Late in the third quarter of last night’s Wild Card matchup between Arizona and Los Angeles, Rams head coach Sean McVay drew up a stretch play to the left side on 2nd & short. Left tackle Joe Noteboom sealed the edge and running back Cam Akers reached the first down line without being touched. As he turned upfield and headed inside the Cardinals’ 10-yard line, he was met by two-time All-Pro safety Budda Baker, who flung himself at Akers and saved a touchdown. Great tackle, right?
Baker laid on the turf mostly motionless for several minutes. He left the stadium on a stretcher in an ambulance, and while we were updated shortly after that Baker maintained movement and feeling in all of his extremities, it was still a scary sequence for people watching. Further review of the incident showed that Baker had received a concussion from a head-to-head impact with Akers.
It’s a common scene across the NFL — head-to-head hits that lead to serious injury, and every time they happen, we see the “rugby” narrative get tossed around. “How is it that these types of injuries almost never happen in rugby despite less protection?”
Despite studies indicating that injuries are sustained more frequently with rugby than football, the data is much closer than you’d expect for a sport that has its players continually bash into one another with zero pads on. Still, everybody agrees that the rugby-style of tackling is much safer than football. Some NFL teams have even made efforts to emphasize rugby-style form in the past in order to teach their players proper tackling form. Hell, Baker essentially admitted that rugby players perform better, safer tackles when he appeared on the Pat McAfee show a year ago.
That’s why it shocks me that Baker would perform a tackle on Akers like the one we saw last night. It shows just how ingrained poor tackling form has become into several football players’ mindsets. From when they first got into the sport at a young age, they were taught a certain way to tackle. They were brought up that way, earned scholarships playing that same way, essentially rewarded at times for maintaining these bad, unsafe habits. While it’s great to see NFL coaches and even some college coaches embrace the safety that rugby-style tackling can bring, it needs to be taught at a younger level. In fact, it should be the very first thing taught in youth football programs.
As YouTube football analyst Brett Kollmann stated in the earlier pinned tweet, rugby-style tackling puts an emphasis on not only tackling with the shoulder, but tackling behind the runner. This type of tackling prevents head-on collisions and even if the offensive player doesn’t lower their head prior to contact, the technique still prevents head injuries from being sustained from collisions with a player’s thighs. We know how meaty NFL players’ quads can get. Ramming your head into those while the player is running full force, while not as bad as helmet-to-helmet contact, can still cause serious damage.
If someone in a rugby match attempted to tackle an opposing player the way Baker did last night, they’d be benched immediately. Proper form and safety is so prevalent and constantly enforced in rugby, it’s honestly a shame football doesn’t treat it the same way. When Seahawks’ head coach Pete Carroll started putting an emphasis on shoulder tackling in 2014, their concussion numbers dropped drastically the following year. There’s clearly a positive correlation between this style of tackling and the severity of concussions in football. So, maybe if you’re thinking about signing your kid up for football this upcoming Pop Warner season, having them watch rugby would be the best way to keep them safe. Also, making sure the coaches teach the children this style of tackling will likely prevent these types of injuries in the future.
While obviously this technique won’t eliminate concussions in football altogether, it’s safe to say we, as fans, would like to see a world with as few moments like the one that happened with Baker last night as possible. Encouraging youth football programs to teach rugby-style tackling first and foremost would likely go a long way toward making that world a reality.