Tackling becoming a lost skill

Watching the Titans-Texans game Sunday, showed a major problem in today's NFL: Teams can't tackle.

Updated: October 16, 2003, 11:09 AM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

30-second column
McNair
McNair
New rule for the 2003 season: Any NFL MVP list/ballot/poll that does not include Titans QB Steve McNair is no longer valid. And for good reason. Last week McNair had a career day, completing 18 passes for 421 yards and three TDs. Which means in the last two weeks he's passed for 781 yards for the 4-2 Titans. Not MVPish enough for you? Consider this: McNair is still suffering from a dislocated finger on his throwing hand that bothers him so much someone had to help him button his cufflinks after Sunday's game; he has no tight ends and because of this, in mid-week the Titans completely reworked their game plan; and when McNair fumbled a snap in the first half he immediately went over to his line on the bench and pointed at himself to let everyone know the botched snap was his fault. "I used to watch him when I was a young kid," says Titans 'backer Keith Bulluck. "So I still catch myself watching him, going, 'Wow, I'm really playing with Air McNair.' We all try to match our games to his level, but, shoot, that means I've got a lot of work to do."
Flem File Five
Top Five Most Bizarre NFL Injuries:
5. Derrick Mason -- Titans WR broke his hand while teeing off during a round of golf.
4. Gus Frerotte -- Vikes QB once sprained his neck head-butting a wall after a TD.
3. Chris Hanson -- Jax kicker gave himself a flesh wound with an ax while chopping wood in the locker room.
2. Brian Griese -- Dolphins QB once sprained his ankle after his dog knocked him down the stairs.
1. Kindal Moorehead -- Panthers DT sprained his knee bowling and the next day was hospitalized after his arm became inflamed from a spider bite.
Flemister File
Wherein we continue to follow the exploits of FlemFile mascot and former Washington TE Zeron Flemister.

Flemister
Flemister
The phone rings, it's ZFlem. "Oh man what a crazy, crazy week I've had," he says. Congrats on Cleveland, I say, my dad's a huge Browns fan this is gonna be awesome. Silence. "Dude, I'm back in Washington," says Z with a chuckle. "I flew in this morning from Cleveland. I'm a Redskin again."

So let's recap. Last Tuesday after the Browns lost Aaron Shea for the year with a torn biceps tendon, Cleveland picked up our mascot off the waiver wire where he sat for all of 24 hours. By Tuesday evening Z is on a plane headed to Cleveland where he goes through the whole routine -- new equipment, new locker, new teammates, new place to live and, a complicated new scheme. His bum heel is doing great but by Saturday it's clear Z needs more than 72 hours to pick up the Browns offense. Cleveland cuts him, he says, so it could grab someone off its practice squad for the game against Oakland. "Coach Davis tells me not to leave town, not to check out of my hotel, not to go anywhere," says Z. "He says he likes my athleticism and that I could help his team and that this week they'd re-sign me." Late Sunday, Z gets a call from Washington TE Robert Royal who tells him he's just busted up his hip in the loss to Tampa and will be out for the next six weeks. By Monday Z's phone is ringing off the hook with calls from D.C. He waits until 5 p.m. to hear back from the Browns. When they don't call, he begins to talk to the Redskins, who fly him back east Tuesday morning and re-sign him, just hours ago, to a one-year deal.

"When I saw the guys back in the locker room they all thought I was there to pick up some old stuff," says Z. "They were all saying, 'How's Cleveland?' and I'm like, 'I play for us again' and they all just started laughing." Uh Z, I tell him, I put a curse on the Redskins in last week's Flemister File. OH MY GOD IT WORKED! The Redskins resigned you rather than face the wrath of the FlemFile Curse! But wait. What am I supposed to do now? Take it back? He just laughs. "Don't worry," he says, "last week all my friends and family said they hated the Redskins too and that they were throwing all their Redskins stuff away. Now I have to call all of them and tell them to pull that stuff outta the trash."

The WHYLO (Who Helped You Log On) of the Week
There was quite a wide range of responses to last week's column on Emmitt Smith. For the most part, even his fans agreed that it may be time for him to hang it up. Dave writes, "I hope Emmitt Smith reads your piece on ESPN.com. It's really a brilliant, succinct and compelling argument as to why he should retire." Adds CJ, "I am a Dallas fan and it tore me up to see Emmitt leave and sign with the Cards. He should have retired after last year." Chris says, "I just finished reading your column on ESPN/NFL and was torn between laughing like a maniacal Italian Organ Grinder, and being impressed with your candid knowledge and opinions of the sports world."

And then, in an email titled: Shut up Flem, Shut up, Big Papa writes, "Fleming you don't know (fecal matter) about Emmitt Smith. You are the one who should stop, your writing makes me sick." Adds Brian, "Maybe you should retire since your performance is dropping. Your article on Emmitt Smith sucked!" And finally, the (nearly illiterate) coup de grace. In an unedited email DaBulls writes, "your a scum bag dont ever write about someone who is 3 times the man you are. It's easy for a scrauny little critic like yourself to sit back and try to critique someone who did something you never could. There still lots of worse backs in the league and when he comes back if he gets a half way decent line hell still be able to run all over the league."

Now, you know it's been a bizarre week when even this sewage doesn't win the WHYLO of the Week. Instead it's reserved for Bob, who writes in to see if I'm the same David Fleming he went to school with who used to "work for Pizza Hut in Texas." No, Bob, my background is a little more geared toward writing. I joined ESPN in 2000 and before that I worked for Sports Illustrated for six years. But thanks for paying attention.

So Bob, tell me, Who Helped You Log On? (And did he used to work for Little Caesars?)

Flem Gems
Tennessee Scene No. 1: Saw a fan here sporting what can only be described as an ubermullet. It was a buzzcut that dead-ended about 3/4's, of the way back on top of his head right into long, cascading shoulder-length locks. Also seen in the crowd today: Elvis, funnel cakes, the KFC Colonel, and a hound dog mascot. ... When my neighbor Jak drilled a hole in his finger last week, I asked the only appropriate follow-up question: What size was the drill bit? 1/8". Yeowch. ... TSN2: Why does the JumboTron doofus announcer wear a sweatband on his mic hand? ... Last Friday in Elmira, Ontario, when they forgave the teammate who caused the car crash that killed their son, Atlanta Thrasher Dan Snyder, the Snyder family gave us something that is nearly extinct in the sports world: grace. ... Once again, my Lil' RedHawks of Miami (yawn) blew out another MAC opponent. This time it was Miami 59, Buffalo 3. In a bit more exciting CCHA news Miami's hockey team also KNOCKED OFF NO. 2 RANKED MICHIGAN, 8-3. ... Good to see Tony Siragusa has continued his vigorous workout regiment during his retirement. ... One line under a photo is the extent of the news coverage I read from the big Naishcur (that's how they say it down here) race in Charlotte last week. (I'm paraphrasing). "...a NASCAR fan enjoys the action while wearing a hat he made out of cardboard beer boxes ..." ... Until Curb Your Enthusiasm starts up again, I suggest watching British sitcom The Office ... TSN3: 'Happy 56th Birthday Eddie, love Judy.' This sign flashed on the JumboTron during the first half and the way EG was running the ball (7 of his rushes gained five yards) made you wonder if the message was really for him. ... TSN4: I'm willing to give bald guys who paint their heads like football helmets a pass on my no-face-paint rule. ... My guess is I'm the only person who has ever purchased these two books at the same time: Chuck Palahniuk's 'Lullaby' and The Potty Book for girls by Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Somehow, though, they seem eerily connected. Here's an excerpt from each. "Bye-bye pee! Bye-bye poop! I say with a wave and a cheer!" And: "Maybe humans are just the pet alligators that God flushed down the toilet."

THIS COLUMN WAS WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: Morrissey.

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.

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