The NFL’s Carolina Panthers are taking a somewhat revolutionary approach to preseason football practice. Instead of full-contact drills, the Panthers are avoiding tackling, a move that many football purists once questioned but that is now gaining popularity among football coaches at all levels.
Instead of to-the-ground tackling, a common practice at all levels of football, the Panthers are “emphasizing form tackling,” in which defenders wrap up ball carriers but don’t actually complete the tackle, the New York Times reported Tuesday. Practice injuries are commonplace in the NFL — already, the Cleveland Browns lost offensive tackle Ryan Miller to a severe concussion and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin suffered a season-ending knee injury. But even though the Panthers aren’t alone in limiting contact, other teams are still practicing at full speed and full contact with regularity.
Increasing the number of non-contact drills and practices isn’t a cure-all for football injuries. Maclin’s torn ACL, in fact, came during a non-contact drill, and a recent study suggested that because concussions are less likely to occur in practice than they are in games, limiting contact in practice would have a small impact on the total number of concussions suffered during each season. The study suggested instead that teams use practice to teach proper tackling technique, which could significantly reduce concussion rates.
Still, there doesn’t seem to be much of a downside to limiting contact, and the Panthers should exist as an example to football teams at all levels that care about reducing injuries and especially concussions among their players. Contact drills aren’t necessary to a team or player’s success. As Panthers linebacker Chase Blackburn told the Times, four preseason games gives players ample opportunity to get enough full-speed, full-contact reps before the season begins, and teaching proper tackling techniques can be done in ways that don’t require full contact, through the use of tackling dummies and other drills and through form tackling. Even if the number of concussions suffered in practice is relatively low, contact drills still increase the odds of suffering a head injury, one neuroscientist told The Sporting News. More importantly, recent research has shown that concussions aren’t the only problem — the smaller, repetitive hits that are routine in football are dangerous too, especially when accumulated over a long span of time. Less contact in practice means fewer of those hits, too.
The Panthers aren’t alone. Football-mad Texas has moved this year to limit contact in high school football practices to 90 minutes a week, and other states have done the same. The PAC-12, one of college football’s biggest conferences, changed its rules this year to allow only two full-contact practices per week, a change that its coaches supported unanimously, Stanford coach David Shaw said. Other conferences have been slow to follow, though, with coaches like Penn State’s Bill O’Brien saying the PAC-12 rule was a “slippery slope” that needed to be studied more. And the NCAA, which mandates how much time teams can spend practicing each week and the number of those practices that can include full-contact drills, has again left the issue to its conferences and member schools. But the Panthers are setting a good example of steps football can take to try to make the game safer. It would seem a good policy for organizations like the NCAA and high school football federations and state legislatures to keep pushing limits on contact in practice, because if a team at the top levels of football can commit to limiting contact to keep players healthy, high school and college teams ought to at least be able to do the same.