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  • As NFL coaches and GMs learn more about the targeting rule passed at the owners meetings, many coaches maintain that there won't be a huge adjustment period, because that type of tackling—using the crown of the helmet—isn't taught anymore anyway.
By Albert Breer
March 28, 2018

ORLANDO — The NFL is moving forward with its own version of college football’s targeting rule, public outcry or no public outcry, player complaints or no player complaints.

And the league boasts strong support from its coaches.

On Tuesday, the NFL’s owners unanimously passed a measure to prohibit players from lowering their heads to initiate contact, and put in-game ejections on the table for egregious examples of it. In the morning general session on Wednesday, discussion continued. The NFL is going to keep working on the language to define what exactly will constitute an ejection, with a goal to have something to present at its May meeting. Over the next 20 days, the competition committee will be bringing coaches to Park Avenue to help work on that.

But the coaches and GMs left here mid-morning with a clear idea of what the NFL is looking to accomplish—to eliminate the idea of using the helmet as a weapon from the game all together. Which, most of the guys coming out of the meeting said, isn’t being taught anymore anyway.

“We try not to use our head for anything,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Back in the old days, the perfect form tackle was you’d hit them with your facemask in the chest. Now, no one really teaches that. You slide your head to the side, keep your head up and try and squeeze through your shoulders and your neck. The plays that they showed, head down, going in like a torpedo, no one’s teaching that.”

The NFL did show a number of plays during Wednesday’s session—Bears LB Danny Trevathan’s hit on Packers receiver Davante Adams was one, Pittsburgh LB Ryan Shazier’s hit on Cincinnati’s Tyler Kroft was another—that would lead to ejections. League officials told the group that there were only about 10 plays across the league in 2017 that would merit ejections.

As Zimmer said, a lot of what the coaches watched in the meeting isn’t what they’ve been teaching anyway. But there will be some adjustment.

“With [tackling], it’s not going to be the adjustment that you think. Everybody’s teaching in that regard already,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I think what you’ll see is a spike in fouls, but from a teaching standpoint, it’s in the exact format we’ve been working under. And it’s not just for tackling. The tackling’s actually the easier part, as long as you have space, it’s easier than adjusting as a blocker.

“But we’ve been teaching it this way, and the emphasis has to continue to be on teaching.”

And the league trusts that’ll come from the coaches, because it’ll have to.

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In college, teams dress over 100 players for games. So while it’s always hard to manage losing a player in-game, coaches at that level do have numbers to throw at the problem.

It’s different in the pros. NFL teams only dress 46 players for games and, as Broncos coach Vance Joseph says, “I may only bring three safeties to a game, so I have to keep those guys available.” That, of course, puts it on the coaches to do their best to make sure more aggressive players aren’t putting the team in a tough spot; and it creates a different dynamic for players who may have previously been OK with paying fines.

It’s not perfect, of course. One recently retired linebacker texted me his concerns on Wednesday morning—“All running backs in the NFL run shoulders over knees, which creates crown contact on all plays. And OL vs. DL is all crown contract, so I don’t think they can just regulate that.”

The bottom line is it is, and will be, a work in progress. It probably won’t be very popular at the outset, but the belief is the players and league will get there.

To that end, I was given a good and recent example of how quickly minds change. Before the 2017 combine, the competition committee showed three plays to a group of players that they said would soon lead to ejections. The players were upset. This year? The committee showed another group of players a series of nine ejectionable plays. And the response was, basically, “Yeah, I get that.”

For now, the coaches, at least, are on board.

“I’m really glad that we’re headed in this direction,” said Eagles coach Doug Pederson. “I think this is a rule that’ll eventually remove those egregious plays, those head-hunting type plays. It’s not gonna eliminate me tackling you in the box, the head-to-head combat there, the collisions. It won’t eliminate that. But to get what they’re talking about out of our game? It can be taught.

“It’s just using your head to be smart, and not make those plays. I think we’re headed in the right direction with this rule—taking the college rule, trying to make it ours, and make it better.”

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