I was at a grocery store recently when I heard an expression that often makes me laugh. A man held up a bunch of grapes, each of which was as large as a golf ball, and said to his wife, “These aren’t your grandfather’s grapes.” I think he was referring to how GMO technology is filling our markets with fruit-on-steroids, the politics of which is a conversation for a different time and place (Friday Night Open Thread, anyone?). It was the expression that caught my attention more than the actual grapes. I’m not sure why, but “This ain’t your grandfather’s whatever” usually strikes me as a funny way to comment on the evolution of a particular thing. Grapes. Cars. Popular music. In this particular instance, it has me thinking about football.
Frightened by the recent barrage of CTE reports, lawsuits and negative publicity, the NFL’s owning class has been reactionary in attempting to contain the damage. The changes they have implemented have no doubt been drastic. No touching the quarterback. No touching receivers. No ducking the helmet. No crack-back blocks. Modified kickoff rules. While these moves might pacify casual fans and certain segments of the pundit class, those who truly love football lament the way the game is being watered down. To these purists, football was once a straight shot of Jim Beam chased with a flaming jalapeno. Now, it’s a champagne coolie with a bendy straw. This ain’t your grandfather’s NFL, indeed.
Some of the changes, like the ban on kickoff “wedge-breakers,” make sense. When football was invented, the wedge return was logical. Players weren’t that big or that fast, so forming a human wedge that moved down the field with a kick-returner tucked in behind it was not particularly insane from a safety standpoint. It did take a special sort of nut case to serve as the opposing “wedge-breaker,” whose job it was to fly down the field, hurl himself into the wedge and break it apart, thereby creating seams for his teammates to run through and tackle the returner. The wedge-breaker was likely a linebacker, maybe six feet tall, 215 pounds, who covered forty yards in approximately the same time it took for Earth to revolve halfway around the sun. I’m not saying it was a safe job, akin to being a claims adjuster for an insurance company. But it did not involve the spectacular violence of its contemporary incarnation, where linebackers now 6’3-245 who ran like cheetahs collided with similarly large and freakishly fast human beings. Modern football simply cannot accommodate a wedge-breaker. The physical hazards are just too great. Its elimination, then, is warranted.
Other changes make less sense. The “strike zone” on a quarterback, for instance. Granted, quarterbacks are the marquee players in the league, and having them head to IR while the Spurgeon Wynn’s of the world pilot a parade of 9-6 contests is obviously bad for business. Creating an entirely different set of rules for a single position group isn’t a great idea either. The message the league is sending is that quarterbacks are both too important and too vulnerable to play by the rules everyone else does. They are “defenseless,” and like a child who has wandered into traffic, must be allowed safe passage to the other side. The wee lads know not of the danger in their midst. Except deeming a quarterback “defenseless” despite the fact that he possesses all of his faculties and is protected by a well-paid wall of humanity devoted to rendering him unscathed takes great liberties with the notion of defenselessness. Quarterbacks can be protected without being sheltered. The league has chosen the latter. This rule, and others like it that promote “safety” at the expense of football’s more violent nature, threaten the sanctity of the game in general.
Some of the most important changes that are taking place, however, are ones the public does not hear much about. These are not sexy in that they will not garner clicks, stir impassioned debates or create political talking points. But, when considering the future of the game and its viability going forward, they are essential to the sport’s continued success. Here are a few of these changes, and how they might affect the Steelers.
1. HELMET TECHNOLOGY
For those who played any level of football during the previous century, the helmet you wore was likely a glorified plastic shell stuffed with rubber and Styrofoam. Never mind taking a blow to the head; simply putting one of these contraptions on was uncomfortable. It probably looked something like this:
This was an “air” helmet, named as such because the gray inner tubing was inflated with a pump through a hole in the top. The air was supposed to provide a cushion to soften any blow to the head. There were two problems with air helmets, however: most leaked, meaning your air was likely gone by the middle of practice or a game; and whatever cushion the air was supposed to provide was minimized by the lack of padding and support around those tubes. These helmets were also extremely heavy, which had further ramifications. Players would lead with them because they were so big and thick, mistaking bulk for protection; and the weight of the helmets often caused players who were falling to slam their heads onto the ground. Both actions were integral in causing head trauma.
Air helmets were major improvements over their predecessors, but only in the way that electroshock therapy was an improvement over the lobotomy. Helmets today are vastly superior to anything that came before.
Consider the images below. This is the Riddell Revolution Speed helmet, which is one of the most popular sellers at the high school and college level. The Revo Speed has a molded exterior shell and is completely padded inside, especially in the back, neck, side and crown areas where older helmets provided little protection. There is additional protection at the jaw, preventing direct blows to that area (a frequent cause of concussions), and the helmet is much lighter (it weighs just three pounds) and therefore easier to control than its predecessors. The Revo Speed, and others like it, are to head safety what air bags, auto-locking brakes and seat belt laws have been to automobile safety.
These helmets won’t eliminate concussions or head trauma, of course. But they are far safer than anything anyone who has ever played has worn before. Coupled with the rules changes designed to take the head out of game, the rate of concussions and subsequent CTE trauma should be reduced for subsequent generations.
The advances in helmet technology don’t benefit the Steelers, specifically, but they do hint at broader safety issues. Helmets aren’t the only pieces of equipment where advances are being made. Robotic tackling dummies are now a thing. They are dummies in the traditional sense except they are motorized, can be operated by remote control, cut like players do and “run” up to 20 mph. Teams that use them reduce the wear and tear endured from live practice tackling over the course of a long season.
Guardian caps are another safety measure gaining traction at all levels of football. These are padded shells worn over top of helmets during practice sessions that cushion blows to the head. Limiting the number of head shots a player takes, or reducing the impact of these shots, is sure to benefit the overall health of a team. The Steelers would be wise to be proactive in pursuing these state-of-the-art safety measures.
2. TACKLING TECHNIQUES
One of Jeff’s recent stories highlighted the Steelers’ tackling woes in 2017. This is a sore spot among some fans (myself included) who feel the team’s inability to tackle soundly was one of the primary causes of last season’s unceremonious playoff exit. The good news (perhaps) is that the slew of rules changes will require teams to take a different approach to tackling than ever before. Players will no longer be able to launch themselves at ball carriers, lead with their heads or simply try to knock guys out. Removing the head from the hitting process will require them to tackle lower, to wrap their arms and to run their feet. In short, it will demand that they tackle in a fundamentally-sound fashion. Progress, then, means a back-to-basics approach.
I say this is perhaps good news because coaching staffs will now have to teach tackling differently. The teams who embrace this will have more success and be called for less penalties than those who drag their feet. This is a change that Steelers fans should welcome. Though we pride ourselves on being one of the toughest, most physical franchises in the league, our tackling has suffered from that approach. In 2017, the number of players launching themselves at ball-carriers seemed to far exceed those displaying sound fundamentals, resulting in a staggering percentage of missed tackles (one on every 16.1% of run plays according to the PFF numbers Jeff cited, good for next-to-last in the league).
By comparison, the Seattle Seahawks, who have ranked in the top-10 in rushing defense in five out of the past six seasons, are one of the league’s most fundamentally sound tackling units. Head coach Pete Carroll implemented the rugby-style tackle in 2012 and has drilled it ever since. This style of tackling stresses how a defender approaches and makes contact with a ball-carrier, how he wraps his arms, how he moves in conjunction with his teammates and, most importantly considering the new league rules, how he removes his head from the tackling process. In their 43-8 rout of the Broncos in Super Bowl 48 in 2014, Seattle missed just two tackles the entire game. When was the last time the Steelers missed just two tackles in a quarter, much less an entire game?
The addition of Tom Bradley to the defensive staff may be a sign the Steelers intend to reform their technique. Bradley is a long-time college coach known for stressing sound fundamentals. He may be more likely than Carnell Lake was to drill sound tackling form. Players do not like to practice tackling, primarily because it is physically taxing, and so-called “player’s coaches” like Lake are less likely to grind their units on these types of rigorous drills. An older coach like Bradley, who is used to working with college kids, will probably subscribe to a different philosophy. Simply stated, I expect Bradley to be tougher on the DBs than Lake was. Stressing tackling would be emblematic of that toughness.
Inevitably, the decision to reform our tackling technique falls on the head coach. This is one of the most important challenges facing Mike Tomlin in 2018. The changes in league rules on what constitutes a legal tackle provides him a perfect opportunity to revise his approach. Whether he does so will be one of the most anticipated subjects of training camp.
3. NEW CBA RULES = GO ALL-IN ON THE PASSING GAME
The Steelers have a Hall of Fame quarterback, the best receiver in the game and a stellar offensive line to keep their QB upright. Each of these factors hint we should lean heavily on our passing attack. The real reasons we should go all-in on the passing game, however, are the changes to practice rules adopted by the collective bargaining agreement back in 2012. Under the deal, two-a-day training camp practices were banned and limits were placed on the number of padded practices that could be conducted during the regular season. The result has been a reduction in the use of the running game. In 2012, teams ran the ball on average 44% of the time; by 2017, that number had fallen to 42%. A two percent decrease may not seem like much, but given the fact there are approximately 30,000 plays run in an NFL season, a two percent decrease means 600 fewer runs.
Why have less padded practices meant less runs? By reducing contact in practice, it has become harder for teams to drill the run game. Runs cannot be easily simulated in “walk-through” situations. They require live drill work, where linemen are forced to move bodies with brute force and backs must recognize their cuts at full speed. Old-school “Oklahoma” drills, where interior offensive and defensive linemen were joined by linebackers and running backs to practice live run plays in confined spaces, are virtually non-existent anymore. Practices are safer as a result, but inside runs less effective. In 2012, five teams averaged more than five yards per rush and ten were above 4.5 yards. By 2017, no team averaged more than 4.7 yards per rush and only five were at 4.5 or better. Simply put, the run game is not as effective since the new CBA rules took hold.
On the other hand, the passing game is flourishing. For starters, it is much easier to replicate without pads. Receivers and defensive backs still move at full speed. Reads are still made in real time. Timing is not affected in any way. Granted, there is no live pass rush and receivers do not fear being de-cleated by closing safeties. That type of physicality is being phased out of the game anyway. Coupled with the new protections on quarterbacks and the freedom receivers have been granted to run unmolested through the secondary, teams like the Steelers, that possess elite QBs and talented skill position players, should go all-in on the passing game.
This might be a hard sell to those who remember Jacksonville kicking our behind last January by playing old-school, smash-mouth football. That may be true. But the future of football is the forward pass. The Steelers averaged 274 yards passing per game last year compared to 104 yards rushing. That disparity of 170 more yards per game passing was the fourth largest in the league, behind only Detroit (+185 passing), Tampa (+182) and San Diego (+177). New England was right behind us at +168. Everyone wants a semblance of balance in their offense, but when the rules are tilted so heavily towards the passing game, and when your Hall of Fame QB is still playing elite football, which is the smart thing to do? Throw the rock, Randy Fichtner. Throw the damned rock.
I’m sure at some point this year I will threaten to hurl my television remote into the wall because a Steelers’ defender is flagged for a previously innocuous hit that is now considered sinister by the suits who protect the wallets of the league’s owners. That will be my perception in the moment, anyway. The truth is far more complicated. Football has evolved tremendously from the sport our grandfathers knew. To remain viable, adjustments must be made. The question now is not which adjustments are right and which are wrong, but how should we adapt to the those that have been put in place. My hope is that rather than bemoan them and clamor for a return to a day which is not coming, the Steelers will figure out how best to exploit them. Investing in new football technologies, revolutionizing their approach to tackling and going heavy on the passing game seems like a great way to roll with the changes.