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The Game Is Going To Change. Prepare Now.

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The Game Is Going To Change. Prepare Now.

I came to an epiphany last Sunday, in perhaps one of the most disturbing ways I could imagine.

As I watched Jermichael Finley writhing in shock on the football field, following a frightening blow to the top of the head that crumpled back on his vertebrae, I realized the truth.

When it comes to instructing players how and where to hit, we've done just about all we can do. And players are still getting hit.

On Setpember 22, Finley suffered a concussion after receiving a shoulder-to-the-head from Cincinnati Bengal George

Iloka. The hit itself was right at Iloka's shoulder level: in fact, you could argue that he wasn't even trying to hit him anywhere near Finley's head, as Finley was lowering his head in what appeared to be a dive.

That probably wasn't much consolation for Iloka, who received a $15,000 fine what what appeared to be a passing body check...certainly not the most vicious hit we've ever seen in the NFL.

Had Finley not been off his feet, falling to the ground, the hit to his head would never have happened. There was little that Iloka could do to pull up when Finley's head is coming at you faster than you are moving towards him.

A few weeks ago, Randall Cobb was lost for a good chunk of the season following a hit to his knee by Baltimore Raven Matt Elam. While many Packers, including Aaron Rodgers, expressed their frustration at Elam for putting one of the Packers' key weapons out of commission, its hard to complain about a tackler aiming low when they know they're going to get a huge fine for aiming at the head.

In most scenarios when Cobb would have his balance and center of gravity under him, that hit would never have happened in such a way that would have resulted in an injury. In fact, one could easily see Cobb leaping over Elam making that kind of tackle.

But in the bang-bang world of professional football, Cobb was forced to extend and leave the ground to chase down a high Rodgers pass, leaving himself blind and at the mercy of whatever waited for him at the bottom of his arc. Sure, Elam COULD have aimed higher, but we know that had Cobb leaped over him, we'd be celebrating his stupidity at aiming too low.

There's not a lot that you can do in that situation. But one thing is for sure: Elam sure didn't go for the head.

Now, fast-forward to this past weekend's devastating neck injury to Finley, and again, you can make the point that the defender wasn't being intentionally dirty and wasn't even aiming for his head. In fact, if you look carefully, the pad level of the tackler is actually in the perfect "sweet spot" that we'd be hoping for: lower than the head, higher than the knees.

But again, Finley lowered his head into the tackle. It's terrible and saddening, but the reality is that even the Packers conceded that the hit wasn't dirty. It was unfortunate. And the problem again is that a defender is already thinking of a million ways to move his body to abide by the new rules, and the reality is that there simply isn't enough time for a defender to react when everything is moving at bullet speed.

Three hits, three scary injuries, and not one was aiming for the head. The Brown flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play, Tashaun Gibson, might have gotten the penalty simply because of how frightening the aftermath was. He wasn't fined by the league, and should have been. He lowered his shoulder to midsection height, as he should.

The case might be that not only do defenders have to be taught how to tackle safely, but ball carriers have to be taught how to keep their noggins out of the way of oncoming (and legal) tackles. And therein lies the problem: how much can you ask six-million dollar men to adjust at lightning speed?

Look, you can go after the New Orleans Saints for intentionally trying to injure players, and suspend Brandon Merriweather for being a goon. But the reality is that once you teach the players that you can't hit with the intent to injure, it is still going to happen.

The remorseful words of Gibson this week, expressing his regret for Finley's future hit home, but also pragmatically expressed the same sentiments that I was feeling after Sunday's game: what else can I do???

“Right now, I'm at the point in my career where I don't know how to change,” Gipson said. “I could come up and tap somebody and they could run over me and run through me all game. I'd be cut next season, or I could do my job. Like I said, we've all got a job out there. His job is to catch the ball and get it to the end zone by any means and my job is to get him on the ground.”

The future of football can't be dictated by caution and restraint. That's going to make the game less and less like what we remember. Where you then have to accept the changes are going to be in the equipment.

Yes, more and more helmets that resemble incandescent light bulbs, as worn by Chuck Cecil in the later stages of his career , providing more and more cushion inside for the head to prevent concussions. You might see more neck support devices, such as a shield that prevents the neck from bending back, forward, or back in on itself as we saw with Finley.

In the end, we could see as much of a quantum leap in padding and protection in twenty years as we've seen in NFL uniforms over the last 70. Imagine the leather-helmeted players of yore coming face to face with the plasticized armor today's players wear. In 1940, Dick Plasman was heralded as the last player to play in a game without a helmet. Imagine how he'd regard today's uniform.

Perhaps in the future, an NFL uniform will look like an inflatable sumo wrestler suit in comparison to what is worn today.  It will be different, and it will be mocked by those who believe in a more "real" version of football.

But make no mistake: heavily armored (and protected) players will play more "real" football than players who second-guess every single tackle they try to make. The change is coming, but everything that has can be changed about player behavior is done.

It's time for the NFL, players, and us to step aside and usher in a new generation of uniforms and helmets.


C.D. Angeli is a lifelong Packer fan and feature writer at CheeseheadTV.  He is the co-host of the weekly Packers podcast Cheesehead Radio and is the good cop running Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (29) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Ebongreen's picture

CD, while protection will change, I think rules will continue to alter as well. I think the biggest rule in the offing is one forbidding ball-carriers and receivers from ducking - i.e. you must run nearly or completely straight-up.

Defenders need to be able to tackle safely. If the ball-carrier lowers his torso to minimize the target space and truck a tackler, he's also ducking his head right into the correct tackling zone. (Finley did this when he was injured vs. Cleveland.) That's going to have to stop - or be the equivalent of a "give-up", such as on a QB slide. Down is considered over and ball is spotted at the point-of-duck.

It's common-sense to me: if defenders must tackle safely, ball-carriers must provide a safe tackling zone and not lead with their heads. The way to do that most effectively is to require ball-carriers to run upright.

tundravision's picture

I would totally agree, and alluded to that in the piece several times. But the reality is that the self-protective behavior of ducking and protecting your midsection are far too instinctive and ingrained to simply instruct a person to "not do it".

If a linebacker is coming straight at me at full speed, of course I'm going to duck or otherwise try to deflect the blow. I'm not going to leave my chest, stomach, and groin exposed for him to clobber.

That really was my epiphany...we can't do much more than tell players to not intentionally hurt each other. Some of these things players do are habits. But others are instinctive reflexes. Its time to protect them in other ways.

Nerd's picture

Finley was getting low and running behind his pads.

Ben's picture

I agree the hits werent dirty but my issue is that NFL isn't teaching proper tackling. You dont go for kill shot everytime, its called wrapping up. The hit didnt have to happen cuz he was already going down but everyone wants that highlight hit n dont care how they make a play. Not saying injuries wont happen but a lot of these injuries to head wouldn't happen as often. Great article though.

Ruppert's picture

I agree with you. But I don't think it's just the NFL. Nobody can tackle correctly in college, either. D-backs don't even try to.

You really can't blame those D-backs for trying to make big hits. At any level. It benefits the defense a lot more to force a fumble or cause an incompletion than it does to simply get a ballcarrier on the ground. That's just how it is. Higher risk/higher reward. A lot of things in the world are like that. You can't legislate the risk proposition out of a situation.

Unless it somehow benefits the defensive players more to wrap up than trying to force a turnover, this is how it's going to be.

Big Al's picture

I think they should change this downed by contact rule and make the defenders put the opponent on the ground with downward pressure on them. Non of these spear tackles where you hope to make the other player lose his balance,because under the new rule if you are not held you can get up and carry on running.

Bearmeat's picture

Leather helmets prevented players from launching themselves at one another.

Look at Rugby: Just as violent as American Football, but 1/2 the scary injuries. Less padding is the answer. Not more.

Bumps and bruises, pulls and tears will heal. Broken brains do not heal nearly as well.

But this change back to less padding will never happen. It runs counter-intuitive.

Stroh's picture

The reason they went from the leather helmets to the plastic one was to reduce the number of cranial fractures (Broken skull bones). Going back to leather helmets is hardly an answer.

Look Football is a collision sport, not a contact sport. A collision sport... You simply cannot remove collisions and instinctive protective behaviors from the game w/o DRASTICALLY altering what makes it popular.

Fining/suspending players w/ pay is not an answer. Ask players and they'll tell you, the reason they love the game is the physical nature of the sport and the collisions.

If Goodell really wants to change something relating to hitting fining players isn't how to do it. What he should do, and this is from Marc Schlereth, is suspend the player w/ pay and fine the team/owner. If the person in charge of the team has to keep paying the fines, they will make sure the players don't do something to hurt the pocketbook. Especially if a star player get the suspended... They the team has to play w/o its best players AND still have to pay him Millions for his game check! Now that would change the culture!

In the end, IMO there is simply NO WAY to remove hitting from the game. It a collision sport and removing collisions from the game will give us touch football. Which is not something I would watch and neither I suspect would most of the public. Personally I think they've already gotten us past the point that its bettering the sport. What they're doing is in fact hurting the sport!

These are grown men and it is their CHOICE to play the game they love. They get paid MILLIONS to put their bodies in harms way. No one wants to see a player end up w/ dementia or mamed for life, but it is a possible consequence of playing a collision sport and these men CHOSE to play it anyway!

PackersRS's picture

The problem with the fines, as I see it, is that at the same time that the player is being fined for the hit, it's being broadcasterd in every highlight and put up as "10 biggest hits of the week" over at NFL.COM

The TKstinator's picture

I vaguely recall an article in SI many years ago proposing, describing, predicting a whole new type of "inflatable" padding along these same lines.

Anybody else recall that too? Musta been roughly 20 years ago, methinks.

Stroh's picture

They already use air filled padding. The helmet has air pockets in it and the thigh pads IIRC are somewhat inflatable to make the bigger. Problem is players find them restrictive and they think it slows them down. Players, at least a lot of WR, DB's and some LB didn't wear them at all. Now they are being forced to actually wear thigh pads, but they chose to wear the smallest, least restrictive. What they should do w/ padding is make it mandatory that all players wear the best padding available and that all player must wear the same padding, same shoulder pads. No choice in terms of padding. That way each play can't gain an advantage by wearing less padding!

The TKstinator's picture

The article i'm semi recalling called for no "hard surfaces"; there wouldn't be any hard plastic outer shell on the helmet for example. Just a big beach ball looking helmet, puffy shoulder pads, etc. It was weird.

Ma Linger's picture

Call me old fashion but I don't see tackling as much as I see hitting. Especially dbacks who can play off and have the time to come up and 'make a hit' not a tackle. They can hit you about anywhere and your probably going down and in some pain and possibly injury as well.
They don't try and wrap arms around a guy and make an old fashion tackle, they fly into your legs and knee's. Its designed to injure.

Vrog's picture

I agree 100%

jeremy's picture

Yep, Thats why Gipson was fined. He put his head down and didn't put up his arms to wrap. He was not trying to tackle, he was trying to lay a hit on a player who was going to the ground. It may not have been as blatantly dirty as Merriweather's hits, but it is just as dangerous.

The fact that he act's like "what am I supposed to do?" is frankly insulting. The NFL needs to keep suspending players for games just like the NHL has learned it had to do. Then the coaches will start teaching their players how to tackle.

Charlie's picture

Could use arms to tackle.

Longshanks's picture

I said it a week ago. This will slow the game down big time I realize it but dress the players up as knights. Mostly heavy steel body armour. Either that or go back to the 50's and use what was termed "flubber". Here's an example. See how much safer it was for the player. They have a major cushion that doesn't allow for injury. Harder to tackle but safer on the player.

Longshanks - The Jay Cutler of Packers fans

VApackerfan's picture

I like the knight themed game. Each team would also be allowed to pick one weapon to use. It is up to them when and how to use it. In-game language would also change to a more old English/Scottish sound. Horses are of course optional

MarkinMadison's picture

I agree with Ma a bit, in the sense that a lot of the worst injuries seem to happen when a D-back is coming up on a receiver like a Mack truck. I wonder what would happen if we went 1980s with the pass interference calls - allowing a lot more contact than we do today. More DBs playing tighter coverage more often might lesson the Mack truck effect.

Stroh's picture

Now that's a great idea. Allowing contact between the DB on the WR will force the CB to make tackles on the WR. Instead of the WR running free and forcing the safeties to make the tackle. It would also level the field some, since IMO uts entirely to offense oriented these days.

Lucky953's picture

All defenders will be required to line up within 10 yds of the LOS, which will take away that big running start for safeties.

James's picture

In my life, I have never seen so much talked about or so much debated when it comes to injuries. Kind of like a reflection on the legal cases in our children's schools. It's football. People get hurt. People get injured for life. That's a fact. But that's where the conversation should end. Get out of football if you want. But please, everyday you are disrespecting the actual football players of the past. Stop it. Now. No more rules. Play football. In fact, we need to remove about 20 rules that were established in the last 5 years.

Mark's picture

I hear ya, but the reality is that the NFL can't afford to let the players continue to get concussions, etc., because of the future lawsuits. It comes down to the money. The players will force the changes by bringing suits. It's already starting to happen, and that's why the rules changes are happening. CD is right that just saying "don't tackle this way" hasn't and won't solve the problem. There will be more equipment and rule changes coming. We may not recognize it as the football we love, but we won't have a choice, and the NFL will continue to rake in the money.

bryce's picture

Could not agree more. The rules are too inconsistent and difficult to enforce. Better equipment is the only thing that can save the game from becoming flag football.

UP-Packer's picture

Rules will continue to change in an attempt to improve safety. Equipment will continue to get better to improve safety. It'll never be enough.

However, the problem is obvious. Players are too big, too fast and too strong. The human being has out-grown the game of tackle football. You could be looking at the beginning of the end.

Gary's picture

I disagree that "everything has been done" and that professional athletes, the people who have the most control over their body movement of any one on the planet, can't adjust at game speed. They are already adjusting. If defenders can adjust to not hitting high, then they can adjust to not going for the knees, too.

But also, no one is talking about getting offensive players to stop using their heads as battering rams. What if Finley had tried something different instead of lowering his head? What if simply used a stiff-arm, or even just did a QB style slide? Maybe that's not "tough enough" but if he had been taught since day one to not use his head like that, he'd probably still be playing. The tackler did indeed seem to be aiming for the "sweet spot."

I'm not pretending to have all the answers, but it seems like the approach to solving the problem is one-sided, and incomplete, at that. I mean really, nobody had the foresight to realize that if you take away the headshots, we'd end up with knee shots?

Evan's picture

"But also, no one is talking about getting offensive players to stop using their heads as battering rams."

Not exactly true - it's illegal for them to do that now when outside the tackle box.

Now if only the refs would call it.

Stroh's picture

Recievers lowering their head when they're about to get hit is a reactionary response. Its a protective mechanism that you really don't have control over.

Evan's picture

In that great first-person piece Finley wrote from themmqb, he said he intentionally lowered his head to protect his knees.

But that's different than using your head "as a battering ram," like RBs love to do - AP did it to Williams last week. Should have been a flag.

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