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Sports Illustrated’s article on tackling

Posted by John T. Reed on

There is a long article on tackling in the current Sports Illustrated. That is a really important subject for defense coaches.
I devised a great youth defense if I do say so myself. (A bunch of testimonials from coaches say the same.) But all a great scheme does is deliver a defender to the ball carrier ASAP.
That is meaningless if he is not an effective tackler.
The salient thing about youth football tackling is that the tacklee will generally be a star football player in high school and maybe college. Some of the kids I coached or coached against in youth football, played in the NFL. And the super athletes who play all the skill positions at the higher levels were typically tailback or quarterbacks in youth and high school.
One of the Ivy League coaches who recruited my son Dan said that all the skill players in the Ivies were quarterbacks and tailbacks in high school. That is a slight exaggeration, but the logic is lower level coaches have to put the best athletes in the most important positions even though the kid in question will be moved to a different position in college and the NFL.

Clarinet players trying to tackle football stars

So the tacklees—the ball carriers—will play tailback in high school. And the tacklers—in youth football—will play clarinet in high school. This is true to a lesser extent but still true in high school. Most of the tacklers in youth and high school are not great athletes. and most of the ball carriers ARE great athletes, relative to the other players on the field.

In short, it is really hard to get weak athletes to tackle great athletes, but I think we often succeeded.

Rugby tackles better?

Admiring rugby tackles is fashionable now. I would study that to see if it had any merit, but I would be surprised if there was much to learn there. I suggest calf roping. The calf is far more athletic than the cowboy. The technique is to stop the legs of the calf.

The tackling technique I taught was to tackle thigh high with the shoulder when tackling from the sidehelmet across the front the ball carrier. When tackling head on, I taught shoulder pad on the belly button, head on the ball side. We drilled that daily.
I also want the ball carrier lifted off the ground in both side tackles and head-on tackles.
When your feet no longer touch the ground, you no longer gain yards, no matter how good of an athlete you are.
One tackling technique that has been popular strikes me as worthless. I call it the lawyer tackle because it seems to have been devised not to stop ball carriers, but to win lawsuits if a player got hurt while tackling.
Chest-to-chest tackling by a clarinet player against a future high school star is just an annoyance to a great running back. Great running backs have balance, power, and vision. I have seen high school greats who looked like you would have trouble stopping them if you had a pickup truck to do it with.
Bo Jackson famously met a perfect Brian Bosworth tackle in a Monday Might Football Game and seemed almost not to notice him. He just continued to run right through him into the end zone.
So let’s start with the fact that it is really hard for an ordinary human to stop a great running back and when I say “great” I am just talking about like 3/4 of youth starting tailbacks, not Bo Jackson.

One-hand foot tackle

The neatest tackling technique I ever saw was my friend and teammate Rusty Jack who was in the class behind me in a small farm town where I was in middle school. He would just grab the ball carrier with one hand by the top of the ball carrier’s back foot. When you run, your back foot is upside down at the top of its backward movement. The ball carrier will then hurl that foot down and forward to take the next step—unless Rusty has cupped his hand under the upside down foot, in which case the attempt to swing the foot forward will suddenly hurl the ball carrier’s upper body face first into the ground.
I think that must take some tremendous hand-eye coordination because I never saw anyone else do it. And Rusty not only did it, he made it look effortless. Actually, when we were teammates, I did it once. A classmate of mine named McAdams tried to hurdle me. As he was going over my left shoulder, I just grabbed the top of his left foot and held it in place—at around four feet altitude. He simply rotated around my hand and ignominiously went face first into the ground. He jumped up wanting to have a fist fight with me for making him look so foolish. Even his own teammates said, “McAdams, it was entirely your fault. Jack did nothing wrong. Don’t do something so stupid as try to jump over a tackler.”

Mad at me

When I stopped coaching the youngest level at one team, I later ran into a fellow coach from a higher level there. He said he was really mad at me. Why? Because his kid arrived at that young level the year after I stopped. At the higher level, he had been getting my players for years and loved the way they tackled. He was looking forward to his son becoming one of my “graduates.”

The whole stadium gasped

In one playoff game, on our first defensive play, the other team lined up in slot right. We knew that meant they were going to run sweep right. My left cornerback moved up a little. On the snap, he exploded toward the spot where he knew he could meet the sweeper and tackled him just like in our drill. He hit the kid almost at full speed in the thigh, lifted the kid off his feet and deposited him on the ground about five feet back. That was their first play of the game. The entire stadium of parents and players waiting for the later games audibly sucked in their breath in a gasp. We won the game.
The tackler, Tremaine Webb, was one of the nicest kids I ever knew, smaller than average, very coachable. You never criticized him even when he made a mistake because he would be crushed by it. You had to gently suggest a change.

No best-practice conclusion

The Sports Illustrated article had quotes from coaches who say what I say and others advocating rugby tackles and lawyer tackles. There are also now some tackling dummies that sounded interesting, but I would not believe they worked until I saw a team that used them tackle perceptibly better.
The article never came to a conclusion. I hate that. I write how-to books. The bottom line of a how-to book is the best practice for the task at hand. SI just said on the one hand this; on the other, that.

The two best tackling teams in the U.S.

One fact that caught my eye in the article was that the Air Force Academy was the best tackling team in America and Alabama is second. If I were still coaching, I would ask to attend their practices to see how they teach it.

To be sure, it is far more than just how. The coach must motivate the players to do it right. What you tolerate, you encourage. What you emphasize, you achieve. What you demand, you get.
To have good tackling, the coach must not only teach it, he must demand it. Tackling correctly is harder than just grabbing a shirt. The coach must refuse to accept the shirt grabbing and block tackles (no wrap) and all the other garbage technique.
Coaches who are deliberately teaching ineffective tackling so they can win lawsuits should admit it and find another avocation.
The lawyer tackle has a lot of extremely self-righteous defenders. It has recently been the politically correct tackle.
My tackling technique is in my Coaching Youth Football Defense book and my Coaching Youth Football book. My Gap-Air-Mirror Defense book only covers the scheme.

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