The NFL has been on a big safety push for some years now and accelerated in more recent years as TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) cases have surfaced multiple times. Junior Seau is probably the biggest “name” player who recently passed away as a direct result of his repeated head injuries. Do a “Bing” search and you’re bound to find dozens of others, including Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Webster.
On a side note, Webster’s case isn’t surprising. He was part of that Steelers dynasty in the 1970s, while I was growing up in my pre-teen years, and the guy just seemed to play and play and play forever. He played 17 years, from 1974-1990, so I wasn’t imagining things. Seau played for 20 years and it’s funny I remember acutally watching that particular draft….when it was just Mel Kiper, Chris Berman and a couple of others sitting around a round breakfast table and were rather cramped. How far things have come since then, eh?
The point of the long intro into this article is simply that things have changed quite a bit in the last 20 years in the NFL. With a multi-billion dollar lawsuit hanging over their heads (the NFL’s) as retired players are trying to get some financial relief considering their deteriorating bodies from years of abuse at the NFL level, safety concerns have really been at the forefront the last 5 years.
Just this past offseason, a new rule was instituted that a ball carrier can NOT lower his head and use it as a weapon.
It makes sense, as defensive players have been banned from doing that for decades. It’s called “spearing” and is a personal foul.
While backs can still lower their heads and thrust forward, they cannot do so while initiating contact with it. They can lower their heads and use a SHOULDER to thump into a would-be tackler, and word is that officials are only to call the obvious fouls. Well, we will see how that one goes, but for now let’s take the Commissioner at his word.
So what’s left for a ball carrier to do?
The old mainstay is still legal: the Stiffarm.
Some running backs are famous for their stiffarm abilities. “Beast Mode” gets downright nasty in his running style…thus his nickname…and basically throws punches at defenders’ face masks, and if a defender does the same thing, it’s a 15-yard face mask penalty or generally a personal foul for unnecessary roughness.
The stiffarm, when used prudently and effectively, can really help a runner ditch his tackler especially in the open field or when the back has a sideline “defender,” leaving him with no place to do any more moves while still trying not to be tackled by an enemy linebacker or defensive back.
Another player, historically speaking, that comes to mind is Larry Csonka. While he would use the stiffarm effectively, he tweaked it to his own style of running. At 6’3″ and 237 pounds, to paraphrase the Voice of God, John Facenda, “he had legs like tree-trunks and was impossible for one man to bring down. Using his forearm as a bludgeon, he punished would-be tacklers with every run.”
Csonka could play in today’s NFL with his size and strength…if he weren’t 66 years old!
When you hear runners or retired running backs slam the new safety rule, remember…it’s for the good of everybody – including the game – in the long run. Roger Goodell can truly make the case that the NFL is very safety-conscious and has been since the 21st century rolled around.
With the new restrictions on lowering the helmet to attack a tackler, the semi-lost art of the stiffarm should begin to see a resurgence on the pro level since it’s the main weapon ball carriers have left.
It will be interesting to see how many more RBs will pick up this trick and start using it more. They’d be silly not to!