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Tackling a CFL issue for Craig Butler, B.C.

One of the most important issues facing the CFL on the field is proper tackling. It may seem simplistic—this is a game known as "tackle football", of course—but there's usually at least an attempted tackle on every single running play, completed pass and kick return. Good tackling form ends the play and drops the ball-carrier or quarterback without any issues, while poor tackling form can lead to blown or broken tackles, touchdowns, fines and/or serious injuries to both the tackler and his target. An example of this came out Wednesday with the news that Saskatchewan defensive back Craig Butler would be fined $750 by the league (not an insignificant amount, considering his base salary's around $45,000 before taxes) for a hit on S.J. Green in Montreal's victory over the Roughriders Saturday. Here's the league's rationale for the fine:

The hit was deemed to be illegal because Butler, while making a tackle, lowered his head and led with his helmet, which made primary contact with his opponent's helmet.

"These types of hits are illegal because they are dangerous and pose a serious risk of injury to players," said Kevin McDonald, Vice President of Football Operations for the CFL.

It's hard to argue with that. Although both Green and Butler (seen above trying to take down the Alouettes' Jamel Richardson) came out of this particular collision without any apparent injuries, that easily might not have been the case. Helmet-to-helmet hits have resulted in plenty of gruesome injuries over the years, such as the one to Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett in 2007 that ended his career and was initially considered life-threatening. As you can see from the video below, the injury came when Everett was trying to make a special-teams tackle on Denver kick returner Domenik Hixon. He didn't really come at Hixon with a huge amount of momentum, but he led with his helmet, with catastrophic consequences.

Not all of the results of helmet-to-helmet collisions are as immediately drastic, of course, but they can still be frightening. Helmet-to-helmet hits wind up causing a lot of the concussions we see in football, and even repeated subconcussive impacts can lead to significant brain injuries over time. Every time a defensive player leads with his helmet, regardless of if he makes contact with his opponent's head or not, he's likely doing at least some damage to his own brain. Given what we know and what we still have to learn about the long-term impacts of brain injuries from football, that's a frightening thought. Yet, players at many levels continue to lead with their heads, as it often isn't called or fined (Butler's hit drew no flag on the field), and using a hard helmet as the point of impact often allows them to deliver more force.

With that in mind, Lowell Ullrich's The Province column Thursday on how tackling's one of the least-practiced elements in the CFL game (and has been a key downfall of the B.C. Lions' defence so far) is quite an interesting read. Here's what Lions' defensive coordinator Mike Benevides told Ullrich about why no CFL team really practices tackling:

"Some guys are better than others but as a fundamental it's a huge issue," Benevides said Wednesday. "You can simulate protection and the run-blocking [in practice] but not true tackling. You simulate it in a segmented teaching drill but it's a reduced drill. A real drill would be to say 'let's scrimmage and it's full tackle' but you'll never do that because you put players in peril."

That's certainly fair enough. The CFL's injury count is high enough already without full-contact practices, and hits in practice can be just as damaging to the head as those in games. In fact, less contact in practice (along the lines of what the CFL does) has been proposed as a potential measure to limit head injuries in the U.S. The CFL's ahead of the game on that front, so there's no need to go backwards by bringing in full contact in practice. It's worth pointing out that the league is taking other positive steps on player safety as well, such as reducing cut-blocking and emphasizing concussion awareness.

Further change does still have to happen, however, and what's needed is a renewed focus on eliminating helmet-to-helmet hits. The league is doing their part by fining those like Butler who cross the line, and they should continue with that; they should also work with officials to catch and penalize those plays in game. The teams have their own role to play, too, though, and that's on the instructional side. We certainly don't want full-contact practices, but it might not hurt to do more tackling drills on dummies, emphasizing hitting with the shoulders and wrapping up the man rather than leading with the head and trying to take him out. It's worth pointing out that this isn't about reducing or eliminating contact from the game; a properly-executed tackle with a good bit of momentum behind it can be just as devastating as a head shot, as Jamall Johnson's famous Week One hit on Buck Pierce demonstrated:

The Johnson hit is a textbook example of what CFL players should be doing: lead with the shoulder, make initial contact with the other player's shoulder, wrap him up and bring him down. There's plenty of force there, but it's delivered in the proper way, not by using the helmet as a weapon or going for the target's head. Granted, for things to change, instructional methods are going to have to change at the minor and collegiate levels as well, as it's tough to break habits once they're ingrained. Still, CFL players are certainly capable of imitating Johnson rather than Butler. Hopefully more of them will as the season goes on.

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