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New Eagles Merge With Old Ways

Posted Mar 20, 2013

There is a sign and a message that greets every NFL player in every NFL locker room in every NFL city: Don’t hit what you can’t see. Finally, this may actually become a reality in the league. Join me in applauding the new NFL rule …

For years we have seen defensive players devolve into launched missiles who leave their feet and deliver blows to offensive players with the crowns of their helmets. The NFL has cracked down on that unsafe practice over the recent years, levying stiff fines to defensive players for such practices.

Now we have the next step. NFL owners on Wednesday approved a rule that forbids any player – offense or defense – to lead with the crown of the helmet. It does not, as some players have responded to, limit a player from lowering his pads and making contact with an opposing player with the face of his helmet, but I suspect over time we will see players move away from that step. Nor does it, as Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice suggested in a national television interview on ESPN, reduce the NFL to a “powder puff” game.

What it does, and what it will do, is make it incumbent upon all coaches and all players at all levels of football to get back to the fundamentals of tackling, to really practice the art form as we saw it before the players became too fast and the defensive tactics too desperate and the “launch” was, well, launched.

Every coach is now on the clock to not only talk about “getting back to fundamentals,” but to actually practice it, make it stick, and see it work in game situations.

It was interesting timing then, that in a hotel ballroom not far away from where the owners met, that Eagles head coach Chip Kelly held forth and for an hour or so regaled the waves of reporters coming his way to hear his pearls of wisdom. The man has a gift of gab, even if his reputation from his days at Oregon didn’t paint such a regaling picture.

Anyway, Kelly talked about, among many things, the interest he has in making his Eagles defense – no, his team – tougher and more physical. This is a much-welcomed concept after watching the Eagles fail to win so many mano-a-mano battles in the recent years. This team hasn’t had a dominating defense in many a season, and the offense’s glitz-and-glamour passing game approach failed them too often in red-zone moments, when the more physical team generally wins.

Who out there doesn’t long for the Philadelphia Eagles to win some arm-wrestling competitions, so to speak? How many of you grew up on Bill Bergey running sideline to sideline hitting everything that moved – legally, by the way – or Jeremiah Trotter blowing up an offensive line or Brian Dawkins dominating a game with a play that accentuated his intelligence, and his willingness to belie his size and win a physical matchup?

What I think of in these last couple of seasons – maybe more than a couple – is a defense that not often enough took it to the other team. I think of the cornerbacks bailing out of hold-the-point situations – and not all the time, of course, but enough that the sight of Asante Samuel ducking his head to make a tackle made me cringe and thank goodness that he was never seriously injured making a tackle – and I think of the defensive linemen running around blocks using their speed instead of thundering through a gap to allow another defender to shoot through the opening to make a tackle.

The NFL hasn’t seen a lot of clean, true-form tackles of late and, hence the rule changes. There is another one that not many are talking about, and I’m surprised offensive players haven’t howled their displeasure, and that is the one that requires thigh pads and knee pads on every player. In this era of lighter is better, the implementation of such pads will surely increase safety and reduce speed, if only by infinitesimal measures.

Maybe the game needs to slow down just a bit. Maybe that extra micro-second a ball carrier remains in front of a safety will allow the safety to wrap up, with his head up, and drive his legs through the ball and make a beautiful, old-school tackle.

It’s going to be interesting to see the impact the new rules have on the game this season. Me, I see what Kelly is doing. He’s got a new set of safeties in Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips to challenge Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman, and maybe the most physical, intelligent, correct-form tacklers will be the starters. Instead of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, cornerbacks who simply whiffed on too many tackles, the Eagles signed Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams and talked about how each tackled so well with their previous teams, St. Louis and Baltimore, respectively.

Connor Barwin isn’t here to run around blocks and ring up a lot of quarterback sacks, although that may be part of his job description. He’s here to be a physical player with versatile skills who plays the game with a physical and mental passion. Sacks are only part of the gig.

More is coming for the Eagles defense. They may very well continue the defensive overhaul in the draft, and if they do you will hear they say how this player tackles so well and how that player approaches the game with the love and joy and urgency Kelly wants to see up and down his roster.

On a day when the NFL introduced new rules that some, I think, took out of context and worried that the game will be less needlessly violent, Chip Kelly talked up the need for the Eagles to be bigger and stronger and more physical. What a welcomed concept. Let’s get back to some old-Eagles principles as we usher in the new Chip Kelly era and all the new-age technology and changes that come with it.

That sounds like a win/win for everyone who loves the Eagles – what they used to be on the field and what we hope they are in the very near future.

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