This high school football team never tackled in practice last year. Then it won a state title
By ROMAN STUBBS | The Washington Post | Published: August 27, 2019
FRANKLIN LAKES, N.J. — The gruff veteran coach stood at midfield and studied his stopwatch closely.
"Eyes up!" Drew Gibbs screamed as the seconds ticked away.
It was a preseason football practice at Ramapo High School earlier this month, and the coach was allowing himself just 15 minutes to teach his team how to tackle. Only they weren't actually tackling.
The players scurried off to four stations on the corners of the field. At one, players tackled each other into a giant red pad on the ground. At another, they hit a padded sled. At two others, they simply wrapped each other up, trying carefully to avoid what on this team is considered a cardinal sin.
"Stay off the ground!" Gibbs yelled over and over during the 15-minute period.
It was a test run for how Ramapo, the defending state champions, will practice during the regular season in adherence to New Jersey's sweeping new rule, considered the most aggressive statewide player-safety measure ever instituted for high school football. The rule, implemented at a time of dwindling participation numbers and amid continuing concerns over head injuries that can be sustained while playing the sport, restricts teams to 15 minutes of full contact drills during the regular season, down from 90 minutes in 2018.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Association trumpeted the rule change as "historic" in a February news release, adding that full contact in the state "has been reduced to the lowest level in the history of football." Ramapo didn't tackle to the ground at all during practices last season.
The change has reverberated across the country, where some longtime stakeholders believe the move is a breakthrough that will permeate the game at all levels in the years to come.
"What I think has happened, in pro football, in college football and in high school football, is this is for us to have a safer game," said Archie Manning, the former NFL quarterback and father of two more who now serves as the National Football Foundation's chairman. "You get a group of high school coaches together . . . it's really just hard for them to object to it. They want what's best for their kids. They want what's best for the game. It's going to help the game."
While the move has been praised by many coaches across New Jersey, some have voiced displeasure, wondering how their younger and inexperienced players will learn how to effectively tackle. Others have questioned how the mandate will be enforced, and if it will be effective enough to inspire change across the country. A similar resolution was adopted in Michigan in May, but many states still have lax regulations on tackling during practices.
A 2015 study conducted by the Datalys Center for Sports Injury found that 58% of high school football concussions occur in practices, not games.
The state's mandate comes as participation in the sport declines both locally and nationally. New Jersey was one of 44 states to see the number of players in 11-man football decrease for the 2018 season, according to a study released by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Nationwide participation in the sport reached its lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year.
While analysts have attributed the decline to a multitude of factors - including demographic shifts, single sport specialization and cost - injury risk, particularly head injuries, has been at the forefront of the discussion. The move in New Jersey is intended to cut down on those injuries and help bolster numbers in a state that has a rich high school football history.
The 57-year-old Gibbs, who has coached 18 years at Ramapo, was a catalyst for the move. Members of the New Jersey Football Coaches Association all gathered inside the defensive lineman room at Rutgers' football facility last December, arguing the merits of the proposed change and whether the new limit should be 15 or 30 minutes. Gibbs, who just two weeks earlier had led Ramapo to a 13-0 record - the first in state history - cut through the commotion.
"We didn't tackle players to the ground once in practice all last season," he said as he stood before the men. "It worked out pretty well for us."
Ramapo had only two players suffer concussions last season, according to Gibbs. He considered that as much of a success as the 13 wins. His thinking on the issue changed back in the mid-2000s, when one of the the best players he ever coached suffered a nasty concussion in a rivalry game. Chris Hogan, who now is a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, was coached by Gibbs to keep his head in front and tackle chest-to-chest. Gibbs blamed himself as Hogan took a knee to the head and exited the game. Ramapo blew a 19-point lead and lost that night.
"It was an aha moment," Gibbs said. "We totally went away from tackling like that."
Gibbs rewrote practice plans and started teaching his team rugby-style tackling. No longer would they use the archaic tackling terminology that he learned as a player in New Jersey - phrases like "bite the ball" and "head in front" had to go. They were going to become a shoulder tackling team.
The primary rule of practice now is to stay off the ground, because Gibbs is convinced that most injuries happen while players are laying on the turf.
"I think the way we practice is smart. I've never had any trouble getting through a season," said Ramapo senior offensive lineman Sam Basa, who said he has not dealt with concussions during his football career. "Our coaches are smart and they care about us."
Gibbs said he believes, despite the declining numbers in New Jersey youth football, that coaches are teaching tackling better and safer than ever before. He also said that he believes some concerns are overblown among high school players and parents when it comes to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that results from blows to the head and has been found in cases of former football players, but he nonetheless takes the risk of head injuries very seriously.
"I think the benefits a young man gets from playing high school football, they outweigh the risk and certainly balance the risks off," Gibbs said. "We've made the game even safer than it's ever been."
Gibbs puts his freshman players through extensive tackling instruction as they're indoctrinated into the team, firmly believing that they will adopt the right technique as they ease into game situations. They study detailed power-point presentations on how to hit.
Some coaches are less convinced of this methodology, and have called the 15-minute restriction a safety issue itself because it won't allow coaches to teach players how to correctly tackle in game situations.
"That's a joke," St. Joseph coach Augie Hoffmann told NJ.com in April. "Fifteen minutes of contact per week? You have to learn how to tackle on game days. This is an intricate part of the game and I'm not saying we need to hit or tackle every day. I just think 15 minutes is a little extreme."
As for who will police the new regulations, there is no firm answer. The schools and coaches will have to operate on an "honor system," according to Terry O'Neill, who spearheaded the mandate in New Jersey behind his football advocacy group Practice Like the Pros.
O'Neill introduced the idea to about 400 coaches at a clinic in April 2017 by arguing that of the nearly 250 concussions suffered in the NFL that previous season, only six had occurred in practice because most teams were adopting a no tackle-to-the-ground policy.
There has been a breakthrough in New Jersey, according to O'Neill, where for the first time teams are scrimmaging by "thudding" - where players are not allowed to finish contact by bringing their opponent to the ground - and almost eliminating tackling in practice all together. O'Neill has recently focused his efforts on changing rules in North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana, which according to O'Neill is currently is one of four states - along with New Hampshire, Delaware and South Dakota - that has no existing limits on tackling to the ground in practice.
Gibbs would invite anyone to Ramapo to learn his philosophy. While he watched closely during the tackling drills in August, his assistants mimicked his approach. One kid displayed bad technique during thudding, by looking at the ground instead of looking up. That's when "awful things can happen," an assistant coach told the player, as Gibbs nodded along.
This is part of the balance Gibbs wants his players to strike each practice. Somehow, they must toe the line between safety and the aggression required to succeed in a physical and often violent sport. It conforms with state law now, and it's part of Gibbs' plan to get the most out of his players during games.
"If you don't feed the dog all week," Gibbs said, "he's hungry on Friday nights."