The Payne Train: Practice isn’t the problem with tackling, dummy…

Seth Payne
Shutdown Corner

Selected in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars out of Cornell, former NFL defensive lineman Seth Payne played five years for the Jags, and five more for the Houston Texans. Since leaving the game after the 2006 season, Seth has been honing his writing skills, and has proven to be a real treat on Twitter with his football knowledge and wicked sense of humor. He brings both to Shutdown Corner on a regular basis.

When NFL players and owners agreed to the new collective bargaining agreement before the 2011 season, one of the items they agreed to was a training camp that drastically reduced the amount of full pads contact.  With the amount of contact limited, some are concerned that technique will suffer.  Tackling is not nearly what it used to be, according to 87 percent of the crusty old guys in bars that I frequent, and there has been some grumbling that this lack of contact in practice will make it even worse.

Added to the mix is the fact that Pop Warner and other youth football leagues are limiting full contact drills.  The vast majority of collisions in football occur in practice, so limiting the amount of collisions in practice should reduce not only the total number of concussions, but also the frequency of sub-concussive blows that many believe can lead to long-term brain damage.  Some traditionalists are concerned that this softening of the rules will lead to a softening of our young players.  Realistically, video games and soda already have a lot of kids maxed out on the softness scale, but that's another topic.

Whenever I hear grumbling about how full contact practices are necessary to teach skill and toughness, my first thought is of Ronnie Lott.  Lott is a Hall of Fame defensive back who is widely regarded as one of the fiercest competitors ever to play the game.  His hitting skills were legendary, but unlike many of today's defensive backs who excel at the launching blow but lag on tackling technique, Lott was the complete package.  He was able to deliver the big hit when appropriate, but he could also wrap his arms and form tackle.  Watching his game footage it would be easy to think that his training regimen must have included some kind of hardcore live tackling drills.  After all, he played in the manly 1980s, when boxing was still popular, chest hair was a desirable feature, and people thought professional wrestling was real.

(Editor's note: Seth, you're fired. Professional wrestling IS real. So there.)

The fact of the matter is that Lott played for Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers, who were notable for practicing in helmets only.  They focused on precision and technique, and saved the macho stuff for Sundays.  Some of the older guys I played with when I came into the league spoke of San Francisco like some kind of a football Shangri-La, where you could stay healthy past the age of 30, play in year-round mild weather, and even drink white wine in public.

Last week, while I was a guest on the "J&R Show" on KILT-610 in Houston,  I had a chance to ask Lott about whether the legend of the 49ers' unpadded practices was true, and if so, how did he manage to maintain his hitting and tackling prowess.

"That is true that we didn't practice with pads on.  We did a lot of work just with our helmets.  Matter of fact we didn't wear shoulder pads at all," Lott told me.

Lott pointed out three simple keys to tackling: Seeing the target, moving your feet to get in front of the target, and wrapping up.  And for learning to wrap up he credited the "big bag," a very heavy tackling dummy hanging on chains from a bar or cage of some sort.  Lott spoke passionately about the value of the big bag for about five minutes, and by the time he was done I was ready to go out and buy one.

"That's the bag that became my friend," Lott said, "and that was the bag that I would work on, and I would make sure that I wrapped up on the big bag.  Because if you're hitting that big bag … it's a lot like Earl Campbell coming at you.  And so when you're over there messing with that sucker, it has a tendency to kind of move you back, and it has a tendency to get you off your feet, get your balance maybe a little sideways… If you practice on the big bag you don't need pads.  You just need to be sure that you get your feet in the proper spot, you need to make sure that you're driving with your hips, and you need to make sure that you're wrapping."

Football is a tricky sport to practice.  Because of the force of the collisions, it is impossible to practice at full speed on a regular basis and still field a healthy team.  That is why blocking and tackling dummies have been around for nearly as long as the sport.  The key is to use those dummies effectively.  Ronnie Lott figured it out, as many did before and many have since.  There are of plenty solid tacklers in the league, despite what the crusty old-timers say, and many of them are on teams that don't hit in practice all that much.

So when we see bad tackling on Sundays, let's not blame the practice format, but the players and coaches who haven't adapted to it.

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