Football without helmets and shoulder pads might make more sense than current targeting rules

This first weekend since July without a football game is as good as any to talk about the future of the game.

The Deadspin article about removing helmets and shoulder pads from the game and the news that replay officials will probably have more control over deciding what is and isn’t targeting in college football next season provide a pair of points worth discussing.

First on helmets and shoulder pads: Drew Magary admits he’s not the first person to raise this point, and he’s right. Joe Paterno, who played in leather helmet era, suggested getting rid of the facemask before his death, and I’m sure there have been others.

This is a valid discussion, and Magary makes some good points. 

While everyone who talks about this seems to use the caveat of, “It will never happen,” or “It sounds crazy, but…” I actually think this might have more merit than we give it credit for.

Could we play the game without modern helmets and shoulder pads? Do they do more harm than good?

I think the answers to those questions are yes and no.

I’m not even sure there should be much debate about the first question. Plastic helmets have only been around for about half of football’s existence, and huge shoulder pads and hard facesmasks that further made it possible to become a heat-seekng missile are newer than that.

While I never played in a leather helmet or those old more limited pads, It’s not hard to imagine the experience was much different. Kind of like the difference between putting on an extra t-shirt when it’s cold versus donning a Carhartt — except the Carhartt is lighter than the shirt somehow.

They definitely don’t feel the same nor do the same job, and you have to act differently as a result.

Furthermore, rugby is still played with relatively little padding and it is still a fast, physical game that seems to be enjoyed by players and spectators alike across the world.

So while helmets and pads make the game different, they don’t make the game.

So then does that mean helmets and big, hard light pads have done more harm than good? 

Maybe that’s not the right question. Maybe we should ask if that was the only possible outcome.

One of the more amazing things about the story of football is that it became a national phenomenon even when it was little more than two groups of young men wailing on each other for 60 minutes or so with someone maybe squirting free from the pile occasionally to score a touchdown.

They played for decades before you could throw the ball forward, and it took decades more for anyone to actually do that very much.

Now the general perception is fans prefer more passing to less, although there will always be a place for physicality and the running game.

What does that tell us?

Football’s popularity is not from the high-flying hits so much as it is the combination of physicality and strategy. (Which is not to say the high-flying hits don’t add to the appeal, of course. They obviously do.)

The former differentiated it from soccer, and the latter made it unique from rugby, two games that had plenty of opportunity to catch on here first but didn’t. We created something new instead.

The physicality is appealing to us on a base level, but the strategy hooks us in and keeps us thinking about it even when no play is going on. They are inextricably linked.

I’m sure you could find people who would watch seven-on-seven passing competitions, but the mass appeal would probably be different. It wouldn’t stand out from the other popular sports in this country.

I’ve also always felt it’s no coincidence the most popular plays in baseball and basketball are both physical — home runs and dunks. Hockey is about scoring goals, but it wouldn’t be the same without the crunching checks.

Americans love nothing more than a good old display of raw power. See also the rise of the UFC in the last 20 years and the enduring popularity of boxing despite being the most mismanaged business on the planet.

As far as the targeting rules, I understand the intention, but I think they miss the point for the most part. 

The move to reduce certain severe hits that are most likely to lead to concussions is important and laudable, but I’m not sure they’ve gone about it the right way.

The truth is we never should have gotten to the point it was necessary to define “defenseless players” or even a strike zone on a player (let alone to do so as poorly as we have).

Before they sat down to define multiple ways a high hit could be illegal, rules makers should have worried about actually enforcing the rules on the books.

Leading with the crown of the helmet has been illegal at least as long as I have known the rules, but in the late ‘80s and throughout the 1990s it was hardly ever flagged (while also being frequently celebrated on ESPN).

No wonder it became more prevalent then, right?

At the same time, I’ll fully admit leading with the helmet is easier as a tackler. Any 10-year-old could tell you that.

It’s more natural, but significant danger aside, it’s also less sound of a move. I would hope most 10-year-olds are also told this, but I’m not so sure.

While I enjoyed writing about Ohio State’s move to “rugby style tackling” last year, I also walked away shaking my head because I could hardly believe the status quo had moved to the point long-time coaches would call it revolutionary.

Maybe we were more unique than I ever realized, but that’s pretty much how we learned to tackle in elementary school and junior high.

The head is necessarily near the point of impact, but the idea is to keep one’s feet and aim for the midsection of the ball carrier not dive at their shoulders or head.

“He can’t go anywhere without his belly button,” we were always told.

Some variation of “heads up football” was also emphasized constantly, a necessary teaching point because the most natural posture is just bending over and surging forward. Kind of like when we’re picking up something heavy off the floor we know we need to crouch and get our legs into it but we always just bend over and use our backs anyway, often with negative results.

If we didn’t have such big helmets and shoulder pads would we be less apt to let ourselves get away with bad form? Probably.

But that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of them if we work harder to teach better methods.

If we dumped pads and helmets, the game would not be much less dangerous.

We’d probably be less reckless and more likely to learn to do things the way we should be doing them anyway, but we’d be less protected, too, so I think we should keep the helmets and pads in some form.

I believe the targeting rules are off the mark because they “criminalize” some things that should probably be OK in an effort to get rid of some things that were already illegal.

They’re also so complicated they’re hard to enforce, which adds another layer of problems for players, coaches, refs and fans alike.

And for what?

All we’re doing is providing more examples of how dangerous the game is without effecting many (if any) positive changes that couldn’t have been taken care of just by enforcing existing rules about leading with the helmet. I don’t mean making first contact of any kind with the helmet but LEADING with the helmet. These are not the same thing.

A good sound tackle should really be led with the shoulder and chest. The head is just along for the ride — off to the side as much as possible to avoid it absorbing too much of the blow. There isn’t much else a tackler can do but make these efforts, but the targeting rules as they are written add too many variables that he can’t account for when there is a moving target.

In college football, “forcible” contact to the head is illegal but so is contact to the neck area.

If you’re aiming for the chest, it’s not that likely you’ll end up at the head by accident (though it will happen occasionally). The neck, though? That is attached to the chest! So it’s inevitable accidental contact to the “neck area” is going to happen fairly regularly even if the tackler is doing everything he is supposed to.

This is a huge problem, and I think officials have reacted by calling targeting less frequently than it actually could be because the penalty is so severe. And the result of that is that when a non-obvious call is made, nobody knows what to make of it even if it is correct. That makes it tough to change behaviors, though there has been progress in college and the pros.

On the other hand, there are still plays that should be legal that get flagged, and what is that telling the casual observer about the “safety” of the game? That more plays than they realize are unsafe.

That doesn’t seem like a good message to send.

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