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The NFL’s Most Violent Man on How to Curb Football Injuries

by Joshua Neuman

October 21, 2014
Photo by James Flores / Getty Images

The NFL finally seems to be coming to terms with the extent of damage that playing football does to its players. Last month, the league acknowledged that one in three players will experience long-term cognitive problems due to brain trauma—as if neurological research, university-funded studies, and actuarial estimates were needed to prove that the violent collision of two heads could cause brain damage. The league is also increasingly enforcing a spate of new penalties to protect defenseless players from taking hits above their shoulders. In essence, the NFL has decided to legislate around the act of tackling—there are safe and unsafe ways of doing so, the logic goes.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But as Buzz Bissinger has argued: “You can have all the new rule changes you want, and all the behavior modification you want, but potentially serious injuries will still be common. … Violence is not only embedded in football; it is the very celebration of it. It is why we like it. Take it away, continue efforts to curtail the savagery, and the game will be nothing…”

Suppose, for a moment, that there was a way to increase player safety besides tinkering with rules, hoping its players played more responsibly, or abolishing outright the nation’s favorite Sunday-afternoon ritual? Now, suppose that such an idea was proposed 35 years ago by one of the most violent players in the sport’s history?

Hall of Fame safety Jack Tatum, also known as “The Assassin,” played safety for the Oakland Raiders at a time when the mere sight of his team’s silver-and-black uniforms struck fear in opposing players. Tatum was widely recognized as one of the hardest tacklers in the game, and perhaps none were harder than the vicious hit he delivered to Darryl Stingley in 1978 that left the New England Patriots receiver paralyzed. Tatum never apologized for the hit, insisting that it was not only legal but also the inevitable realization of the game’s logic, achieving a kind of gridiron platonic ideal. Tatum would have agreed with Bissinger: Take away the violence and the game is nothing.

With his unique window into the game’s savage soul, Tatum would have likely laughed at the NFL’s current attempt to legislate against violent tackling. But, even the most stalwart Oakland Raiders fans barely remember that Tatum believed the game needed to be fundamentally changed to protect its players and in his 1980 autobiography, They Call Me Assassin, he presented several suggestions on how to do so. One of them, the elimination of zone defense, seems particularly rife with possibilities.

In Tatum’s words:

A zone coverage is dangerous for receivers and running backs who attempt any patterns over the middle. Running a pass route through a zone defense is similar to running full speed through [the] woods in the middle of the night. The offensive man simply cannot see the defenders like he can in a man-to-man defense… In my position I just sit back, watch the quarterback for any indication about where he is going to throw the ball, and then, wham!

He then describes how banning the zone defense would change the game:

The owners and the NFL officials should make player safety their number one priority when it comes for their annual meeting…Just outlaw zone coverages and move every team to a five-man defensive line. With man-for-man coverage, the game becomes more of a push-and-shove, bump-and-run game. When I have to cover on a man-for-man situation, I must run with, or chase after receivers. There isn’t any camping in the middle of the field and looking for those head-on shots that can render a man unconscious or break his neck… This type of rule would also give added protection to the running back and open up the offensive game of football tremendously.

For Tatum, eliminating the zone defense wouldn’t aim to counter the violence at the game’s core, but to give it a new context to express itself, a context that might also (unlike most other attempts to mitigate the problem) make the game more exciting. Defensive players would increasingly be put into “defensive” situations with the unsuspecting receivers that they preyed upon placed in “offensive” ones. The game might open up, become more speed-oriented and demand more dexterity and acrobatics from receivers and the defensive backs matched up with them. A secondary that flourishes in the zone, like the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom,” could no longer simply linger in quiet repose, waiting for receivers to run straight at them unsuspectingly and then… SMASH!

There are a ton of conversations going on right now about how to tinker with the sport and a growing segment of critics arguing for its abolishment based on the ultimate impotence of that tinkering. And, of course, Tatum’s more sweeping suggestion would do nothing to ameliorate the cumulative damage of the most routine moments of the sport: the 10,000 or so “little hits” that Malcolm Gladwell has argued are the real issue at hand.

But eliminating the zone defense might help us imagine a future for football that didn’t attempt to legislate against, but rather accommodate for the violence at its core.

It would be a strange irony if the legacy of “The Assassin” made for a safer sport.

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The NFL’s Most Violent Man on How to Curb Football Injuries