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Tackling 101: Facemask on the football, see what you hit.

No matter what level of football you play at, tackling isn't that difficult of a skill.  It's part desire, part fearlessness, and part technique.  The 7th and 8th graders I coach are still trying to figure out all three, but It's the technique part that's lacking in the NFL.  Maybe it's because the best players in the world grew up not having to use proper technique, as they were just so much better than many of the players they played with growing up.  Maybe it's the Sportscenter society we live in causing players to go for the big stick rather than the sure tackle.  Or maybe they were never taught proper technique in their younger years.

Yesterday on ESPN's Sports Nation they discussed the hit by Atlanta's Dunta Robinson on the Eagles Jeremy Maclin.  A helmet to helmet hit that cost Robinson $40,000.   I'm not trying to get into the hypocritical nature of the NFL for fining a guy for a hit that will no doubt make a best of hit list for NFL Films some day.  But we live in a world now that understands the dangers of concussions.  Just as recent as 10 years ago if a player was complaining of a headache, he was told he got his bell rung, and to get back in the game. Times have changed.  The medical profession is now more aware of the dangers to the brain.  Concussion awareness is a hot topic, and USA Football has some outstanding information available on their website.

Getting back to Sports Nation segment, panelist Jon Ritchie, a former NFL fullback, was adamant in defense of the hit.  He even described that he was taught to "put your face up underneath the guys chin", when making a hit.  That's something I was never taught, we always were taught to put your facemask on the ball and to see what you are hitting, and that's exactly the way I teach my kids when I coach.  Ritchie went on to say, "I guess they don't teach that anymore because it's not that safe.".  Not safe to put the crown of your helmet on someones chin, yes I can agree with him there.  "I used to hit with only my head, my face", was his final statement on the topic.  I kept waiting for another meatheaded gem from Ritchie, but they moved on to another topic.

Now I realize there are many different ways to teach technique in football.  In many cases there is no right or wrong, it's just organizational preference.  A smart coach once told a parent on my sideline, 'there are many ways to skin a cat', when talking about our technique differing from the technique he taught when he coached.  The way I look at it, as long as what's being taught is being done in a safe manner, for both the offensive and the defensive player, then it's fair game. 

We teach facemask on the ball for two reasons.  Most importantly, if you put your facemask on the ball, you are more likely to have your head up and if your head's up, you can see what you are tackling.  Putting your head down leads directly to concussions.  If all the impact starts at the top of the head it's bad news.  The second reason we teach facemask on the ball is to hopefully pop the ball loose.  Turnovers are key at every level of football.

A one on one straight ahead tackle rarely happens in the heat of battle, so we ask our kids to take the extra step across the ball carriers body and to get the head across.  If a player does this the chances of a runner slipping the tackle decreases.  Some coaches ask their players to throw the arms up through the runners armpits and to drive through the tackle, some ask their players to wrap up and lock their hands, I just ask my kids to wrap around and grab what ever they can, hands, jersey, pants, leg, whatever.  In a perfect world I'd love them to lock hands, but football is an inexact science, and the picture perfect form tackle happens about once every other game.

I find it hard to believe that the lead with the head, or helmet under the chin technique is still taught.  When googling Jon Ritchie I came across his Next Level Football Camp, where they teach football fundamentals and position technique.  Let's just hope his coaches aren't the same old school coaches that taught Ritchie in his youth, or if they are hopefully they were smart enough to change with the times.


For some more great concussion info, check out WCG's very own Steve Ronkowski's exclusive report and interview with Hunter Hillenmeyer, neuropsychologist Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth, and representatives of the PACE - Protecting Athletes through Concussion Education - program.