There are 50 words, or some variation of them, that adorn every football helmet. They are plastered on the back on an ominous cautionary sticker.
“Keep your head up. Do not butt, ram, spear or strike an opponent with any part of this helmet or faceguard. This is in violation of the football rules and may cause you to suffer severe brain or neck injury, including paralysis or death and possible injury to your opponent.”
It’s a sticker that, for decades, went largely ignored.
“Before, if you had marks on your helmet, that means you’re a better hitter than everybody else,” says Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker in the 1990s. “You’re knocking people out.”
Now, with brain injuries at the forefront of a national discussion surrounding safety in football, a group of Seattle Seahawks coaches, led by defensive assistant Rocky Seto, is looking to popularize a “shoulder tackling” technique that will heed those words and “take the head out of tackling.” And it will do so at all levels of the game. USA Football, the national governing body that oversees amateur football, is collaborating with Seahawks coaches and will rebrand its tackling system as “Shoulder Tackling” in 2017.
The method isn’t revolutionary. It’s as old as the game itself. It’s also not too dissimilar from what USA Football currently teaches. But it’s a method that Seto calls “the future of football,” and one he says will define both his legacy and that of Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
“Forget about what happened at USC, forget about any wins and losses with the Seahawks,” Seto said at a recent tackling clinic in Los Angeles. “This is his biggest contribution, our biggest contribution, to the game we love.”
Every NFL offseason, all 32 teams invite coaches from around the country to visit their facilities, talk to staff members and soak up knowledge. In 2012, the Seahawks went a step further: They hosted Kit Lawson, a coach from the University of Birmingham – Birmingham, England, not Alabama.
During the visit, Seto began explaining to Lawson how he, Carroll and the defensive coaches taught tackling. Lawson’s seemingly inconsequential response struck Seto: “Rocky,” Lawson said, “all that is is a rugby tackle.”
Football, after all, was born out of rugby in the 19th century. So Seto gazed at the past. He called Dick Butkus to ask how the Hall of Famer squashed running backs. “Rocky,” Butkus croaked, “I hit ’em with my body. And I wrapped ’em up.”
Seto theorized, as many others have, that the evolution of helmets separated football from its roots.
“As technology got more advanced, we got away from the foundation,” said Michael Barrow, a former NFL linebacker and current Seahawks linebacker coach. “I broke a couple facemasks, just because I used it as a weapon.”
Suddenly, coaches were teaching players to “get their head across the ball,” thus putting the head in harm’s way. Or they weren’t teaching at all. Tackling devolved into less a science and more an expression of physical dominance.
“When I was in high school, we were just emphasizing hitting as hard as you can with whatever you can,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said at Seto’s clinic.
Erik Swartz is a University of New Hampshire professor who is leading a study on the effects of teaching players to tackle without helmets in practice. He used his personal history to illustrate his point, saying, “I played rugby for eight years. I would never lead with my head. It was just a natural, self-protective reflex mechanism that I wouldn’t even have to think about. I go into a tackle, my head is out of the way, because it’s exposed, and I’m vulnerable. So when you cover that with a comfortable helmet … it’s not even a false sense of security, it is an actual sense of security, because there’s something there protecting your head.
“The result is that you’re less careful with your head … You increase your threshold for risk with a protective counter-measure like a helmet. So the Catch-22 is, while yes, it’s important to have helmets that are better designed and more protective, the more that you do that, it’s only going to perpetuate the sense of security that the players has.
“So,” Swartz explains, “the head impacts, the helmet-to-helmet impacts, are only going to continue. Unless you teach them the proper technique.”
That’s what Seto and his shoulder tackling cohort claim to be doing. By 2012, the NFL was changing. Coaching at the highest level had begun to drift away from antiquated principles. Seto and the Seahawks crystalized burgeoning points of emphasis into a single technique that had the potential, they believe, to infiltrate all levels of football.
Up on stage at Inglewood High School at one of his clinics, Seto oozes passion. “It’s near foot, near shoulder,” he bellows in front of a crowd of about 100. “And we’re striking – BOOM! – and working on our shoulder punches.” Each word encroaches on the next, his excitement unmitigated.
The first point of contact is the shoulder, the near shoulder to be specific. The objective is to get the head behind the ball-carrier rather than in front of him, all while keeping the eyes up and shoulders on a higher plane than the hips.
Seto uses two main selling points when endorsing it. One is safety. The second is effectiveness.
“If it didn’t work, if it didn’t show up on tape, we wouldn’t be here talking about this today,” Seto said at his clinic. “If it didn’t work, I can’t get up in front of the players and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to help your game.’”
Since going all in on shoulder tackling in 2012, the Seahawks have been to two Super Bowls and won one. At the collegiate level, former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash adopted Seto’s technique after tackling struggles in 2013, and the Buckeyes went on to win a national title a season later.
Is it safer? No studies have proven so. Seto claims that the Seahawks have seen concussions drop all the way from “about 15” team-wide in 2010 to only two on defense in recent years. But that evidence is anecdotal, and it’s unclear if such numbers would carry over to the youth game.
“Is it ever going to be perfect?” Ash asks rhetorically. “No, it’s not. But if I can teach someone to have their head behind, and 7 out of 10 tackles it’s behind, and it’s not the first thing that makes contact, them I’m teaching a safer game.”
There is certainly skepticism, though. Ash has received calls from worried coaches questioning the placement of the head and shoulders in relation to the hips.
Tackling guru Bobby Hosea, who has taught his own method for nearly 20 years and helped USA Football develop the “Heads Up” technique, is more than merely a skeptic. He’s a denouncer. And he doesn’t mince words.
“I would never teach that, that’s extremely dangerous,” Hosea says without flinching. “There’s nothing new about the tackle. Arms out, hips back, head down. Whenever your head and your butt are on the same level, you are susceptible to severe injury.”
Hosea argues that while Seto’s method looks safe in principle – on an empty practice field, or in a demonstration video – it leaves defenders susceptible in the fast-paced, frenzied environment of a game.
“Football is very fluid,” he says. “A [running] back will spin, a back will turn, an offensive tackle will fall, a linebacker will jump over a block. And all of a sudden, there’s your head. That’s Russian Roulette … It’s not safe.”
Hosea also worries that shoulder injuries could become endemic. “When you lead with one shoulder, you’re putting all that pressure on one shoulder,” he says. “It makes no sense. It’s like putting all the pressure on one side of your car. … You’re gonna wear down that shock, or that tire. Just disperse the weight evenly.”
The broader issue is empirical data doesn’t back Seto’s tackling. That’s what concerns Tony Strickland, the CEO of the Sports Concussion Institute and a member of the Pop Warner medical advisory board. Strickland says that a soon to be published study, conducted by the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention, found an 87 percent reduction in injuries among players coached by “Heads Up”-trained coaches. But he doesn’t see similar studies supporting other tackling methods.
“When you hear about these various techniques, always ask yourself, ‘OK, that’s nice, where was it published?'” Strickland says. “I’ve never seen such a cavalcade of self-anointed expertise from voices I’ve never heard.
“I’ve watched this stuff build to a state of hysteria. … What we have to be careful to do is not allow the feelings of angst to get in front of the science.”
Then there’s the question of whether any tackling technique can have a significant effect. Many believe the supposed reforms are futile. That the very goal of tackling seems to contradict the fundamental idea of safety.
In a way, just like the sport itself.
Maybe that’s why some helmet stickers, like this one from Schutt, don’t stop at that 50-word warning. They continue: “NO HELMET SYSTEM CAN PROTECT YOU FROM SERIOUS BRAIN AND/OR NECK INJURIES INCLUDING PARALYSIS OR DEATH. TO AVOID THESE RISKS, DO NOT ENGAGE IN THE SPORT OF FOOTBALL.”
Seto understands the inherent danger. “There’s no technique that can eliminate injuries,” he says. “I don’t want to give a false sense of security to parents and coaches, like this is going to eliminate all of your problems.”
But he’s steadfast and vehement that he is changing football. Norton, who worked with Seto and Carroll at USC and in Seattle, believes that some form of shoulder tackling is being taught throughout the NFL. Seto says more big-time college programs are catching on. And he expects the USA Football instructional videos, set to debut next year, will trigger another shoulder tackling growth spurt.
What makes him as enthusiastic as anything, as he zips around Los Angeles, his hometown, to promote shoulder tackling to children, parents and coaches, is the technique’s viability regardless of skill level, age or size.
“Not only is it viable,” Seto proclaims. “It is the only way to do it.”