The recent hit by Miami’s Kiko Alonso, which resulted in a concussion for Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, has brought the issue of player safety back into the forefront of the NFL dialogue. Player safety needs to be the top priority of the league, particularly when it has to do with head injuries, but fines and suspensions are not enough to solve the problem. Coaching can play a major role in prevention of head and neck injuries.
Like many people, I initially had an emotional reaction to the Alonso hit. I was caught up not only in the play, but in what happened immediately after the play. Both teams went nuts. Baltimore Head Coach John Harbaugh was on the field. Alonso himself looked like a mad man. Upon further review it is certainly a penalty, but I don’t think it was a dirty hit. Alonso was coming in at full speed, trying to prevent a first down just as Flacco was trying to gain one. Normally a quarterback has a sense of who is going to hit him and knows when to slide. Alonso comes in at an angle. Flacco never saw him, so he slid much later than he would have had Alonso been coming at him head on. While it bugs me that he seems to lower his shoulder as he approaches Flacco, I don’t think there was any malicious intent behind it.
Despite the emphasis on eliminating helmet to helmet hits, you still see defenders coming in with their heads down. This is a matter of technique. Some players are taught to make shoulder tackles or to put their head on the football to potentially cause a fumble. This can put their head and neck in vulnerable position. If your head is down, you can’t see what you are hitting, so if the ball carrier lowers his pad level, helmet to helmet contact is likely to occur.
The ironic thing about Flacco’s injury, is that sliding (which is meant to protect the player) is actually what put him in position to suffer a concussion. If he would have dove attempting to gain more yards, the brunt of the Alonso hit would likely have been taken by his left shoulder. While this could have resulted in injury, it probably would not have resulted in a concussion.
Other ball carries can protect themselves as well. Much attention has been paid to how the defense tackles, but ball carriers play a role in helmet to helmet hits as well. When a ball carrier is lowering his shoulder to gain leverage and power over a defender he must keep his eyes up. This will limit the exposure of the crown of his helmet protecting his head and neck from injuries.
Player safety is not just a matter of making and enforcing a new set of rules. Offensive and defensive coaches need to think about the techniques they are teaching and the position that it is putting their players in. At the end of the day, player safety should be the top priority of any coach.
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