NFL players should tackle their fans

I’ve never played organized football, which is why — though I like to write about the sport — I tend to steer the conversation away from in-game strategy and towards things I understand: statistics, technology, philosophy of sports, murder mysteries, English literature, word games, and so on.

But I’m still interested in reading about the game from the perspective of the people who play it — even when those accounts appear on Bleacher Report — which is how I found my way to Ryan Riddle’s syndicated column. Unlike me, Riddle’s played in the NFL* — he was drafted by Oakland, and went on to play for the Jets, Falcons, and Raiders — and that qualifies him to provide an insider’s perspective. But that doesn’t mean he has all the answers.

*After recently drawing a comparison between Russell Wilson and Harry Potter, and further noting that today is the latter’s birthday, I just have to point out that Riddle shares a last name with He Who Shall Not Be Named.

In a recent installment of his column, Dispelling the Greatest Myths Surrounding NFL Training Camps, Riddle listed five misconceptions about the recently-begun NFL training camps. One myth in particular caught my eye, and I wrote this post with the intention of offering a solution to the obvious problem it presents. I’m just going to excerpt that fifth of a column in its entirety for the sake of completeness:

This is the Time for Guys to Become Better Tacklers

Truth be told, there’s only a few opportunities in training camp for defenders to tackle anyone at full speed. Nearly every drill of every practice throughout the summer is done at “thud tempo.” This means defenders are not allowed to leave their feet or take the ball-carrier down in any way. The only permissible contact allowed is a light bump or “thud” with the shoulder pad as the runner continues to past you, hence the name “thud tempo.”

The only real chance a guy has to work on his tackling skills comes in the preseason games. The problem is in-game moments to make a tackle are typically limited to a quarter of action, if that. Such time constraints tend to limit tackling opportunities to perhaps a few times a contest.

This may help explain why NFL defenders are surprisingly poor tacklers. In fact, this phenomenon only appears to be getting worse.

It seems odd that training camps around the league would neglect such a fundamental aspect of the sport. It appears that the fear of injuries to key players significantly overrides any desire to become a team equipped with technically sound tacklers.

So, the next time you hear about an NFL team focusing on tackling in training camp, ask yourself whether or not this focus involves taking a player to the ground with any regularity and the answer is almost guaranteed to be a resounding “no.”

Tackling in an NFL practice is a rare event, limited to only a few drills throughout the course of a summer. This is hardly an adequate amount of repetitions for anyone to shake off the rust of an offseason without pads, let alone improve upon a critical point of emphasis.

On one level, the risk aversion makes some sense. We’re less than a week into training camp, and already Jason Phillips, Jeremy Maclin, Turk McBride, Dennis Pitta, Dan Koppen, Percy Harvin, Keenan Robinson, Armon Binns, Aaron Berry, Tyrone Crawford, and Jonas Mouton have gone down and are expected to miss significant time, if not the entire 2013-14 season.

These training camp injuries hardly all came as the direct result of hard-hitting tacklers, but if this is what we see before most players even start wearing pads, the concern is understandable. There’s no sense putting your expensive and fragile wide receivers into the line of fire and allowing them to acquire more bumps and bruises than absolutely necessary over the course of the already-grueling 16+-game schedule.

Moreover, concussions pose a growing threat to the game, underlined by the headline that recently-drafted Ryan Swope recently retired as the result of repeated blows to the brain box.

Which is why I propose letting NFL players practice their technique on the fans instead. Already, thousands of them come out to watch [we talkin about] practices just for the opportunity to scream for their favorite players and beg them for autographs. Now imagine letting them participate.  If Terry Tate’s officemates could put up with his unexpected punishment, letting select fans onto the practice field could be nothing but a wonderful idea. Sure, a sizable majority probably has no interest in being pancaked by Kam Chancellor:

But others would relish the opportunity to find out what the sensation of being run over with a truck was like. Certainly, it would be possible to find enough willing participants to make my idea work.

Sure, there are plenty of kinks to work out: for instance, the fans would probably end up with injuries and medical bills. But provided they sign liability waivers, and the team agreed to pay for any necessary treatment, it’s still a win-win(-win). It’s certainly cheaper for the team to lose a fan to a torn achilles than to lose a starting tight end: the medical cost is minor compared to the cap hit and opportunity cost of being forced to play the back ups.

To be perfectly clear, I don’t think just any fan should be allowed to participate. For one thing, most people who watch the NFL wouldn’t survive being steamrolled even once by a 240-lb middle linebacker rumbling along at top speed. For another, most fans wouldn’t make for interesting prey, and if they can’t move quickly enough and have no idea what they’re doing, the NFL players might as well stick to practicing on dummies.

But fortunately, there’s a whole class of people out there who might be willing to do this for the right incentives (read: money): former college players with no shot or intention of ever playing again professionally.  There are 125 Division I football teams, each of which provides scholarships to 85 players a year. Let’s assume graduation rates are distributed evenly: that makes for upwards of 2,500 players graduating annually. Only a small fraction of those are drafted, and a similar number signs on as undrafted free agents. That still leaves a vast majority of college players who simply thank their alma maters for the scholarship and hang up their cleats for good. And that’s just at the big schools.

These players are obviously a step below the caliber you’d find in the NFL. But for the purposes of a tackling drill, I would imagine they could provide at least a reasonable facsimile of a worthy opponent. And unlike any old fan off the street, these guys are used to taking the hits. That obviously doesn’t make them immune to injury, but it should at least help them hold together better than regular fans.

You might object: NFL teams already do this with all those undrafted free agents. After all, they’re allowed to carry 90 players over the offseason (before reducing that number to 53 + practice squad for the regular season), and that roster cushion lets the starters play against guys who might not be there come September. All true, except that that added depth is there for a reason — and it’s not to get injured. Teams use those roster spots to try out potential players, and the players making NFL salaries (or hoping to) certainly don’t want to risk their non-guaranteed contracts just so the defense can get in some non-roster target practice during scrimmage.

That’s what fans are for.

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