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Why is NFL banning hip-drop tackle, and what does that even mean? Breaking down latest controversial rule change

ORLANDO, Fla. — The writing was on the wall when the NFL began publicizing its data.

The hip-drop tackle, league executives began saying last year, inflicted injury at 25 times the rate of the average tackle.

And this wasn’t just any injury, the league’s health and safety committee said. This was a time-loss injury.

Fifteen times last season — nearly once a week in a sport where each team plays 17 regular-season games — a player was tackled via what the league is now calling a “swivel” hip-drop tackle, and that player missed game time due to the tackle.

Perhaps as concerning for the committee: The 230 examples of this move that they found on 2023 tape represented a 60% increase from the previous season’s frequency.

So for a league that claims health and safety goals, and certainly trends toward pro-offense and pro-scoring goals, the move was too costly to allow.

On Monday, at the league’s annual meeting in Orlando, NFL team ownership unanimously voted to ban the hip-drop tackle.

Or a version of it, depending on your definition.

“This isn’t an elimination of hip drop,” competition committee chairman Rich McKay said in a Monday afternoon news conference. “This is elimination of a swivel technique that doesn't get used very often and when it is used, it is incredibly injurious to the runner. The runner is purely defenseless.

“Yes, we outlawed the hip drop. But what you may think [of], the drag from behind when he falls, that’s still a [legal] tackle. This is only that tackle where the player is lifting himself in the air and then falling on the legs.”

It’s a subtle distinction, and one subtle enough to concern the NFL Players Association that enforcement will be unfair. The rule passed unanimously nonetheless.

So now what?

Players weigh in on NFL’s decision

The NFL has banned the
The NFL has banned the "swivel" technique of the hip-drop tackle. Here's what that means, and how it's being received. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NFL’s ultimate goal, multiple league executives said, is to eliminate the hip-drop tackle, as they define it, from the game. League leadership wants to pressure teams to coach it out of players’ play styles, the way they believe they changed trends on horse-collar tackles, helmet-to-helmet collisions and crack-back blocks.

“It’s just too sudden, like they’ve been shot between the eyes when they catch them just right,” Dallas Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones told Yahoo Sports. “I know of no other way to tackle somebody that stops them right where they are in the open field. Well, that’s got to rupture something.”

Green Bay Packers running back Kenyan Drake, who was injured via just such a tackle in 2021, tweeted his support of the rule.

“I don’t care about popular opinion,” he said in a Monday afternoon post. “I lost my right ankle and a quarter of the ‘21 season to this type of tackle. Something had to give and im (sic) glad it’s not about anybody[‘s] legs/ankles anymore.”

Who does hold that popular opinion to which Drake referred?

Count Miami Dolphins safety Jevon Holland and Vikings safety Josh Metellus among them.

“Breaking news: Tackling Banned,” Holland tweeted.

“Every year they make it harder for us to succeed,” Metellus said. “Why can offensive players still cut you? I’m sure [a] bunch of players get hurt from that too but it’s still in the game.”

The NFLPA took a concurring but not identical stance.

Union pushback is twofold, a league source with knowledge of their sentiment explained. One concern: League rules continue to change with minimal player input, and without meaningful player voting power, a system the union believes is unfair to the players whom it impacts.

And at least as frustrating to union leadership: How many more fines will this new, arguably vague penalty prompt? Reduction of penalties is one of the union’s top priorities right now. Punishment, the union insists, is not the best method of education.

How NFL plans to enforce hip-drop tackle

On a conference call last Thursday with reporters, McKay said “we knew we had to start somewhere with something on the books in order to educate players of what’s allowed and what isn’t allowed.”

But he confirmed Monday that enforcement will not rely only on education and warnings.

“We will tell them, ‘Listen: This is a penalty on the books,’” McKay said of the message to officials. “You can call it. [But] you've got to see all three elements of what’s going on here.”

Officials must see a tackler grab the runner; they must see the tackler swivel himself up in the air; and they must see that swivel lead to the tackler “unweighted,” the airborne motion before which he then falls on the ball carrier’s leg area or below the knee.

McKay protested against the fairly loud chorus of fans who believe this ban is meant to further soften a violent game.

“Sometimes we’re looked at as we’re trying to make the game softer,” he said. “I don’t agree with that at all. We’re trying to make the game safer.”

And sometimes, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said, protecting the players means protecting the players from themselves.

“I’ve been in that position,” said Vincent, a five-time Pro Bowl NFL defensive back who played 15 total seasons. “When you talk about removing things, there’s gonna be resistance. I respect that.”

But same as horse-collar, blindside block and crack back blocks, among others, this ban too will proceed with or without player support.

“Durability and availability is the No. 1 and 2 asset for any professional athlete — in particular, the football player,” Vincent said. “I have a technique that causes 20 to 25 [times] the injury rate when it occurs. I respect their position. But as gatekeepers of the game, and we've discussed this with some of the greatest players and defenders who have ever played or played the game of professional football, this is something that we have to remove.”