By Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
GREEN BAY, Wis. — This was part of the pregame ritual. Stretch. Warm up. Carry the same, awkward conversation. Roy Williams got used to it after a while.
Every Sunday, a coach, receiver, running back, someone from the other team sauntered over to the Dallas Cowboys safety. Their gaze was always the same. Williams saw fear.
“Every game. Every week,” Williams said. “They’d say, ‘Don’t do my players like that.’ I didn’t pay attention. I was about Showtime. When the lights come on and you cross that white line, you’re fair game.”
And for nine seasons, arguably no player inflicted more pain than Williams. He was a one-man battering ram, a player who actively sought to remove man from ball. And, of course, big-hit fever spread. Headshots spread.
During these past 10-15 years, fundamental tackling has suffered. Opinions on the cause vary. Some former players point to the glorification of kill shots and the need to force turnovers. Coaches point to changing practice habits.
Whatever the case, tackling is an issue in Green Bay and elsewhere. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has appeared to reach a breaking point.
Personal foul penalties and fines continue to skyrocket. And Bountygate rocked the league earlier this off-season. The program was fueled by malicious hits. There’s no single solution for the commissioner, for the league. But there may be one common denominator. The steady erosion of tackling.
In Green Bay, coach Mike McCarthy has made tackling a top priority this off-season. And big picture, maybe improved tackling — though far too blasé for the 2-minute YouTube clip — helps the league rebound.
Williams couldn’t adapt. As the fines accumulated, his patience ran dry. His value faded. He’s skeptical the league can reverse this trend, too. Offenses are scoring at an arcade rate. By shrinking the target point for defenders, Goodell may be trying to encourage better form tackling. Williams says it’s not that easy.
“Please tell me when you’ve seen Roger Goodell get his ass on that football field and form tackle somebody,” Williams said. “Yes, there are times when you can form tackle but then there are more times when you have a running back that bounces outside, you’ve squared him up, and he bounces and now the chase is on.
“How do you tackle that player? Do you want to be the player on ESPN getting embarrassed or do you want to be the player on ESPN making the tackle, but you get fined?”
Others vow there is hope for better tackling in the NFL, and in Green Bay. Not too long ago, tackling was alive and well.
Spare LeRoy Butler the sob stories. For nine of his 12 NFL seasons, the Packers’ safety faced a serpent of a running back. There was no “hitting” Barry Sanders. There was only “tackling” Barry Sanders.
Two words served as Butler’s play-to-play compass — “one step.” When facing Sanders, a back who eclipsed 1,300 rushing yards nine times with dizzying flair, Butler tried to slow the game down. He cleansed all recklessness from his game.
Butler approached Sanders and paused for millisecond. To collect himself, to avoid the “embarrassment” Williams speaks of.
“When you’re about to make a tackle, make one more step before you commit,” Butler said. “Make one more step and then you wrap up. You want to become a good tackler. Not a hitter. The good hitters don’t play long.
“The Chuck Cecils of the world, the (Brandon) Meriweathers, James Harrison, all those guys don’t play long. But a good tackler like Rodney Harrison can play for years because they do it the right way.
“Be a good tackler, not a good hitter. The word ‘hitting’ shouldn’t even come up.”
Butler said his teams trained how to tackle specific types of backs — from the human pinballs like Sanders to the human sledgehammers like Craig “Ironhead” Hayward and Mike Alstott. Form tackling was practiced often. From 1993-’98, Green Bay ranked eighth, third, seventh, fourth, 20th and fourth in run defense. The year the Packers won it all in 1996, their defense was first overall.
“That’s why we were the No. 1 defense and won the Super Bowl,” Butler said. “We had the best tackling team. Yards after the catch were non-existent when we played. The emphasis was on being a good tackler, not on being a good hitter.”
So the clip of LaGarrette Blount rampaging through eight Packer defenders irritated Butler. After last season, he broke down 22 missed tackles from Green Bay’s defense. If Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Charlie Peprah, whoever took just one more step, he said, that number would be much lower.
Fellow mid-’90’s Pro Bowl defensive back Darren Woodson also embraced this approach, as boring as it may be.
Unsolicited, he brings the Packers’ defense up. Woodson isn’t so kind.
“Look at the Packers and how they tackle,” Woodson said. “They are terrible. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in my life. I love Charles Woodson, but it’s either the spectacular play or the guy’s getting an extra six or seven yards. They are all trying to make that big play.”
Not such a bad idea, either. The Packers’ defense forced 45 total turnovers in 2011. Quite possibly, one forced fumble, one risk is worth five missed tackles alone. But Butler and Darren Woodson didn’t think in those terms.
Guys were ridiculed by coaches and peers for a missed tackle. A missed tackle equated to week-long shame Woodson believes no longer exists.
At Arizona State, linebackers coach Lovie Smith rode him for any missed tackle. In the NFL, Woodson ensured the Cowboys maintained the same pride.
“The guy made the catch but the RAC yards weren’t there,” Woodson said. “Myself, Deion (Sanders), Brock Marion, even Larry Brown. . . . There was a sense of embarrassment. Now, there’s no embarrassment. Nobody’s embarrassed if they miss a tackle.”
Maybe there’s a curmudgeon, uphill-both-ways undertone in any former player’s voice. Butler calls the state of tackling today “embarrassing,” adding that Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson could score every week if he wanted. Woodson? The Cowboys “are garbage at tackling,” he said. “They won’t hit a soul.”
When was the shift? Woodson points to the end of his career, at the turn of the century.
Headhunters always roamed the outfield. Guys like Jack Tatum, Steve Atwater. But Woodson says that mind-set infiltrated the mainstream around 2000 thanks partly to, well, the station he currently works for.
“ESPN,” says Woodson, catching himself, “and not just ESPN, but every broadcast you see. The NFL itself is making money off the big hit. Everybody wants to come in and make that big hit. If they do that, they have a chance at Pro Bowls.
“Look at John Lynch his whole career. John Lynch could not cover a soul. He couldn’t cover my Mom. I’m serious. It’s that bad.”
The kill shot
At first, he can’t pick just two or three hits. There’s a sigh, Roy Williams brainstorms for a moment and the greatest hits album goes something like this.
He blasted Emmitt Smith when Smith was in Arizona, the jolt nearly forcing a fumble. He drilled Shaun Alexander on a swing pass, knocking him back two yards. On kickoff coverage against San Francisco — while assuring he never intended to injure a player — Williams said he hit one player hard twice. The second hit broke that player’s leg.
And in the tunnel against the Detroit Lions, one Lion was “talking a lot of noise.” So on an A-gap blitz, Williams got underneath that running back trying to block him and knocked him five yards backward.
Williams is quick to say he did value tackling. But he’s also no dummy. Knockouts made him a star. His goal, always, was to separate receivers from the ball. His heroes were Ronnie Lott and Atwater. He loved Lott’s tendency to lead with his forearm. Atwater’s classic hit on Christian Okoye? Inspiring.
Wincing hits in the secondary aren’t barbaric to Williams. They’re an art form.
“I’m not going to say I’m Picasso or Michelangelo, but I mastered the art of separating people from the ball,” Williams said. “It’s all about geometry and your angles and knowing that when somebody catches the ball, you can hit them a certain way and get the ball out.”
And how could any other NFL safety not follow Williams’ lead? He made five Pro Bowls. He was all over TV. He said getting on TV was a goal for players. More defensive backs went for the kill shot, the opportunity to make ESPN’s “Jacked Up” segment.
“It was the ‘wow factor,’” Woodson said. “It was the fact that he ran through you. There was no wrap up about it. It was, ‘I’m going to run through you as hard as I possibly can.’ Form tackling? Forget all of that.”
More important, such collisions lead to turnovers. And turnover differential may be the No. 1 factor between wins and losses. When Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield entered the league in 1999, he said the state of tackling was strong. Winfield has epitomized Butler’s “one step” description. And as the years passed, he felt more and more like a dinosaur.
In 13 pro seasons, Winfield has nearly 1,000 tackles and only 14 forced fumbles. There was a change in emphasis. Defenses today, he says, are based on turnovers. Teams will coach accordingly.
“That’s what defenses are based on right now,” Winfield said. “Coaches want turnovers. Turnovers can change games. I know the Packers create a lot of turnovers and they had a great record.”
The league is forcing its hand. According to STATS, there were 388 personal foul penalties in 2011. Thus, Winfield said more coaches are “going back to the basics.” The rules are removing kill shots from the game. So he does believe tackling can make a comeback. Still, it’s a Catch-22. Padded practices are dwindling. Opportunities to practice tackle are dwindling.
“If you can’t tackle by the time you get to the NFL,” Winfield said, “you’re not going to be a tackler because you don’t do enough of it during practice, training camp.”
So like Woodson, like Butler, assistant coaches do have a nostalgic view on the state of tackling.
Only, in a totally different way.
In the 90’s, the Oklahoma drill flourished in Pittsburgh. That Steelers defense — one of the best ever in the modern era — tee’d up each training camp with the legendary drill, Dom Capers said.
This was the gut check of all gut checks. One blocker took on one tackler between a pair of pads. Men were separated from boys.
Packers safeties coach Darren Perry played for Capers on that Pittsburgh team. He laughs just thinking about that drill. In addition to this, each Wednesday, the Steelers executed an all-out goal-line drill. Tempers rose. Energy ran high. And the Steelers’ entire defense adopted a brash attitude.
Now, there’s a fine line. In Green Bay, Capers and Perry are trying to find a happy medium.
“Do we put our own guys in harm’s way of getting injured because we want to establish that physical type of style?” Perry asks. “I think if you have the right mind-set of players, they understand the big picture. They know what it’s going to take on Sunday and get themselves ready to play.”
Yes, Perry says, tackling has gotten worse. But he doesn’t blame the big-hit boom.
Practice — yes, he’s talking ‘bout practice — isn’t what it used to be.
“You practice a certain way and if you’re not able to put people on the ground or thud up because you don’t have shoulder pads on, guys are avoiding contact as opposed to looking to create contact,” Perry said. “So sometimes that can create some softness. If you’re not careful, your guys get bad habits. And your habits form you after a while.”
In training camp, tackling drills succumbed to thud drills. Players do practice wrapping up, but they’re often tumbling into a high-jump pit and the ball carrier’s jogging. In scrimmage settings, quick whistles rule the day. For the untrained eye, judging the progress of a running game can be impossible at a NFL training camp.
All teams wrestle with this balance. Green Bay is no different.
As the league’s salary cap soared, investments became too high. Teams don’t want to subject their multi-million dollar employees to too much combat. And it’s not like players are begging for the Oklahoma drill, either.
Last year’s collective bargaining agreement was a blow to contact. Only 14 padded practices are allowed the entire regular season — three during the final six weeks.
Capers tries to simulate the real thing best he can. But times have changed.
“There are pluses and minuses to everything,” Capers said. “We’ve come away in terms of understanding that you’ve got a long season. And to be where you want to be at the end of the year, guys have to be healthy. If you lose one guy because of something that happened during practice, it’s not worth it.”
Finding a solution in Green Bay
So what can players do? Not much, says Roy Williams.
“They can (expletive)-bump. That’s it. Literally,” Williams said. “They can tap with the chest real quick and that’s it.”
Somehow, the Packers will need to find a way. Poor tackling plagued them a year ago. Before his final year at Miami (Fla.), Shields rarely ever tackled. Back to his Pop Warner days, he was an offensive player. Olympic speed and athleticism got him a shot in Green Bay and the undrafted cornerback was an unsung hero on Green Bay’s Super Bowl title team.
In 2011, his tackling woes dipped to embarrassing lows at times. Proper technique is still new.
“For me, I never, ever tackled anybody,” Shields said. “So it’s just working on the dummies, learn how to just wrap your arms. Wrap your arms, wrap your arms, wrap your arms. Do it in practice and carry it on into the game.”
He wasn’t alone, of course. Tramon Williams, battling a shoulder injury, shied from piles. Charles Woodson missed 18 tackles. In the slot, he too often went for the strip. At safety, a giant club over Morgan Burnett’s broken hand affected his tackling. And many fans still lament Peprah bouncing of Hakeem Nicks in the playoffs.
In 2012, the Packers have one answer — hold everyone accountable. Coaches can replay Blount’s touchdown run all day. They can teach technique ad nauseum.
But accountability may be the best solution.
“It’s a mind-set,” Perry said. “The guys that do it, will play. The guys that don’t will be sitting on the bench. . . . That simple. They understand it. It was painful for us to look at it last year.”
Added cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, “We have to get multiple guys to the ball. Simple fundamentals. Shoot your hips, wrap your arms, drive your legs and get multiple people to the ball. If it’s in the pass game, leverage routes and make sure you have the route secure as your going for the ball so it’s a catch / tackle and not a catch / tackle / run.”
There are fundamentals involved. During organized team activities and minicamp, the Packers have worked on breaking down, on Butler’s “one step” approach. But as the former safety repeats, it takes more than that.
It takes a mind-set to get players on the ground. Maybe that’s the best solution everywhere.
“These guys have to understand, it’s accountability,” Butler said. “Each guy is responsible for his job. Otherwise, I just don’t see them winning a lot of games. It’s accountability.”