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Technique at root of NFL's head shots

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Ron Borges
Contributing writer

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Posted Nov. 18, 2010 @ 10:13 a.m. ET
By Ron Borges

Ever since the crackdown on illegal, unnecessary and excessively dangerous head shots in the NFL, there has been much hand-wringing in many corners about how the sport is being neutered by an insistence that the rules of engagement in one of the world's more dangerous sporting endeavors be followed. This is nonsense.

Critics of the crackdown on head cracking claim the game is losing its soul. The theory is that football is, and always has been, about high-speed collisions. It is, say critics of commissioner Roger ­Goodell's effort at a return to sanity, a fundamental part of the sport that cannot be tampered with.

Most of those making this argument have never been hit in the head by anything more concussive than raindrops. It is easy to make the case for continued insane levels of violence when you do not have to concern yourself with the fallout from it. Football players are not so lucky.

What is enlightening is to examine video from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a time when pro football began its ascendency to the high place it now holds in American culture. What you will find may be surprising.

During several long nights in hotel rooms far from home recently, I spent time watching NFL Films' brilliant series, "America's Game,'' about various Super Bowl champions. This was not in response to the concussion issue, but for research on another matter.

What I was struck by was the fact very few ballcarriers or receivers were being struck in the head in those days. They were being violently knocked to the ground, to be sure. What they were not being knocked down by very often was an opponent's head.

Why? Because the tacklers were actually tackling. They were hitting with their shoulder, wrapping their arms around the ballcarrier and fiercely taking him down. They were doing it with more than enough violence to impress anyone, but not with helmet shots to the cranium.

This is not to argue that in those days there were never hits to the head or that the game was concussion-free, because that would be untrue. But there was not the kind of consistent use of the head as a weapon of both destruction and self-destruction we see today. Unscientific that two-night sampling may be, there were few instances of the kind of ramming with the head that Steelers OLB James Harrison has twice been fined for and none of the launching of the head into a helpless opponent that seems a staple of NFL defense today.

In a recent game between the Browns and Patriots, Cleveland RB Peyton Hillis ran over three tacklers on a two-yard run into the endzone. Two were linebackers. None tried to wrap their arms around him and take him down. All three simply slammed headlong into him as if they were trying to break down a locked door.

Whether this is an issue of lost technique, poor (or changing) coaching or both, today's defenders do not tackle the way the game originally intended. So, if the NFL really wants to address the concussion issue, one place to look is how — and what - players are being taught in the first place.


Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald. 

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