Tackling like Butkus

Dick Butkus form-tackles the entire Packer offense!

Update Below

On the way to work this morning, I was listening to Mike and Mike in the morning on ESPN Radio. They had former NFL player Marcelus Wiley on talking about the new stricter enforcement of the helmet to helmet shots.  He was followed by Ron Jaworksi, who is the first former player I’ve heard who has addressed this issue honestly.

All the other players, including Wiley and Mike Golic, have insisted the players are only tackling the way they were taught. They complain that to expect them to change now is unfair and impossible. They imply the game will be changed for the worse.

But Jaworski revealed this to be a fallacy. In watching game film this week, he explained, he had not seen much form tackling — that is: facemask to chest, driving forward, and wrapping arms around the ball carrier. If the players were doing this, that would be the proper technique and I believe there would be fewer instances of hard, helmet to helmet contact. If you want to see a clinic on proper form tackling, watch this highlight video of Dick Butkus.*

Prior to Jaworski’s comments, Wiley had inadvertently revealed why proper tackling technique is no longer common. He said there is no time to practice tackling during workouts. His question was how can we expect the players to change technique when they don’t practice? My question is how can expect them to have proper technique if they don’t practice?

Instead, these gifted athletes make up for lack of technique with athleticism, hurling themselves at ball carriers like missiles. That’s the heart of the problem.

*I’m not contending Butkus was always a clean player, and I’m not saying he didn’t intentionally launch himself at opponents from time to time. But look at most of these tackles, the way he sticks his face into the ball carrier’s chest, wraps his arms around him, and drives. That’s how tackling should be done. (I’m not blind to the fact that this video from NFL Films celebrates the type of violent collision the League is now trying to distance itself from, but that’s not the issue I’m addressing here.)

Update: I’m overwhelmed by the comments. Thank you!

As commentors have pointed out, there are other factors involved in this issue. The purpose of my post is just to highlight one of them — one that few pundits and players have been willing to acknowledge.

BTW, poor tackling technique has another consequence on the game, namely that there are too many missed tackles.  My father was a long-time football coach. He’s been complaining for years that pros do not know how to tackle anymore. Just watch how often defenders throw themselves at the ball carrier only to be shaken off, side-stepped or stiff-armed out of the picture and with little impact on the runner. It happens too often.



  1. i agree 100%. You watch any game and you’ll see plenty of guys going for the “kill shot”. How many times do you see the tackler being just as woozy as the one being tackled….excuse me, hitter and hit recipient? Many, many times. “See what you hit” is what I’ve always been taught and taught my son that. Funny thing is, he refused to keep his head up when tackling…so we have banned football from his list of “things I can do in life”. Everyone, coaches, players, parents want the rush of “here comes the BOOM” but are saddened when 12 year old Timmy is lying there with only his legs moving back and forth. Ounce of prevention…

  2. While I think that your point on players not practicing form tackling is likely valid, I would venture that the cause has more to do with the advances in protective equipment and and added emphasis by defensive coaches, especially in the secondary, on “blowing-up” potential receptions.

    Modern football equipment is much more forgiving on the body, not including the head (concussions), that players are able to turn themselves into human-missiles in attempts to separate ball from opponent. Coaches realize this and teach to it. There is a reason why seemingly every DB in high-level football dives, shoulder-first into ball-carriers.

    The NFL decided to protect Quarterbacks from all harm years ago, and has increasingly made them unhittable. Add that to DBs being banned from contact with receivers and offensive blockers being allowed to use their hands, and big-hit from the secondary are one of the last bastions of defensive football left.

    1. I agree with what you’re saying about the way the League has hamstringed (hamstrung?) defenses. I was going to mention that myself, but thought I was already going on too long. But you are definitely on to something.

  3. Cool pic, I have a friend, Billy Martin, who played with Butkus on the Bears. Billy was a rookie right out of Georgia Tech and said that Butkus was so intense in practice (with only helmets and shoulder pads) that the team had to go to full-gear to reduce the chance of injuries.

  4. So, these athletes should have to harness their athleticism? Rather than hitting someone as hard as he can, a player should slow up and “form-tackle?” No.

    If the ultimate goal was simply to make tackle after tackle as the opposing offense moves up the field, fine. But the goal is to knock the ball loose and give your offense more chances to score. Wrap tackles aren’t going to force fumbles–hard hits are. James Harrison has the right idea.

    1. If you know the technique you don’t have to “slow up” to form tackle. Did you see Butkus slowing up?

      What I’m saying is the players shouldn’t use their athleticism as a substitute for proper technique. But I don’t blame the players for this. I blame the coaches.

    2. Vermonter 17032 is right. Form tackles when making a hit is effective and very important. It stops the opposing offense from advancing when executed properly and helps to prevent injury, instead of using bad form because you want that big “kill shot” hit that 9 times out of 10 doesn’t even cause a fumble. In the end it isn’t the offense that wins the game, but the teams defense. It isnt the job of the defense to get the offense the ball but to stop the opposing offense from scoring.

      Vermonter 17032- very nice blog! I enjoyed the read.

    3. Listening to Brandon Noble, a former NFL player on the radio earlier this week he said that proper form tackling as he was taught involved putting your shoulder in to the ball carrier’s gut and putting your facemask on the ball. You don’t have to destroy the player to knock the ball loose, you just need to hit him in the right way and you’re going to cause turnovers.

  5. “…this video from NFL Films celebrates the type of violent behavior the League is now trying to distance itself from…”

    They’re already wearing pink shoes & gloves – so – why not — lets make them all tackle nice and change the name to “PowderPuff Football.”

  6. Thank you for writing this post. Outstanding. I tweeted the video to Roger Goodell. Here’s my prediction first right here on your blog:

    There will be a time when a linebacker has a clean shot to put someone’s lights out (their team will be in the lead) and he walks away and lets him score. Why will he do this?

    1) To make a point that the rule is neutering pro football and

    2) These namby pamby rules have turned tackling like Butkus into a business decision. Before a defensive player lays someone out, he will ask himself, “Is hitting as hard as I can wherever possible going to cost me 100 grand?”

    The sad thing about this is that the person who walks away from a hit will probably be fined.


  7. I tend to agree. Also if the tackler is using proper technique (in between the numbers, look at what you’re hitting, wrap up) then they are increasing their own safety. It’s something you have to instil through repetition, and that gets tougher when you reach the pros due to the intensity of prep for the next week’s game, but there should be some kind of focus on it, even if it’s just bag tackling.

    It took me a while to get used to this when I played, the natural instinct is to duck at the last moment. I can’t help but wonder if, because of the speed some of these hits are occurring at, it’s amplifying that response to a degree.

  8. You are echoing my sentiments completely. I was taught the game by former NFL quarterback Dick Shiner and he would lose his mind when the fundamentasl weren’t adhered to. Proper tackling is becoming as rare as just, “falling on the ball” when it pops out.

  9. I loved that video of Butkus! Thanks for the link! I can’t join the conversation like I really know what I’m talking about, but I have to say that as a young teen-age girl in Chicago, back when Butkis was with the Bears, I learned what I know about the game from watching their games and him. When his autobiography came out, I told my mom that was what I wanted for Christmas. Not only did I get it (and read it twice) after a few hours I realized there was writing in it. She didn’t even realize it had been autographed!

    I don’t have the vocabulary to explain it like you and your commenters, but it was thrilling to watch that video and football that I recognize more than lot of what I run into these days. Unfortunately, I don’t seek out football anymore. But I don’t leave the room when it’s on.

    I read your “About” page. I think I’ll visit again!

  10. ryan CHANDELIER thinks that the modern age of professional athletes has lead to our nation’s sporting heroes becoming as soft as Harry Whittington after a spot of hunting in Texas. Back when CHANDELIER was playing, I used to tackle everything head-on, umpires, players, and often the ball. Unfortunately the sport I was playing was baseball. Nevertheless, my team mates on the AA Sarasota Sandgropers appreciated my efforts. Just as we fans appreciate Dick Butkus.

  11. You can’t expect players to pull up to lessen impacts..but i agree with the authors statement…you see missed tackles and hits that otherwise wouldnt happen if proper tackles were attempted…some are inadvertant, but if you are leading with your helmet and the ball carrier is lowering his head and shoulders bad things are going to happen…even “minor” injuries are painful and sometimes hard to recover from while the season is still being played…not up to officials to try to make the game safer…it’s up to the coaching and organizations, players, trainers. that have you to stress this through out the years..pee wee leagues through the pros…only thing anyone can truly expect to be done…

  12. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, and thanks for the spot-on post. I’m an avid Mike & Mike listener/viewer as well, and Jaworski very rarely misses the mark.
    You’ve got a new subscriber in me.

  13. Bigger players,faster runners, more pads. This isn’t rugby or soccer boys .When you get through with your sensitivity training get off the field or play the game as it was intended.
    Saw this coming. While we get “entertained” with a more touchey feeley game…BAH! Bring back the mud,blood,and beer.Ever see Blanda whine about a “late hit”?

  14. OK, A couple of things:

    1. Ron Jaworski made an interesting point? I missed that one. Mark it on your calendar kids.

    2. Of all of the hits last week, the Meriweather one was the worst, yes he was fined $25,000 less then Harrison was? How does that work?

    3. I think this was just as severe back in the day, but with less media coverage and total internet immersion, it didn’t come to fruition as being as serious. It shocks me more players like Butkus aren’t in a ward somewhere watching cartoons for the rest of their life, it really does.

    4. This suggestion that we might need to remove parts of the helmet (Per JoePa) is just plain silly. Make boxers remove their gloves then and have them keep fighting.

    Oh wait, that’s MMA…


  15. I could not agree more. I don’t know if James Harrison’s hits were legal or not but he certainly wasn’t trying to wrap up and he was leading with his head the whole game.

    One other point that’s not been made much is that NO RULES have changed from last week to now. Defenseless player? Don’t hit him in the head or neck. That simple.

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  17. I’m a visitor, too, and a girl. I grew up outside of Chicago, watching the Bears, and remain a Bears fan, today. Long ago, sitting with my dad (who, like yours, coached football), I learned that the professionals were tackling ‘wrong’ more and more. He was very vocal about showing me how they were tackling wrong, how the way they tackled cost them that play, and there was a lot of “look at that! It’s a miracle he didn’t kill himself!”

    Nowadays, I watch the game, and realize that the players are using the equipment more than their talent to accomplish the tackles.

    I listened, last summer maybe, to a discussion on the radio that encompassed this issue, as well as incorporating hockey into the mix. The conversation focused specifically on the massive amount of protective equipment used by players – and compared the number of injuries in the NFL with those of European Rugby players, who wear precious little in the way of protection. The NFL ‘boasted’ far more injuries, and the theory is that the players don’t know how to play correctly anymore, that they rely on the protective gear to do the work for them. And that’s the same argument that my dad makes when we discuss it.

    I don’t have the answers, but I don’t know if penalizing/fining is the correct one. Perhaps changing the equipment – taking away a few pads, and making the players feel the hits a little more – will bring about better technique.

  18. I think there’s far too much emphasis being put on defensive hits meanwhile offensive players chop and cut block, clip and horse-collar all the time and nothing is ever called. If they NFL is going to take a supposedly strong stance against injuries then they either need to address it on both sides of the ball or not at all.

    I played mike and sam linebacker in Pop Warner and the amount of injuries that came to d- linemen and linebackers at the hands of offensive linemen far out shadowed anything the defense ever did.

  19. Right on the money! NFL’s quality has gone way down over the last few years and one of the main reasons is the way they play the game. Its tackle football and yet no one in the NFL can tackle any more. Football is increasingly becoming a game of pure braun and the little brainpower used to set up plays are being reduced to gimmicks that cut corners and actually make the game boring. A little pooch kick for an online kick that actually only goes 3 yards before it hits the ground and then bounces heavily favors the kicking team. The wildcat or having a quarterback who can run every play is another sore spot. In those instances its a team sport being reduced to a one man show like in the NBA.

  20. Interesting topic. Another visitor who enjoys watching the game of football.

    Wanted to contribute something I discovered while doing some research on life in 1893 (117 years ago). Football was a pretty new sport back then. Newspapers for several weeks running ran articles about football games, with reports of players being crippled with severe injuries, and in one weekend 3 players actually died from injuries received while playing in games across the U.S.

    People back then were also concerned and the articles included calls to make the game safer. Some even wanted to ban the game of football altogether because they considered it too dangerous to even attempt improvement.

    Seems that after all this time, things haven’t changed that much. And I wonder why that is.

  21. If you want them to stop the helmet to helmet contact, take the helmets away, or give them old style headgear. Less protection will take some violence out of the game because “pain” will help to regulate the speed of the game. Yes, I know this will never happen, and I’m not sure I even want it to happen.. but I’m just sayin’ 🙂 Look how English Style Rugby players tackle.

  22. That video was a horrible example that Butkus was somehow categorically different than today’s crop of “tacklers.” He darn near took a couple guys’ heads off.

    Football is a violent sport. Most defenders hit to hurt an opposing player or to break-up or end a play. I don’t think this is a new way of playing football. It’s the way it’s been for a long, long time.

    High-speed, heavy-hitting collisions lead to concussions or other injuries. Butkus knocked people out of the game, too.

    Nevertheless, I agree with you that defenders should be taught and should practice proper tackling techniques.

  23. When you see these so called illegal helmet to
    helmet hits it is USUALLY on pretty much
    the same play over and over again. When
    a smallish wide receiver comes over the
    the middle and the QB is leading him
    into an area where linebackers make their
    living by bone crushing, intimidating hits,
    what do you expect?

    In baseball, it is a pitcher’s responsibility to
    pitch inside and move the player off the plate.
    When a celebrated hitter like Derek Jeter
    gets plunked when he is DIVING into the
    ball, what do you do? Take inside pitching
    out of the game? You can’t.

    To me the more dangerous plays take place
    at or near the lane of scrimmage where
    300+ lineman on both side of the ball
    awkwardly and inadvertantly roll up
    on each other. For every Darryl Stinegley
    paralyzed their are 3 or 4 Mike Utley’s
    or Dennis Byrd’s.

    As far as the concussion syndrome, and willingness
    to protect highly paid QB’s and WR’s to make
    the game SAFER, I say they want to make
    the game MORE MAREKETABLE by syaing they
    want to make the game safer. No player
    suffered more from concussion syndrome
    than Steeler offensive center, and Hall of
    Famer, Mike Webster. He died penniless
    and homeless, recently.

    Football is a very simple equation. It is a tough
    guy’s game. If you have the TOUGHEST players
    you will win MOST of the time. If you don’t
    want your 180 lb WR plastered, don’t lead
    him like a seal into a pack of great white
    sharks, over the middle.

    As a football fan, a bone jarring, over the
    middle hit, will bring me out of my seat
    just as much as a 60 yard bomb for a TD.
    From a marketing standpoint you
    better believe this sells seats, and beer
    to the TV audience.

    Former Hall of Fame linebacker, Jack Lambert
    said it best. When asked what rules the
    NFL could adopt to make it safer for the
    QB, he expressionlesly deadpanned, “You
    could let them wear dresses.”

    1. It would be a sorrowful commentary on the American sports fan if the NFL were to become less popular because fewer players get knocked cold. I certainly hope that is not the case.

  24. I like that picture a lot. It’s very Saturday Evening Post.

    In watching game film this week, he explained, he had not seen much form tackling — that is: facemask to chest, driving forward, and wrapping arms around the ball carrier.

    To what extent does height difference between players factor in to kinds of tackling methods? Or would it be futile to consider it since a Brent Grimes and a Jason Witten collision could still produce helmet-to-helmet as long as they were oriented in a certain angle and distance away from each other prior to contact.

  25. Good post. My dad and I have said that good tackling has been absent in the NFL for a long time. Having been speared plenty of times in football growing up, it would not take long to correct the problem. Players would adjust or have to find other employment.

    Mike Ditka and Joe Paterno had wise observations–remove the facemask and see how many missle-like heroes there would be.

  26. I had been a subscriber to Sports Illustated
    since 1960, when my father gave a season
    subscription to me as a Christmas present.
    I was a twelve year old at the time.

    I remember as a nineteen or twenty
    year old around 1967 or 1968 reading
    an article in SI or an interview in
    Playboy magazine, where it was
    clearly stated by said Mr. Dick Butkus
    who said that he had a recurring fantasy
    dream, where he hit somebody
    so hard that he knocked their heads
    clean off.

    I know I have a great memory for stuff
    like this (I usually can’t find my car
    keys or remember where I parked my
    car). I hope somebody out there can
    do some research on this, but I
    definately remember reading it.
    So much for bringing back good
    old fashioned tackling.

    Anybody remember the “head slap”? Randy
    White and Harvey Martin made careers
    out of using that technique.

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