On the day after the Seattle Seahawks returned home from the Super Bowl last year, assistant head coach/defense Rocky Seto got back on a plane and headed to California.
He had made a commitment to the California Interscholastic Federation to talk to high school coaches about a topic he's become an expert on: tackling.
Seto coached 11 seasons at USC before joining Pete Carroll's staff in Seattle in 2010. He has been at the forefront of the team's mission to promote a new way of tackling, a rugby-type style the coaches believe is more fundamentally sound and safer than traditional methods.
"Rocky has been most integral," Carroll said. "He has been really the bell cow for us on this one. He is the one that does all of the teaching [of] it in the meetings. He’s got a real passion for making the point, and he’s always been involved with it with us."
The Seahawks have produced videos the past two years that demonstrate the leverage-based shoulder tackling methods, the idea being to take the head out of the equation.
In 2012, a guest coach from England visited the team's practice facility. Seto began to show him the fundamentals of how the Seahawks teach tackling: track the near hip; target the thigh; hit with the leveraged shoulder. The coach told Seto it looked like a rugby tackle, adding an element to the way the Seahawks teach it.
"I believe that’s how the game was originally played when the guys were wearing leather helmets or the helmets without the face masks," Seto said. "You didn’t want to put your nose right into someone’s chest or knee. You’re going to get hurt. So that’s just what the rugby guys do, as well. They try to get contact with the shoulders. So that’s the biggest principle."
Seto admits that the Seahawks were simply looking for the best way to tackle. What they discovered was that the new way appeared to be safer.
"There’s enough examples already how dangerous sports are, and we have to do everything in our sport that we can to make it as safe for our players as possible, and we’re going to continue to do that," Carroll said. "Sometimes you have to step outside of the norm to do that, and you have to go places where you might have to take a little challenge or chance to do that, and I think Rocky has done a fantastic job of teaching it. He’s really been the guy that does the teaching of it, and I hope that working to get the head out of football is going to be a really good aspect going forward. It’s a great game, and we’ll do whatever we can to help it, and that’s really what this is about."
Asked whether rugby-style tackling is good for the future of football, safety Earl Thomas said: "Yeah. I think so, especially when you’re talking about concussions and your brain shaking and stuff like that, and the effects that it has after football, of course. We do a great job of incorporating the rugby style with tackling."
Football is a violent game played by monstrous athletes at a fast pace. The Seahawks are far from perfect, but they seem to be trying. In a matchup against the Arizona Cardinals earlier this season, linebacker K.J. Wright leveled wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald over the middle and was flagged. He admitted afterward that the hit was too high, and the coaches reminded him that week of staying in the strike zone -- above the knees and below the neck.
According to the PBS "Frontline" Concussion Watch, four Seahawks defensive players have sustained reported concussions in the past three years. Only three teams have had fewer, and the league average has been 7.03.
The Seahawks have led the NFL in scoring defense in each of the past four seasons, and sound tackling has been a huge part of their success. They've limited opposing ball carriers to an average of 1.5 yards after contact over the past three seasons, fifth best. And they've held receivers to an average of 4.38 yards after the catch, tops in the NFL.
"I don’t even think guys think about it consciously," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "We just do our drills and go out there and try to execute what we’ve been taught. I don’t think we think about it as rugby tackling or anything as such. We just try to get guys on the ground."
One of the challenges has been changing what players have been taught their whole lives.
"We didn’t really teach tackling growing up," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "You just hit the guy."
Added Seto: "Conventional football is to get your head across or to see what you hit, essentially using your head as a limb to stop guys from coming forward."
If the evidence suggests the rugby-style tackling truly is superior, kids will need to be taught the right methods at an early age. There has already been a big movement in college at Ohio State and other big-name programs. Next is high school and even Pop Warner.
"They’re the critical ones to change the culture of the game," Seto said. "Guys are growing up, learning it a certain way their whole lives. And now it’s like, we’ve got to just keep hammering it.
"We have enough negative publicity on our game, and rightfully so. We don’t want our guys to get hurt. We don’t want our young players to get hurt. There’s a proper way to tackle. I don’t think you ever eliminate injuries, but hopefully you can minimize occurrences in keeping our players as safe as possible."
Seto has two young sons, Troy and Timothy. Perhaps they might want to follow in their father's footsteps and be involved in football.
"I can’t even imagine teaching them a different way," Seto said. "In good conscience, I don’t know that I could teach them how I learned it.
"In the end of Coach Carroll’s coaching, I know he’ll be known for his USC stuff and his Seahawks wins and all that and his philosophy. But in the end, I think … his greatest contribution to the game is how we’ve all helped the tackling. I’ve talked to Pop Warner coaches, to high school coaches, to college coaches and professional coaches. I believe that this is a big deal."