Gridiron player safety: It's not as simple as taking away the helmets

Bob Levey

How might this hypothetical change affect the game as we know it?

It won't have escaped your notice that the NFL is increasingly highlighting safety concerns in the wake of concussion lawsuits, deaths of former players who were found to suffer from CTE, and recently voting to ban running backs from initiating contact with the helmet when running outside of the tackles... a change that, inexplicably, had Matt Forte - of all people - bitching and moaning.

The issue of unsafe tackling technique had been brought up by Lester a full year before Hardin got himself on IR in Tackling 101: Facemask on the football, see what you hit, and people (as well as Da Coach) have suggested that, as better helmets have resulted in players using them in a way which are no longer purely for protection, one solution might be to take them away.

What would happen if helmets were removed from the game? Tackles aren't the only aspect of the game that would be affected.

Tackling

The big one, of course, is the tackle. Foolish technique like the following notwithstanding...

...players would, through a process of elimination - hopefully not literally - very quickly learn not to hit with their head. Hitting players in the head would have to be outlawed for everyone, not just quarterbacks.

The rushing game

The removal of helmets and the subsequent need for better tackling technique should also make low tackles safer; I'd been somewhat surprised to hear running backs say they would rather be hit helmet-to-helmet than to be hit low, until I realised what they were talking about was receiving a defender's entire body mass plus helmet and pads ploughing through their legs, potentially resulting in devastating injuries to their knees.

That ain't no thang for the tackler because your helmet and pads should protect you from the impact on the knee, and that momentum should take you through the bodyspace of the player whose legs you're chopping down. In the absence of a helmet, tacklers wouldn't want to get their head below waist height lest they risk a knee to their unprotected head.

Wide receivers and the jump ball

Hitting players in the air would have to become a no-no, as they would be unable to control their landing and, in the absence of protective headwear, the risk of bouncing their head off the ground would be too great. Hits like Danieal Manning's on Miami WR Davone Bess would become a thing of the past:

- which would be a shame as it's quite a spectacle, but only feasible with head protection (and even then, bouncing your helmeted head off the ground isn't good for you).

Clearly this would swing the balance in favo(u)r of the offense - teams would soon have tall receivers jumping for every ball, safe in the knowledge that defensive players can't touch them until they land, and jump balls in the end zone would be difficult to defend without having big defenders to compete... but then again, they already are.

Conceivably what we call a tip-tackle in rugby would probably also have to be controlled: players are not allowed to tip over an opponent when making a tackle so they land neck/shoulder first, and a player who lifts an opponent off the ground in the course of making a tackle (as executed by the rugby player in this video) is responsible for safely returning them to the ground.

Defensively, timing the hit to (legally) separate ball and receiver would be paramount, and I can see a future where Charles Tillman's ball-punching skills will be copied and taught as a primary skill for players on that side of the ball.

Hypothetically and more radically, perhaps requiring players who score a touchdown to actually touch it down might be something to consider; it would give defenders that split second to push them out of bounds, punch the ball out, or get under the ball and prevent it from being grounded. It would also effectively shrink the end zone for receivers, redressing the imbalance between the offense and defense.

Blocking

This is the facet of the game I know least about so I hope those of you who have experience of its technicalities can pitch in. Growing up and watching from afar, I was under the impression that, cut blocks aside, blocking should be with the hands, kept within the width of the shoulders, but I've often seen players making helmet-to-helmet hits. The main issue might be with offensive linemen firing out of their stance on running plays, against defensive linemen who are also in a low stance.

Being more of a free-for-all than the structured scrummages in rugby, it might be difficult to remove head-to-head contact from this aspect of the game entirely... though it may also place more of a premium on hand punch, hand position, being low in the stance, and driving from the legs. You know, actual technique.

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I doubt that helmets would be removed from the game in the foreseeable future because of the impact it would have on the way the game is played, but it's interesting to note that - as this article from SI.com points out - helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures, not concussions. With safety being an increasing concern for the NFL, it's unlikely that they won't tinker with the game again in the future.

What could or should be done to make it safer, without watering down the product too far?

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