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Helmet-To-Helmet Hits: Why College And NFL Coaches Owe Dunta Robinson $75,000

NFL defenders like Dunta Robinson can dominate on the field while minimizing their risk of injury or fines, if college and NFL coaches insist on good, old-fashioned tackling.

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In light of the recent flurry of helmet-to-helmet fines, including the hit involving Atlanta Falcons CB Dunta Robinson, I spoke with my old high school coach, Ken Cannon. Coach Cannon was old school even in the 1970s. He laments that almost no one teaches proper tackling techniques anymore. 

A few months ago, I talked with former NFL linebacker Lucius Sanford. Back in the 1970s, Lucius roamed Grant Field as a monster of a linebacker for Georgia Tech. I still remember the chants from the student section of "Luuuuu-cius" after one of his solid hits. As a high school player at the time, I wanted to hit people hard and clean like Lucius did.

Lucius said the young guys are "more into being on SportsCenter by going for the ‘wow' hit." ESPN's Tom Jackson, another former NFL player, has blamed coaching for bad tackling form. After leaving high school, many players are rarely, if ever, taught fundamentals anymore. Warren Sapp said once he got to the pros there was "no tackling technique being taught."

Let's compare proper tackling form, as taught by coaches for decades, with what we see on Sundays:

The old-school way was to lead with the facemask and shoulder, not the head. When going face first, you can still see the runner. It places the tackler's neck at a much stronger angle to absorb the hit. It allows the force to extend down the spine and through the core of the body. When hitting head-first the force is centered in the neck.

Once the facemask has been firmly planted into the runner's bread basket, the runner has to absorb the entire upper body of the tackler. Used to be, leading with the head was called spearing. When was the last time you saw a penalty for spearing? Aiming for the runner's midsection obviously would avoid the head-to-head hits that are seemingly prevalent.

We were taught to aim for the runner's stomach, not his head. Grabbing a larger runner's shoulders will get a defender thrown to the side or carried. Going for his thighs would often involve a momentary headache. Going for the feet would often encourage him to go over, and thus leave the would-be tackler looking silly (we see a lot of that on TV). As an undersized, flat-footed, and very near-sighted defensive lineman, going for the ball carrier's gut was the best choice I had. 

This isn't to say that Dunta Robinson's hit was dirty, only that it demonstrated unfocused technique. Eagles players and coaches did not think it was a dirty hit. To me, that damns both the penalty and the fine. Expecting someone to defy the laws of physics by reversing direction at top speed is unreasonable. In every level of football the defender is taught that if the receiver catches the ball you try to hit him to dislodge it. This isn't to blame the Falcons' staff in particular either, as shoddy tackling is prevalent throughout the league.

NFL coaches shouldn't have to coach the aggressiveness out of their players. But they should be required to remind players how to flatten people properly.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.