Imagine you’re a student and you have a practical exam coming up; in this test you’re asked to perform a specific skill and the instructors will not only be grading you for your ability to conceptualize what you are doing and why but to also that you can put it all together and actually get some results. I’ve been tested this way dozens of times as a undergraduate and graduate student and I can safely say that just because you know what you are doing and why doesn’t always mean you can do it in real life.
The same is true for football players; as instructors to the game, coaches often will be assessing a player’s ability to conceptualize what they are doing and why, but also how well they perform that skill. And just the same as any other student, just because you know what you are doing and why doesn’t always mean you can do it in real life. There are countless examples of players who have the mental aspect of football down pat but lack the technique required to be successful in the league.
Now imagine a practical exam where you can study and figure out what you need to do and why, but weren’t actually given a chance to practice that skill before the exam, how well do you think you would do? Again from experience I can tell you you often don’t get the desired results because while your mind knows what to do your body doesn’t have the muscle memory to successfully perform that skill.
So where is this all going? For football players, that practical exam where they’re given time to study but not to practice is tackling.
“We’re going to put our face in people. We will tackle,” Whitt said when asked if the Packers will actually practice the art of tackling each other in training camp. “We will get that solved. Guys who tackle will be out there. Guys who don’t won’t.” – cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr.
The Packers had a pretty dismal season when it came to tackling (refer to: LeGarrett Blount) and mostly this has been rightly or wrongly been laid on the feet of the defensive secondary. I’ve mostly attributed this to the defensive backs aiming for “big plays” like interceptions and strips rather than just tackling soundly but for whatever reason; the Packers defense missed a ton of tackles.
The first logical option for head coach Mike McCarthy, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. would be to spend lots of time in OTAs, minicamp and training camp practicing tackling, but with the new CBA restricting padded practices, this is almost impossible. So what is a team supposed to do when they aren’t any good at tackling? I highly doubt the Packers defensive secondary doesn’t know how to tackle properly, the coaches at the NFL are far too good for something like that to happen, it’s just that the majority of players simply haven’t had any time to practice the skill of tackling.
Take for example Sam Shields, who Packers fans tear their hair out when it comes to missed tackles. When was he supposed to have learned when to tackle? Shields played wide receiver in high school, enrolled at the University of Miami as a wide receiver and only converted to cornerback as a senior. As a professional cornerback, he had one offseason where he probably focused on kick returner first and studied cornerback on the side and then had another offseason wiped out by the lock out. Again I’m sure that Shields knows how to tackle, but his body doesn’t know how because he hasn’t had enough time to form muscle memory and given the current state of NFL offseason, it’s likely that he’ll never develop that muscle memory to be a consistently sound tackler.
The same is probably true with veterans, where if you don’t practice something it’s likely to lead to being rusty. One of the more unknown facts about the Packers defense last year was the player with the most missed tackles was none other than Charles Woodson. Has Woodson forgotten how to tackle? I doubt it, historically Woodson has been a great tackler and he has played long enough in the NFL to develop muscle memory. Some of the missed tackles again probably have to do with Woodson going for the strip instead of the tackle, but it might also be that after 16 years, with majority of those later years being devoid of tackling practice, Woodson might be getting rusty. Another possibility is that he physically isn’t capable of tackling the way he could when he was younger (age does that to all of us) and he hasn’t had a chance to adapt and refine his technique since tackling is rarely practiced in today’s NFL.
Frankly, I don’t know if there is a solution to this problem. The argument that players should have learned to tackle in college is pointless because they are completely different games; what could get you a stop in college probably won’t work in the NFL where everyone is stronger, faster and probably more experienced. Furthermore, plenty of players make position changes in the NFL and like Sam Shields and finally players can go through their entire college careers without being able to tackle properly. Players also can’t practice how to tackle in the NFL, so really the only opportunity to practice is on the field on game days, which obviously is going to lead to lost games and poor performances before players hopefully figure it all out.
To me Joe Whitt’s comment is more hyperbole than an actual threat, because lot’s of players can’t tackle properly any more and he’d probably have to bench all of the defensive backs (Woodson had the most missed tackles, Williams couldn’t tackle due to his injury, Shields doesn’t have any experience tackling, Burnett had a cast on his hand, Peprah and Bush look like they’re always going for the big hit instead of wrapping up etc.) That added to the fact that the rules are so offensive friendly means defenses are going to have to wake up and realize that they need to accommodate and adapt to poor tackling instead of trying to fix the unfixable.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.