is the concept of not being able to go high so they have to go low. What they are really saying is they cannot launch themselves as a missile towards their head, so they are launching themselves as a missile to trip up their legs. That is an unbelievable oversimplification of what this rule should be attempting to do.
The design of the rules in order to protect player safety should be not simply be geared of avoiding high hits, but helmet to helmet hits. More specifically, helmet to helmet being the initial contact where all the force is from the players’ heads. The goal of the rule and rules like it should be to encourage better tackling from defenders; something that gets worse by the year. Few defenders in the NFL can consistently use form, chest up the opponent, wrap up and drive their legs through contact. What is sad is the ones that do are incredibly successful.
The now retired Ray Lewis was one of the better form tackler in the time he played in the league. He did a good job of keeping his feet under him, wrapping opponents up and driving through contact. Lewis could hit hard but the hits were typically clean with both guys getting up as the hits tended to be in the trunk of the body. There are going to be hits to the head and knees in his history but he did a good job of consistently using good form to make tackles and he is going to go down as one of the best linebackers in NFL history. His tape is not filled with ugly lunging, diving at limbs and everything else. He came up and chested guys up to make the plays.
Anytime Chris Spielman is commentating on a college football broadcast, he is almost begging for anyone who can actually go up and tackle the right way. The former Ohio State Buckeye and Detroit Lion was an extremely effective tackler who did it the right way and piled them up numbers because of it. He almost coaches on live broadcasts about the right way to tackle, does it every time he covers a game because it is an area of the game that has almost gone extinct. Spielman is reduced to be extremely excited the few times he sees a player who understands it and applies it.
Some of the best form tackling may come from Australian Rules Football. Certainly, not having a helmet puts a larger premium on good form tackling, but players are not looking to lead with their heads and use themselves as a missile to make plays. This is not an argument to eliminate the helmet or anything like that; rather to just encourage better use of technique while still having the helmet. The hope would be that the news about concussion would get players to use more technique, but it is tough to eliminate old habits and while there is a generation of what should be far better tacklers, they are a few years away.
Specifically for players like Ward and others who play defensive back, this challenge is more difficult. First, they tend to be the smaller player in the hit and when they are the last line of defense, it is an instinct to survive to just get the opponent on the ground by any means necessary. It will be tough to get players to buy in which is why it will likely have to wait until younger players get to college and the NFL, but it does end up being more effective to tackle the right way as opposed to putting everyone at risk with the helmet missile or shoulder bomb that so many try to employ.
There is no one party that is the whole answer to the problem. It comes from everyone; the NFL and by extension college and high school, the players themselves as well as coaches. A combination of everyone involved can work to improve the issue. Ward’s play was clean and he is not a bad guy in this. By the letter of the law, he did what he should have. The letter of the law needs to be changed and tweaked, the enforcement of the rule needs to be far more effective, and both players and coaches need to work to avoid this missile style of tackling and get back to form tackling that was learned and inspired by a helmetless game. Helmets are great because they do offer protection even if they are never going to be perfect, but everyone involved with football needs to make them work to the best of their ability and not use them as an excuse to be a weapon or a crutch. It will not eliminate all of these hits, but they also cannot be the only way some players seem able to tackle anyone. It also revitalize defense in a game that is continuously redefining the concept of what constitutes good defense.