From fifth through seventh grade, I started at strong safety for my school’s Indian Nation Football Conference team (Northeast Oklahoma’s version of Pop Warner).
I was under 5-feet tall and weighed maybe 100 pounds. Our team was terrible and we averaged two wins a season, but the one opponent we always beat on a regular basis was the one we were the most afraid to play.
Why were we always scared to play them? Because they had a monster running back in Renard Johnson. Once Johnson had the ball in his hands, it took five of us to take him down, and when we did so, we always hit him tentatively.
We were actually scared of him running us over and making my teammates and I look stupid in open field situations, because we knew that bringing him down with an arm tackle was our only opportunity, despite knowing that it would fail.
Johnson (God rest his soul) went on to become an Oklahoma high school football star who later played for Missouri Southern before passing away a couple of years ago.
Why do I bring this up?
Because I want to discuss how poor tackling today in college football isn’t so much contributed to the fact coaches don’t teach basics, it’s because of fear. Not the fear that the defensive player can’t bring down the ball carrier, but the fear of being called for a penalty in the way its done.
For me in seventh grade, I’ll admit, I was scared to death Johnson was going to simply demolish me, but I did tackle him (well, assisted in the process of) one time.
It was the final play of the game, and he broke loose around the right side. I was lucky enough to take a good angle on him and put my right hand on the collar of his shoulder pads. I then tried falling backward to bring him with me, except he dragged me (with legs waving in the air like an American flag on a windy day) 30 yards before Josh Hutchison caught up to finish the tackle.
Why that anecdote? Because today that would be considered a horse collar tackle and a 15-yard penalty would be assessed to the end of the run.
Due to newer rules to help protect ball carriers – quarterbacks in particular – football today has been overrun by Joey Crawford-like referees who call anything and everything that looks “too rough” as a personal foul. Never mind the fact that this is football, a sport where safeties’ eyes light up like Christmas when a receiver comes across the middle unprotected, but if that hit was “too hard with the shoulder pad,” it’s a personal foul.
There are so many rules in football today to help protect ball carriers that defensive players can’t deliver a successful “nasty hit” without having to worry if it was “too hard.” I understand that concussions are a serious issue and that leading with the helmet is an automatic personal foul because it’s a serious safety concern.
But, if a defensive tackle beats the protection and pressures a quarterback, puts his hands in the air while jumping to try to disrupt the pass and ends up landing on the QB after the gunslinger gets the pass off – you’re trying to tell me that’s a personal foul? That’s roughing the passer?
Because a 270-pound grown man is in the air and has all of his momentum already in the direction of a quarterback who still has the ball in his hand, if he lands on him, that’s roughing the passer?
What officials don’t seem realize is that we live in the real world where physics actually exist. This isn’t a game of Super Mario Bros. where that defensive tackle can just switch directions mid-air.
Allow me to pull a Dan Hawkins and remind everyone that it’s Division-I football! If you don’t like contact, go play intramural flag football – a place where I learned the hard way that refs don’t take too kindly to you stiff arming players in the face, causing bloody noses.
The same thing goes for the horse collar tackle. There’s nothing else to grab once that ball carrier gets past you, so they get an extra 15 yards. That wide receiver hadn’t turned around to see that safety slap him silly? There’s 15 more yards.
Also, there is a difference between five and 15-yard face mask penalties. Let’s be honest.
And do you know the one person it all comes down to with the increase of these calls over the past two years? Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
When something bad happens to a superstar, that’s when the rules change. I mean, let us be honest, if Bryan Waggener, starting quarterback for the Northern Colorado Bears, got injured in his season opener at Kansas this year, would anyone outside of Greeley and his mom and dad really care? It may sound rough, but the answer is probably no.
But the biggest problem is, coaches can’t publicly complain about officiating because the NCAA likes to hide behind a curtain of money and fine anyone in their jurisdiction who speaks out against their stupidity.
But the NCAA can’t fine me. I’m a member of the media and a columnist who shares his opinion. And it is my opinion that NCAA officiating is a joke.
I’m a dedicated American who loves the game of football and all I want is for the NCAA officials to meet at the end of this season and stop making the game we love so French. Let these defensive players go out and hit someone.
Sports Editor Matt L. Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.