After a quick sampling of early preseason games, it appears the NFL's emphasis on safety is having a surprising unintended consequence -- improved tackling.
That is the opinion of Hall of Fame coach John Madden after watching only four preseason games this week. Madden has a vested interest in the impact of new rules on safety. He and Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott co-chair the NFL Player and Safety Advisory Panel.
Put aside the wise cracks about the dynamic duo of Madden and Lott on a safety panel being akin to the Fox guarding the chicken coop. While both are well known for their aggressive approach to the game, this is a matter they take seriously in the interest of the players and the future of the game.
"Of course you are always concerned how any change will impact the game," Madden told The Sports Xchange Friday. "In this case, players are not going for the head shot, that big hit. They are keeping their heads up.
"Better tackling has become the unintended consequence. That's a good thing. Good for football. Good for kids watching. I only saw four games, but it was obvious to me. Players are tackling the way they are supposed to, with their shoulders and wrapping up."
Madden admitted the games included three of the best tackling teams in the NFL anyway -- San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta. But he still noted that the play was in stark contrast to a trend that developed in the previous decade, when big hits were celebrated by special replay on ESPN.
"The big hit, the big replay had become so popular that tackling suffered," Madden said. "Tackling was bad for many years. I think it could be turning around because players are getting back to the fundamentals."
When the Safety Advisory Panel was announced in 2011, and rules against using the crown of the helmet were implemented, there was concern that the nature of the game would change. Although he may not have been totally sure himself at that time about the impact of changes, Madden predicted the game would be fine, if not better.
"This is a way of looking at player safety and the way the game is played and how it will be played," Madden said in 2011. "Football is a tough game, the NFL is tough. Guys are big and fast and strong and there are violent hits. It's a violent game. Within that, how do we make it safer?
"You are not going to take the hitting out of football, or take big, fast, strong guys having collisions out of football. There are ways of making it safer and I just want to be part of that."
And so he is. But even Madden might admit that he thought at the time that the safety changes would result in improved tackling as an "unintended consequence."
--Even as the San Francisco 49ers are rated by many as the best team in the NFL, their most obvious change since the beginning of last year may also be their biggest concern.
At this time last season, Alex Smith was the starting quarterback and Colin Kaepernick was No. 2. Even in the preseason, coach Jim Harbaugh inserted Kaepernick at odd times to see what he could do. And what he did, even in the preseason, was eye-opening. Little did anybody know that this was Harbaugh's harbinger of the 49ers future with Kaepernick.
In one of the biggest stories of 2012, Smith was sidelined by a concussion late in the season and never regained his job. He is now starting for the Kansas City Chiefs, whom the 49ers play in their next preseason game.
However, the 49ers' overall quarterbacking situation is now unsteady, especially with veteran Colt McCoy undergoing an MRI on his throwing shoulder Friday. He hurt it in Thursday night's 10-6 preseason loss to the Denver Broncos.
It is the same shoulder he famously hurt at Texas in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama. And even before Thursday he wasn't 100 percent from the college injury. But at least he played 21 NFL games while with the Cleveland Browns.
If he is unable to play, the 49ers No. 2 quarterback will be Scott Tolzien, who has never started an NFL game. He admitted he needs to improve after he completed 15 of 26 passes for 158 yards with an interception Thursday night.
It is a precarious situation considering Kaepernick's game includes his threat as a runner. For the 49ers, that could be a double-edged threat.