The Pittsburgh Steelers have sent three cornerbacks to the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson. While all three earned a ticket to Canton by dominating opposing receivers and quarterbacks, Mel Blount and Jack Butler have also left their mark off the field.
Blount so thoroughly dominated opposing receivers that he forced an NFL rule changed that opened up the passing game. Jack Butler, as head of the BLESTO scouting combine, had a role, albeit an indirect one, in constructing the Super Steelers.
- Now Rod Woodson has a chance to make an even bigger mark.
As Yahoo sports writer Eric Edholm details, Rod Woodson is stepping out to work with middle school and high school players in an attempt to make the game safer. Rod Woodson, currently the Oakland Raiders secondary coach, will be working at the Pro Fooball Hall of Fame’s academy to encourage and teach young players to tackle Rugby style.
- Edholm praises Rod Woodon’s rugby tackle crusade suggesting it might help save the game of football.
Edholm probably takes things too far. Nonetheless, no one can question the wisdom of Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle initiative.
Applying the Rugby Tackle to Football
The idea of importing players or principles from Rugby into football is hardly new. Like Brad Wing before him, Steelers punter Jordan Berry has experience as a Rugby player. On a number of occasions, this site’s Spanish language writer Gustavo Vallegos aka “El Dr. de Acero” has suggested that the NFL could improve its tackling technique by studying the way Rugby players do it:
— El Dr. de Acero (@ghvallejos) September 17, 2014
El Dr. de Acero’s 2014 missive, “Mirando Los Steelers, Me Hace Preguntar ¿Tacklear o Golpear?” (Watching the Steelers Forces Me to Ask, “Tackle, or Hit?” speaks directly to the points that Rod Woodson is trying to address – NFL players too often try to hit first and tackle second.
- Tackling in today’s NFL is more about mustering force and hitting than it is about using technique to bring the person down.
It wasn’t always this way.
Although memory flaws may betray some of the details, I can remember Terry Bradshaw discussing this while doing a Steelers game in the early 1990’s, contrasting the shoulder pads used in the 1970’s with the ones used in the 1990’s. Bradshaw used visuals to depict how “improved” shoulder pad technology allowed players like Delton Hall to use their shoulders like projectiles, barely needing to wrap a ball carrier.
- Similar improvements in helmet technology, have, ironically facilitated the use of the head in tackling.
Woodson relates as to why this is a problem:
When your head is in front of the ball, a lot of time what happens is that his head and your head collide. When [the students] see the rugby players tackle – and do so without helmets, without pads, and not get nearly the number of concussions that NFL players get, I think it will be beneficial.
This brief tutorial on rugby tackling helps bring the issue into perspective:
Absent pads and helmets, the importance of protecting the head becomes an issue not only for the tackled but the tackler as well. And, as the video makes clear, while force is necessary, the rugby tackle makes it clear that proper technique goes a long way.
Lest anyone fear that using rugby style tackles will soften the game, this video should dispel those worries:
Can Safer Tackling Save Football?
Steelers Nation reacted with outrage in 2010 when Roger Goodell and Ray Anderson scapegoated James Harrison in their attempt to reduce helmet-to-helmet hits. When Steelers fans fans complained that Goodell and Anderson were attempting to sissify the game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette cautioned that Pittsburgh legends such as Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell managed to combined hard hitting with textbook tackling.
- At the time, it seemed like Bouchette might be offering a simple solution to the emerging CTE crisis.
After all, the first known victims of CTE, Mike Webster, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Andre Waters had all played in the 80’s when players got seemingly exponentially bigger, faster and at the exact time when hitting was eclipsing technique in NFL tackling.
- Alas, we now know things aren’t so simple.
With CTE diagnosis coming following the deaths of older players like Ken Stabler and Frank Gifford, and younger players like Adrian Robinson, we now know that the problem’s roots run far deeper. And it should be noted the specter of CTE is causing its own complications for sport of rugby.
IF Football is to answer the threat that CTE poses to its very existence, then an effective response will likely come in the form of some sort of impact absorbing helmet technology, drugs that neutralize the TAU protein that causes CTE and safer tackling. If that day arrives, as anyone reading this surely hopes it does, then Rod Woodson’s rugby tackle crusade will have helped preserve the game we love.