Almost 150 years after Ivy League universities birthed football as we know it, those same schools are giving us a glimpse of how America's most popular sport could be played 150 years from now: with minimal tackling, or without it altogether.
When a recent New York Times headline read "Ivy League Moves to Ban Tackling at Football Practice," some fans and football traditionalists reacted with the equivalent of gnashed teeth and rent garments—simply putting the word "ban" next to the world "tackling" was a bridge too far, an affront to the essence of the game. Others fretted about young players getting anything less than the maximum possible schooling in—and exposure to—the sport's fundamental skill. Would football end up, er, wussified? Sloppy and lousy to watch?
Of course, the over-the-top reaction obscured the actual news: The Ivies banned full-contact practices only during the regular season, which actually wasn't much of a change.
"The conversation [to ban practice tackling] took about five minutes," Terry O'Neil of Practice Like Pros told VICE Sports.
A sports television producer and former NFL executive, O'Neil founded the nonprofit Practice Like Pros to encourage and instruct high school and college coaches towards practicing, well, like the pros, with an emphasis on safeguarding player health. For years, he has worked with Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens—"one of our top supporters, right from the start," O'Neil said—at football clinics, teaching coaches how to practice tackling through bag work and limited-contact drills.
Teevens is the only Division I head coach who doesn't have his team practice full-contact tackling. According to O'Neil, Teevens raised the the idea of other Ivy League teams following suit with his fellow coaches. Two things became clear:
●Very few were hitting during the regular season;
●If every team agreed to a ban, it would level the playing field—and perhaps lead the way for the rest of the NCAA.
Dartmouth's example made the Ivy League's decision easier. The school is 20-3 over its last 23 games. It finished 2015 with the No. 1 FCS scoring defense, per NCAA.com. They were also No. 1 in red zone defense, No. 3 in opponent rushing and passing efficiency and No. 4 in yardage defense and first downs allowed. In short, tackling isn't a problem.
Moreover, Dartmouth players get 500-800 reps of controlled tackling throughout the season—far more reps than any full-contact, blast-your-teammate program could dare.
"We believe they tackle at Dartmouth more than anywhere else in the country," O'Neil said. "They just don't tackle each other."
While the Ivy League's announcement might seem groundbreaking, it's pretty much in line with what's happening in football as a whole. To wit: ask any NFL veteran, and they'll tell you that worst thing about rookies is that they don't know how to practice. Rookies go flat-out until they get gassed, flinging their body around trying to impress coaches and spending way too much time on the ground, getting in veterans' way and posing a risk to themselves and others.
Having spent their whole lives being taught that football practice is a Thunderdome where the strongest survive—and then get starting reps—rookies are surprised to discover NFL practice fields are professional workplaces, where going low on a superstar is tantamount to going full Terry Tate on a sales manager.
No surprise, then, that a raft of NFL players, retired players, trainers and coaches work with Practice Like Pros to perpetuate this mindset at coaching clinics across the country. In college, the operative question is how much is too much?; at the youth level, add and at what age is tackling appropriate?
In response to a VICE Sports request, USA Football spokesman Steve Alic forwarded its latest set of contact definitions and practice guidelines. These are endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM).
These standards allow for 30 minutes of full contact per practice, including the "Thud" level (full speed, above-the-waist contact, all players keep their feet). They also limit days of full-contact practice from five to three during the regular season.
By contrast, Practice Like Pros advises zero contact football until age 14, and just 30 minutes of full-contact practice a week at the high school level during summer camps. Instead, players are supposed to learn how to tackle during the spring—and as Seattle Seahawks assistant head coach Rocky Seto has explained at many Practice Like Pros clinic sessions, that instruction involves tackling techniques that lead with the shoulder, and don't require full-contact practice at all.
O'Neil says reaction at these clinics is mixed. While a large percentage of attendees come away convinced that they've seen the future of football, others refuse to listen.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio told VICE Sports he hasn't heard of Practice Like Pros, but that his team already practices much of what the organization preaches. And no wonder: during the 2014 offseason, a fellow college coach whom Dantonio declined to name told him that he should evaluate Seto's rugby-style tackling.
"We took a look at tackling and how we were teaching tackling," Dantonio said. "What we did from there is, we looked at every play—not the play, but just the end result, the tackle—from the 2013 season." The Michigan State staff was surprised to find their defenders organically executing many of Seto's core concepts, despite no instruction or coaching in them. Why? "The game is played in space, perhaps more than it used to be," Dantonio said. "So what you'd call the profile tackle, which is the perfect tackle, that's very difficult to attain because of all the different body positions from which running backs and receivers come at the defensive player."
Sensing an opportunity—for better performance, not just reducing head contact—Dantonio's staff began explicitly coaching their players to use Seto's techniques. That fall, Michigan State finished No. 1 in the country in rushing defense.
"We've always been a good tackling team," Dantonio said. "We're just trying to move to a higher level of thinking.
"We constantly say, 'When you're in the NFL, this is how you've got to perform. You're in shorts and shells, you're tapping people, you're letting them run by. When you watch an NFL practice, you see very few people not on their feet."
On the other hand, Dantonio doesn't envision copying Teevens' complete moratorium on full contact practice any time soon. "We don't tackle at all during the season," he said, adding that he believes every coach and program has to make their own decisions on the proper way to instruct and prepare players. "Most of the time, we don't tackle. There are times and occasions when we do say, 'Okay, we're going to tackle here,' because you have to. For us, you have to be able to be play at the speed of the game here to be successful."
The Ivy League now sees things differently, and debate over the matter within football likely will continue for some time. Make no mistake: O'Neil and his supporters are football purists. They want to keep the game as we know it alive, without messing around with playing rules or minimizing special teams. They believe the upside of the Ivy approach is obvious, and especially germane at the youth and high school levels. Players can learn tackling techniques at a young age, with minimal contact—then apply them in full-contact games for the rest of their careers, with less physical wear and tear, and less overall exposure to concussion risk.
O'Neil envisions high schools offering varsity flag football, with games played either before tackle games or on another night. With minimal equipment costs and equal opportunity for male and female athletes, barriers to adoption are as low as can be—and encouraging flag could reverse the national youth-football trend of falling participation and shuttered programs.
Besides, the very best college recruits are already showcasing their skills in tackle-less 7-on-7 games:
Widespread adoption of 7-on-7, be it flag or touch, could create a pipeline to the highest levels of the game that kids can follow without ever donning a helmet—let alone using it as a battering ram.
Back to the Ivy League. In a way, we've been here before. The sport O'Neil and company want to preserve was codified by Walter Camp in the late 1800s. The Yale coach established the line of scrimmage, the system of downs, the center snap, names for many of the positions. According to Atlantic's Taylor Branch, Camp even reduced the number of players per side from 15 to 11.
The resulting brand of football—fast, explosive, open, rugby scrum-less—led to an explosion in the game's popularity, and shortly thereafter, high-profile inquisitions into the gruesome injuries endemic to the sport. Today, concerns about injuries are pushing youth football towards an even more wide-open, even faster, yet safer form of the game that can co-exist with traditional gridiron—much like rugby union and rugby sevens. From Pee-Wee to the pros, modernized football practices and alternate flag leagues could eliminate thousands of concussions and countless sub-concussive impacts annually.
A century from now, we could look back on Teevens, O'Neil, Seto and the others leading the charge for smarter, not harder, practices as the heirs to Camp's legacy—the new fathers of modern football.