With about 5:16 remaining in the first quarter, Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs received a punt around the 26 yard line and immediately began sprinting up field along the sideline. Seeing several Baltimore players impeding his path, he cut back towards the middle of the field, where Baltimore’s Morgan Cox grabbed him and began the process of wrestling him to the ground.
Cribbs lowered his shoulders and tried to churn his legs through the tackle, but was met with a ferocious collision by Baltimore linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who had come streaking across the field to help Cox finish the tackle. The impact of the helmet-to-helmet hit forced a fumble and popped Cribb’s helmet off like a champagne cork. Cribbs fell to the ground, where his body went limp.
He was motionless for several minutes as concerned players from both sides gathered round, many of them praying for his well-being. Ellerbe could be seen on one knee with covering his face with his hand, clearly shaken by the unintended consequences of his play.
While Cribbs eventually walked off on his own power, the play was an ominous beginning to Week Four of the NFL season. Week Three saw Raiders Darrius Heyward-Bey carted off the field on a stretcher following a brutal helmet-to-helmet collision with the Steelers Ryan Mundy.
It saw Houston Quarterback Matt Schaub get Mr. Blonded when a helmet-to-helmet hit from Denver’s Joe Mays knocked his helmet off, taking a piece of his ear with it. (EDITOR NOTE: if possible could you make the words “Mr. Blonded” into a hyperlink to this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGqB6JIUzBo) With the officiating controversy thankfully behind us, concerns surrounding head trauma have instantly become priority number one again for the NFL. This most recent procession of dangerous hits is proof that Roger Goodell’s increased fines have not made the game significantly safer.
All three of these hits, along with many others that have been fined in recent years, have one common denominator. There is no attempt to wrap up on the tackle. In each case, the defender launches his shoulder, helmet or a combination of the two into the offensive player, counting on the sheer impact of the collision to bring the ball carrier down.
This technique is effective in the sense that it often creates the kind of monster hits that end up on SportsCenter. However, it is terrible football technique, a gamble that more often than not leads to miss tackles and additional yards after the catch for the receiver. Current Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather is a textbook example of how the occasional big hit does not necessarily translate to effective football.
This launching technique also leads to dangerously high hits more often than not. Baltimore’s Ellerbe was looking to deliver a hard hit, but his reaction following the play demonstrates he had no intent to injure his opponent. Mays apologized for his hit on Schaub but claimed he had no dirty intent and that he “just plays hard.” This might be true, but without attempting a fundamental tackle- getting low, wrapping up the legs and driving through the ball carrier- a hit intended for the chest can easily unintentionally slide up to the head area, especially with the speed of the NFL game.
Regardless of intent, this kind of hitting is dangerous and responsible for much of the head trauma that has legions of NFL alumni planning to sue the league. The only way to truly improve player safety is to legislate this kind of hit completely out of the game.
Imagine if any hit in which there was no attempt to use ones arms to bring the ball carrier down drew a 10 yard penalty. This would instantly change the culture of hitting without eliminating hard hits from the game. The fact that not wrapping up would immediately hurt your team would deter head-hunting far more than the threat of a fine and the inconsistently called “defenseless receiver” rule. This would be simple and clear cut: either attempt to make a clean tackle or take the penalty.
Anyone concerned that big hits would be eliminated from the game with this rule simply need to watch the replay of Baltimore corner Jimmy Smith’s hit on the Deion Branch last week. Branch caught a short pass, turned to run up field and was met instantly by the defender, who hit him in the chest with his shoulder, wrapped his arms and drove through the receiver.
It drew just as many oohhs and ahhs as the penalized headshot delivered later in the game by Ed Reed, but was a far safer and more fundamentally sound play.
Further example of the effectiveness of this kind of legislation comes from football’s companion on the pantheon of contact sports: rugby. Rugby is a brutally physical game, basically consisting of two 40 minute halves of constant hitting. However, there are far fewer issues with head trauma in rugby than in football.
Surprisingly, the game being safer is probably a direct result of rugby’s lack of padding. The heavy padding football players wear, particularly shoulder pads and helmets, allow players to use their bodies like a weapon. There is certainly an air of invincibility afforded by this level of protection that enables players to stray from the taught fundamentals of tackling.
This simply isn’t an option in rugby. Leading with your head in a helmetless rugby game will quickly render a player looking and sounding like a cross-eyed Dan Dierdorf. Rugby players are forced to tackle properly for their own safety. In rugby, the sole objective is to bring the player down. In football, too often the impetus is to knock him out.
My proposal would undoubtedly be an unpopular one at first. Ray Lewis and James Harrison would almost assuredly go to press and say “We might as well play with skirts on.” They would be wrong. Football would remain violent and entertaining. There would still be plenty of hard hitting. The hitting would merely result in fewer injuries, something that would benefit both the players and the league office.
There is unquestionable merit to the line of thought that it is impossible to make football a “safe” game, one which was recently supported by the ridiculous satire of South Park’s “Sarcastaball”. What I’m proposing certainly wouldn’t eliminate head injuries; it’s impossible to fully do so in a contact sport. However, it would be a huge step towards eliminating plays like the hit Josh Cribbs endured on Thursday night, something that absolutely has to be a priority of the league going forward.