Traditionalists bemoan the lack of actual two-a-days, the lengthy full contact practices, the spirited Oklahoma drill sessions. Others argue the game is actually more physical, collisions more explosive, with larger, faster moving athletes. The equation for this perhaps the most famous in the world, Einstein’s E=MC ², with a nod to Newton’s Second Law. The gist, that energy equals mass times acceleration, snugs up to the latter idea, that larger player bodies moving faster create more force, and that force, being applied within the game at ever greater rates, was causing catastrophic injuries and head trauma.
There are debates for both, but little doubt that the NFL and NCAA, on down through the ranks with new rules and USA Football’s Heads Up program designed to ensure proper form and head placement on tackles, has placed a premium on both real safety and the public relations issues that resulted after years of blows to the head adversely affected players.
The form tackling emphasis has made the game better. It’s smarter in every way, including the one that gets the ball carrier to the ground most consistently. But, it could be argued, if every player followed the proper form and wrap tackling, would the reductions of some of the toughness aspects, like the two-a-days, and the addition of more days for full contact, be needed? It wasn’t football’s contact that was causing the major problem, it was its collisions. There are no easy answers. Coaches, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen included, are wary of too many high-end collisions, though certainly a toughness to any team must be established. It’s a constant battle of balance, and what will give a team the best chance to win, be it 17-14 or 70-63.
“We have one or two periods of live situations, and any live situations we have we tackle,” defensive end Eric Kinsey said of the Mountaineers’ practice set-up. “So maybe two to three times per week we tackle, maybe. I feel like the technique, that has gone away. The toughness, no. But since you don’t get to practice it as much, you don’t get as much repetition with it and as a result you see more missed tackles. That’s the biggest scare players and coaches have is missed tackles. You can never have too many reps with tackling, taking a proper angle, getting your head across, things like that.”
Coordinator Tony Gibson bemoaned WVU’s missed tackles, or the yardage after contact, following games last season against Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M. In most of the situations, defenders were in position to make plays but didn’t, either because of bad form, poor angles or, against the Sooners, a punishing running attack that simply wore down West Virginia. Part of that might have been technique problems, but part of it is that teams also spread out defenders now, forcing one-on-one situations in trying to get the best match-ups.
Like the vast majority of other sports, the advantages have swung so far to the offense – which is exactly what was desired for ratings, among other things – that defenses are pressured far more in being able to play in space, and yet also not horse collar tackle, or brush a facemask, or strike a foe anywhere near the head area, while the offensive players are bigger and faster and quicker than ever. The deck’s stacked, and as a result of that and scheme, the offensive numbers have exploded over the last 20 years.
“We have probably gotten more live contact snaps in this fall camp than I have ever been a part of,” Gibson said. “You can’t do all out scrimmages (every day), because they limit you on those. But you can do certain drills, whether that’s an inside drill or goal line or whatever, and practice it live. We have done that quite a bit. We are getting what we need in that point.”
West Virginia held a roughly 100-play scrimmage one early Saturday in camp, breaking it down to 30-40 snaps with the first team, 30-40 with the second team and then 20 with the third team. It was the first beginning-to-end, full contact scrimmage of the camp for the Mountaineers, and gave each player at least 20 snaps of contact. But those, and a handful of situational scrimmage periods in practice, encompass the majority of the full contact.
“A couple days we have live periods going on,” safety Jeremy Tyler said. “When we have that, that’s when we tackle. Those days are really focused on tackling and making us better. Tackling is a mindset. If you want to go tackle somebody, you are going to tackle somebody. It’s better to work on the technique every day, but it comes down to want to.”
There’s been an adjustment period, but players are now noticeably attempting to tackle correctly, to hit and wrap, and make shoulder-to-shoulder contact as opposed to head-to-head. And as the up and coming players move into the collegiate game, after years under the Heads Up program with its multi-pronged focus of form, concussion recognition and treatment, heat preparedness and hydration and more, they’ll be better prepared to show that football remains a physical game, but it need not be one that puts in question the quality of life afterward. Only then will the numbers drop – Pop Warner saw its enrollment go down 9.5 percent from 2010-12 and high schools declined 2.3 percent in 2012-13 – begin to reverse.