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Tackling becoming a lost skill


Newly elected Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea waited at the 50-yard line inside The Coliseum on Sunday with the arms of his mustard-colored sports coat folded sharply in front of him. As part of a halftime presentation, the Tennessee Titans were about to honor Bethea with a special ring to commemorate his place in Canton. But first the JumboTron ran a stunning highlight reel of his 15-year career with the Houston Oilers. And as the reserved Bethea tried hard to stand still during all the attention, fans gasped at the precision and explosive power of his tackles and the way he terrorized the likes of Dan Fouts and Terry Bradshaw.

His form was flawless. Perfectly calibrated angles to the target. Feet like pistons. Back flat. Shoulders square and smashed right into the gut. Ball carriers wrapped up in a powder blue death grip then driven hard and planted into the turf like fence posts. Total destruction. Complete annihilation. On every play.

And judging by their loud and amazed ooo's and awww's the fans watching Bethea were wholly unaccustomed to seeing such quality, 'old school' tackling. (Or tackling of any kind, for that matter.) Indeed, just a week earlier in a loss to New England, Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher calculated that the Titans defenders missed 22 of 83 tackles. "There was a lot of frustration in the locker room after the (New England) game because of our inability to tackle," says Fisher.

So much so that after the halftime ceremony the following week, an assistant coach dragged the quiet Bethea over to the Titans bench to shake some hands and, perhaps, rub off a bit on the Tennessee tacklers.

It didn't work.

On Houston's first possession of the second half, the Texans drove 98 yards on two plays thanks to a whopping seven missed tackles. Thank goodness for quarterback Steve McNair, who carried NashVegas to its fourth win with 421 yards and three touchdowns in the air. Because with the way the Titans tacklers were lunging and groping at ball carriers, awkward and off-balance, they looked more like 11 Arnold Schwarzeneggers in the middle of an ice capades performance than a potential Super Bowl D.

"A lot of times guys go for the 'Woo' hit and end up with the 'Boo' hit instead," says Titans 'backer Rocky Calmus. "It's mostly just a lack of focus and concentration by guys who should know better. I'll tell ya, the worst part about bad tackling is it's embarrassing man, it's really embarassing."

If that's the case then so far in 2003 the entire NFL should be red-faced with shame for the epidemic of poor tackling that has managed to infect the game.
You want a reason for the offensive explosion the last two seasons? All this tickling that passes for tackling has to be high on the list.

Because it's certainly not just the Titans. I don't mean to pick on just them. I also hate coming across as one of those "In-my-day-we-ran-Bull-in-the-Ring-drills-until-we-bled-from-both-ears" fuddy duddies. But something's gotta be done before the NFL ends up like the NBA, where guys know how to dunk blindfolded with their shoes on fire, but think a pick-n-roll is what you do when you can't find a Kleenex.

On Sunday, in the first half alone the Texans missed seven tackles that gave the Titans an additional 51 yards, four first downs and kept three scoring drives alive. Then I watched halftime highlights from around the league on the lovely nine TV monitors in the NashVegas pressbox and the footage was like a bad tackling seminar: Ricky Williams' reversing field, the Dallas runback, Rich Gannon's touchdown pass, shoot, the entire Packers-Chiefs game. Arm tackles, air tackles, whiffs and the biggest culprit of all, what I like to call the Vanilla Ice (terrible wrap) technique.

Did you ever have one of those old electronic, vibrating football games where every play ended with all 22 players still upright and clumped together in a corner of the metal field? You think the new video football games seem realistic? Hello? That old thing is more like today's NFL than anything on the market.

"Brother, there's nothing uglier in football than watching all these missed tackles," says Bucs linebacker coach Joe Barry who also played the position at USC. "It's gotten to the point now that as a coach, if you assume guys in this league, and I mean even the all-pro guys, know how to tackle and can do it without working hard on the fundamentals every week--you are just flat out nuts."

Ah tackling fundamentals. What exactly happened to them? Well, as with everything else that's wrong in the NFL, I blame money ... and Deion Sanders.

OK, follow closely. Deep breath people.

Tighter budgets and smaller rosters mean far less depth (and you can trace this all the way down to the high school level if you want); which means increased fear of injury; which means much-much less actual contact in training camp and practice; which leads directly to the almost complete elimination of live tackling drills and thus severely deteriorated skills over a 20-week season; and, ultimately, to once unfathomable phrases like The Texans offense drove 98 yards on two plays that, in turn, open the game up for guys like this generation's defensive idol, Deion Sanders, who will one day become the first defender to enter the NFL Hall of Fame without ever actually tackling someone.

Phew.

Obviously, the guys on offense deserve some credit. Players are faster and much more versatile now, which severely alters pursuit angles. And it takes a village to bring down the growing number of giants like running back Jamal Lewis (230 pounds), wide receiver Terrell Owens (225) and tight end Alge Crumpler (262). Let's face it, the (some might say offensive happy) NFL has all but legislated poor tackling into the game by levying huge penalties for nasty hits and thus making guys hesitate on their way to the target.

To reverse this Tackle Me Elmo trend, teams like the Bucs designate one day a week (at least) to concentrate on tackling fundamentals. Other teams, like the Titans, have pretty much given up altogether and started camouflaging their poor tackling by playing zone defense almost exclusively.

The idea being, with more guys spread out across the field the odds are someone will -- even if it's by accident while wandering around -- bump into the guy with the ball, get in his way or somehow trip him and cause him to fall down or simply impede his forward progress.

Eventually.

One hopes.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com. Also, he'll be in chat Thursday at 3 p.m. ET. Click here to leave him a question.