The tackling options these days are best described by the words of a rebel warlord in the 2006 movie Blood Diamond when he queried, "Short sleeve, or long sleeve?"
It is a little dramatic, to be sure, comparing the option of having your arm or wrist chopped off with the decision-making of tacklers in 2013, but the point is there are no good options anymore. Hit someone too high, or get hit high, and you are either fined or subject to concussions and possible brain trauma. Hit someone low or get hit low, and your season/career can be ended by a ligament tear, or you are vilified as a coward.
As you should know, the NFL has been cracking down on helmet-to-helmet collisions on the field of play. Unless you're on the line of scrimmage, all helmet-to-helmet contact now results in penalties and substantial fines. And like any action taken, we are now seeing the equal, and opposite reaction from the players. When in doubt, like you are most of the time during a high-speed collision, players are opting to go low. The NFL is on pace for a record high of season-ending knee injuries. When forced to choose between a potential six-figure fine and someone's ability to play football for the rest of the year, players are choosing the latter.
The solution seems easy enough: Fine players for both going too high or too low -- but it isn't that simple. It never is. Granted, there are hundreds of different tackling scenarios on the football field, and players can be brought down in multiple legal manners. Yet there will always be scenarios that are unavoidable on such a small playing surface, like what happened to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski when he caught a pass in an intersecting alley, with a hard-charging cornerback.
An, "alley" is formed in football when there are walls of players on either side and your only path forward is straight ahead. "Alleys" can be created on the line of scrimmage or down the field, like we saw with Gronkowski on the last day of his season, and bad things happen when players collide in them.
When an offensive and defensive player meet in an alley, the options for tackling from an angle, or putting your head to the side of the ball carrier are absent. Instinct and self preservation in football tells a ball carrier to lower his head and shoulder pads when he anticipates a collision. Hitting a ball carrier above the knees yet below the helmet line then becomes very difficult when your opponent braces and bends forward for contact. The only way to tackle a player in an "alley," and avoid contacting his helmet when he has lowered his shoulders, is to hit him at the knees, or even lower.
Unlike other professional sports, football also has the problem of extreme size discrepancies between players. There is no other contact sport in the world where two players can be on the field at the same time, and one can outweigh another by more than 150 pounds. If you start fining players for hitting too low, on top of hitting too high, some defensive backs are going to find themselves in some very compromising, potentially dangerous situations. Players often hit very low when the only other option available is to get slammed by another player who outweighs them by 80 pounds.
The NFL once contemplated a "super schedule," where they planned to copy the CFL's 18 and 2, regular season, pre-season, format. It would seem one of the only solutions to decreasing the number of these too high, or too low, detrimental hits, would be to put more space between all of these players, reduce the "alleys," and increase the angles by adopting the longer and wider fields that the CFL employs.
If the NFL keeps adding restrictions to their product without changing a fundamental construct of the game, like field size, you may remember this as the period when the game was changed to such a degree it no longer resembles itself.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.