A History of Football Rule Changes & Penalties
New NFL Tackling Rules Explained
There have been a lot of controversial rule changes this year in both the NFL and NCAA. Critics of these new rules see them as cursory attempts at minimizing injuries on the field, while simultaneously interrupting the game with constant penalties. At first I saw these criticisms as merely old-timers complaining about reform and change. However, as I looked more into the history and evolution of the NFL and NCAA rules, I found some striking irony in how rule changes and penalties made in the 1970s change the game forever.
In 1970, there was only one player in the NFL over 300 lbs, and there was only 3 in 1980. Compare this to a whopping 523 players over 300 lbs at the start of the 2010 NFL season. It’s not just weight either, in fact prior to the 1980s, most offensive linemen fell below 6’4.
So What Happened?
First off, in 1974 the NFL made blocking below the waist illegal when not against the ball carrier. The rule states:
Prior to his rule change the most common blocks occurred below the waist, which would have made being tall and top-heavy a huge disadvantage as you were vulnerable to getting their knees knocked out. What we know today as "chop blocking" or "cut blocking" below the knee was common practice in 1960s and before. I found some Big Ten footage from 1960 and if you watch the line of scrimmage it looks like a mess with 6-foot, 200-pound offensive linemen scurrying around and diving for their opponents' knees. Defensive linemen also did a lot more running, whereas today a defensive tackle's strategic responsibilities revolve around the QB and stay localized near the line of scrimmage.
The irony of it all...
A government study in 1994 found that NFL linemen had 52% higher risk of dying from heart disease than other football players. Herein lies the irony: in an attempt to minimize injuries through new rules and penalties, the NFL, NCAA and even high school football have created strategic system that prioritizes the physical size of a player over their health and well-being in the long run. Like the penalizing of below-the-knee cut/chop blocking, the NFL's new helmet rule, which prohibits players from lowering their helmet to initiate contact, has good intentions to try and minimize brain damage endured during a game. However, as we've seen before, win-driven football coaches will adapt and find alternative strategies and systems regardless of the potential harm it could inflict on their players.
By no means, am I bringing this up to fat shame or criticize linemen for their size. Many large players in the NCAA and NFL are in great shape, despite our preconceived, superficial notions of what health looks like. In fact, one of my favorite moments in football is when one of these larger players gets the chance to make an interception or recover a fumble for a touchdown. Linemen are often the unsung heroes of the game of football, and I think we all get a little inspired when we see a 250-300 lb man excitedly job into the endzone for probably the first time in his career. Pressuring players as young as high school to gain or lose mass amounts of weight at a time is incredibly dangerous as it leads to unhealthy diets and the overuse of supplements. I’m not saying any of these new rules for the 2018 will ultimately lead to a similar unhealthy trend, but reflecting on the history of football can reveal that rule changes and penalties may not be the effective way to minimize on-field injuries. This doesn’t mean there is no solution to the high frequency of injuries during games, it just means we need to think more critically and outside the box to find it.