Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Future of Football - Making the Game Safer

Concussions, CTE, and head injuries have been hot button issues for football in recent years. I don’t expect the conversation surrounding those issues to disappear as we start 2018. Everyone associated with football is trying to answer the same question. How can we make the game safer?

College and high school teams have adopted protocols for handling a player with a concussion or concussion symptoms. Teams have made major adjustments to both pre-season and in-season practice schedules. Some of those changes include reducing the hitting that goes on in each practice and though out each week cumulatively. Coaches try to navigate the equipment purchasing jungle to buy and equip players with the best and safest helmets. The rules of the game have been adjusted to help protect a defenseless player while others were added to punish a player who hits with his helmet or hits his opponent in the head or neck. The targeting rule is flawed but it was implemented to protect players.

Most of the on the field focus on player safety and specifically head injury prevention has fallen on defensive coaches. Specifically on how is tackling being taught. Many teams have adopted the Hawk Tackle technique popularized by Coach Pete Carroll and his staff with the Seattle Seahawks. The emphasis of the hawk tackle is on changing the strike zone (where the defender strikes the ball carrier) and keeping the head out the tackle. Both points of emphasis are intended to protect players’ head health. Other programs have adopted the Heads Up Tackling teaching program from USA Football. Defensive coaches cannot simply say we have solved player safety. We must continue to innovate and teach current techniques more effectively or develop new and safer techniques. Is focusing on defensive coaching all football coaches can do? The answer is no, but we also have to expand the conversation about player safety.

What he said is not wrong and reflects the attitudes of many defensive coaches and players. What if me keeping that offensive player out of danger increases the danger for me? Why is his safety more important than mine? Why does the responsibility not also fall on the offensive players and coaches? In short, it should.

Offensive players do get thrown into danger. QB’s are human, they make the wrong read and throw the ball into areas where defenders can make big hits. QB’s also throw the ball late or high exposing receivers to danger. Many defenseless receivers were thrown in to that position. WR’s make mistakes too. They run their route at the wrong depth, take the wrong release ending up in the wrong place, or fail to throttle on a route running themselves into defenders. WR’s also throw crack blocks against defenseless defenders. Some of those blocks are targeting and pose a danger to both the WR and the defender. RB’s want extra yardage on runs and will especially in short yardage and goal line runs lower their head in an attempt to run through defenders. This puts the ball carrier in a situation where he is leading with his head. The ball carrier is also making his head the most likely point of contact for a defender. How do OL use their head when blocking? Not just on a big hit with the helmet but also repetitive contacts with the helmet. Offenses continue to break new ground with RPO concepts. Bottom line on an RPO, there is a run play being blocked with the possibility of a pass. The blocking is not a pass protection scheme. Some RPO concepts include an unblocked defender. The results is there are RPO plays where the QB is exposed to immense pressure. A QB can end up defenseless or be pressured into throwing a WR into a defenseless position.

None of these situations happened because the offensive coaches or players wanted to make a mistake or don’t care about player safety. However, how do offensive coaches react to the last paragraph? Some will say that is just a defensive coach whining. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A few years ago when the targeting rules was added, my thoughts were the rule was idiotic and offensively biased. I felt the whole conversation was a bunch of offensive sissy nonsense and was going to ruin the game. My views have evolved. When I shake hands with a player’s parent at the beginning of the season I am signing an unwritten contract. A contract that says I will look after their son, I will do everything I can to keep him safe. It might help us defensively to be able to hit like defensive players hit in the past. There is no doubt it would affect the game. It isn’t safe to hit helmet to helmet. It isn’t safe to launch at an exposed receiver. Targeting situations aren’t safe for the ball carrier or the defender. I have a responsibility to the players and their families including the ones who play for our opponent. My responsibility is to make the game as safe as possible. So my hope for 2018 is offensive coaches take to heart what was written in the earlier paragraph.

How do offenses coach a QB in 7 on 7, practice, or a game when he throws a receiver into danger? How does that reaction compare to when the QB throws an INT? 7 on 7 allows for bad habits to develop. QB’s can throw with impunity. There is no risk of pass rush or big hits on a WR. A QB will most likely take more throwing reps in 7 on 7 than anywhere else. Are those reps developing safe habits? Are offensive coaches approaching those situations as opportunities to increase player safety or simply coaching completions vs. incompletions? How much emphasis is the WR coach placing on strike zone and keeping the head out of the block on a crack block? Does the RB coach get amped about a RB using the truck stick even when it wasn’t a safe thing to be doing? How is physical running being taught? Can it be done better? How can OL be taught to reduce the number of times there is helmet contact? RPO’s are becoming a major part of offensive football. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. How much exposure is there on a play with an unblocked defender? How will the play hold up to blitzes, cloudy reads, or unfamiliar defensive looks? It doesn’t mean those plays shouldn’t exist. I’ve heard many offensive coaches talk about how this RPO or that RPO stresses the defense. I rarely hear about how the RPO stresses the offense or the risk exposure to offensive players when running that scheme.

The biggest threat to football going forward is participation. Right now there are parents who don’t know much about concussions. What many parents do believe is football causes concussions and that makes football too dangerous. No matter how under-informed parents may be the core issue is they want their children to be safe. If the perception continues that football isn’t safe enough, parents will hold their children out of playing. Social media does not help this issue. In the past when you read the newspaper you read primarily about the events happening in your city and some stories from your region, your state, and the nation. Now with the internet and social media the stories of concussions in football in every city and state are at your fingertips. Remember what happens in your program now has a much bigger effect on the image of football around the nation. The internet and social media has made a world’s worth of news available on your phone. When you add in the fact that sports like lacrosse are growing exponentially all across the country the challenge becomes even more daunting. High school athletes have more and more options. It isn’t simply football, basketball, baseball anymore. Every HS coach has also seen kids who chose to specialize and won’t be multi-sport athletes. These challenges further reduce the pool of future players. Another factor is the US population growth rate is slowing. Families are having fewer children. The result is the future will have fewer HS aged students. Fewer athletes and more competition to get them to play football will be a big challenge going forward.

Football is a great game and I feel blessed to have played and to be a coach. I hope that in 2018, all coaches in the game commit to focusing on how we can make the game as safe as possible regardless of what position you coach. We are all in this together. Let's keep the great game of football thriving. Best of luck to you and your team in 2018!