Bad NFL tackling stems from lack of practice
Frank Gore runs right up the gut of the Indianapolis defense. Defensive back Jerraud Powers delivers a big body-blow, but Gore just bounces off and keeps on running, one of two broken tackles on the way to a 64-yard San Francisco touchdown.
Baltimore's Ray Rice catches a screen pass and is surrounded by four Cincinnati would-be tacklers — emphasis on "would-be." Rice's right hand touches the ground, but he keeps running right through the Bengals for a 48-yard score.
With the game on the line, Brandon Marshall outmaneuvers Ken Hamlin, Terence Newman and a few other Cowboys for a winning Denver touchdown in Dallas.
What's the deal• Don't these NFLers practice tackling anymore?
Uh, no. Not really. Go watch a professional football practice. You'll see passers passing, receivers receiving, punters punting and blockers blocking. Yet tackling, one of the game's essential skills and the punctuation mark to nearly every play, usually gets a miss.
"We teach tackling fundamentals," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. "But there's no reason to tackle our own guys."
Instead, defensive players are taught not to tackle. They get right up to the ball carrier and hit the brakes, just missing him or giving him a little bump.
Make full contact, and coaches and teammates get upset. The Steelers' Hines Ward threw a fit last year when he felt safety Anthony Smith hit receiver Willie Reid during a drill. The Steelers have a tackling dummy named Big Bertha, but that's about as physical as it gets on most training camp days.
Sure, that keeps everybody healthy, but some Sundays can look pretty ragged. Many players get a chance to tackle at full speed only during exhibition games. It shows once the regular season begins.
"It shows a whole bunch," Redskins safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "That's one of the fundamental skills. A lot of people don't tackle now because of the salary cap. You lose a guy because of a tackling drill, you're the dumbest guy on the planet."
Phillips says getting in position but not hitting is actually harder than tackling — and that it forces his Cowboys players to emphasize good technique. Jackson, after watching a poor Redskins tackling performance earlier this season, isn't fond of that theory.
"You train yourself to 'just miss,"' Jackson said. "And now (in a game) you have untrain yourself in a manner of split seconds."
There are some exceptions. Many teams have live tackling during specific short-yardage drills during camp, and, of course, there's usually at least one preseason scrimmage that gives the defenders a chance or two to bring someone down for real. Those moments, however, represent a small percentage of practice for most teams.
"Even if we are in full pads, you're not going to tackle a guy, you're going to 'thud him up,"' Miami defensive end Jason Taylor said. "You can never simulate what it's going to be like in a game because there's nothing else on the planet like an NFL football game. It's quick, fast, it's in a hurry, it's violent, and you can't simulate that during the week or else you'll have no one to play on Sunday."
Some coaches are more aggressive than others. Jets coach Rex Ryan had a handful of drills with live tackling this year, particularly late in camp. Josh McDaniels, unlike predecessor Mike Shanahan, also had a physical, tackle-heavy camp in Denver.
"If they're poor tacklers, then you end up with a lot of yards once the ball gets into the second level of the defense," McDaniels said. "You can eliminate a lot of big plays if you've got good tacklers."
It's noteworthy that Ryan and McDaniels are both first-year coaches and have yet to have a team decimated by injuries. San Diego coach Norv Turner used to have live tackling every day on running plays during his first camps as a young coach with the Redskins in the 1990s, but the line got so long in the trainers' room that he lightened up considerably as the years progressed.
Arizona defensive coordinator Bill Davis, an NFL assistant for nearly two decades, was asked why the Cardinals don't have regular live tackling in practice.
"You can't," Davis replied. "That would actually work against you, because the body can only take so many hits and the season's so long."
It hasn't always been this way. Training camp used to be about getting in shape and hitting hard. It was survival of the fittest.
"We had 130 guys, and you could practice for six weeks," Redskins coach Jim Zorn said, who spent much of his playing career with the Seattle Seahawks. "There were a lot of those kinds of scrimmages, we'd go live. But nowadays with 80 players and really the idea that you want to keep everybody as healthy as you can, you have to limit that."
Then again, as Miami's Taylor pointed out, these aren't the old days.
"You just showed up for training camp, you smoked cigarettes at halftime, a lot of things were different back then," Taylor joked. "So, we don't do all that now. We don't tackle, but we don't smoke at halftime either."
Humor aside, there's no ready-made solution for the tackling woes. Practice it, and someone could get hurt. Don't practice it, and Sundays can be painful for a different reason. Defenders go for the big hit, but don't wrap up. They try to arm-tackle a big running back around the chest instead of the legs. They take bad angles — as if that "just miss" attitude from training camp was still in play.
Meanwhile, scoring is up in the offense-minded NFL, which to this day doesn't even count tackles as an official statistic. Offense remains the side of the ball that sells. Where would the wildcat be, for example, if the Dolphins were pounding their running backs into the turf on practice days?
That's not even a consideration for coach Tony Sparano, who has to answer to fans, an owner (Stephen Ross) and another demanding front office boss.
"You wouldn't feel too good about it if on Wednesday you took Ronnie Brown down in practice and he was out of the game," Sparano said. "I would have to do a lot of explaining to Mr. Ross and Bill Parcells at that point. I wouldn't want that conversation."