Want to Protect player's Knees? Outlaw Armless Tackling
The catastrophic knee injury suffered Sunday by Rob Gronkowski is a major story not just because of it's implications on the AFC playoff field, but also as a part of a larger, long-term issue for the league. Gronk became the 41st NFL player this year to have their season ended prematurely by a torn ACL. It's a number that already dwarves the 32 such cases last year and 25 in 2011.
Why the sudden spike in ACL injuries? Many have pointed out that the NFL's aggressive attempt to legislate helmet-to-helmet hits out of the game has forced defenders to start aiming low now. Rather than risk getting a hefty fine and a costly 15 yard penalty, defenders choose to go low.
This reality was reflected in the postgame words of Cleveland's TJ Ward, the safety who ended Gronk's season with a brutal (but legal) shot to the knee. "If I were to hit him up high, there’s a chance I would be fined, so I was just being safe" Ward said. "Gronk’s a big dude, he’s not small by any means, it just makes it difficult. My intention is not to hurt anyone, that’s not what this game is about and that’s not how I play.”
While I think that Ward's decision to go low had more to do with the 50 or so pounds Gronk has on him (there's only one way to chop down a tree), it's clear that the danger of a penalty factored into his decision. In fact, the Browns got a cruel reminder of the NFL's headshot policy when Jordan Poyer got an incredibly costly unnecessary roughness penalty on what appeared to be a shoulder to shoulder hit on Julian Edelman.
So the NFL finds itself in a predicament. Helmet to helmet hits produce concussions, which have serious repurcussions long after football. The infamous concussion lawsuit may be settled, but the bigger threat concussions pose to the league is more stories like Junior Seau coming out. However, legislate headshots out of the game, defenders lower their target, and you have a sudden influx of knee injuries. Now you have many former and current players, Ty Law among them, saying they'd rather risk getting their bell rung once in a while than the type of knee injury that can end a career.
However, there is one dangerous correlation between both these high and low hits that no one seems to be talking about. The fact that, in both cases, the defender is launching himself headfirst like a missile at his target, making little to no attempt to wrap up.
If the NFL actually wanted to seriously make the game safer, they'd attempt to legislate armless tackling out of the game. Football will always be dangerous, but catastrophic injuries will decrease if this launching technique is removed from the game. If the players refuse to tackle properly on the field, use the rulebook to force them to.
Now, I'm certainly not naive enough to think that every NFL play can result in a perfect form tackle. NFL football is one of the most chaotic sports on the planet, and there are times when attempting a classically fundamental tackle of the midsection will get you bowled over. Especially if the ballcarrier is Adrian Peterson.
Despite that, I do not think requiring players to use their arms while tackling presents an additional obstacle for the defense. On the contrary, it could lead to improved tackling throughout out the league. The launching technique used by so many defenders is more likely to produce a big hit or a turnover, but also leads to far more missed tackles. For an example, one merely needs to look at former Patriot Brandon Meriweather, who every week seems to rack up another questionable helmet-to-helmet hit, and likewise every year ranks amongst the worst tacklers in the league.
I know this from experience, as I spent four years in college as a 185 pound rugby player. Trust me, wrapping up the legs is the smart way to try to get a 270 pound dude down.
The notion that this would take hitting out of the game is also nonsense. It's perfectly possible to deliver a crushing blow leading with the shoulder pads rather than helmet, and the use of arms to wrap, grab or somehow wrestle the ball carrier down can only help the defender in making the tackle.
Once again, I'm not under any delusion that a rule change like this would just eliminate knee injuries and concussions. There's no way to do that in a sport populated by 6'7", 265 pound monsters like Gronkowski, especially with the pool of players seemingly getting bigger and faster every year. Football will always be a sport based off of violent collisions, and violent collisions will also produce injuries.
However, I remain convinced that forcing defenders to replace launching with fundamental tackling will reduce the number of catastrophic, collision-based injuries, be it concussions or ACLs. In a league where "Gronkowski becomes 41st player to tear ACL in 2013" and "Welker suffers second concussion in three weeks" are two of the biggest headlines, anything that can reduce these injuries should be a welcome suggestion.