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Ravens Insider: National Rugby League provides path to how NFL ban on hip-drop tackle can be coached, officiated


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ORLANDO, Fla. — The tackle that left Ravens tight end Mark Andrews with a fractured fibula, ligament damage to his left ankle and caused him to miss seven games last year was officially banned by the NFL on Monday at the league’s annual meeting.

The vote was unanimous among the league’s 32 owners. The hip-drop tackle — in which, according to the competition committee, a defender “unweights himself by swiveling and dropping his hips and/or lower body, landing on and trapping the runner’s leg(s) at or below the knee” — will result in a 15-yard penalty beginning next season.

“I’m not a politician, but I’m for it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier in the day. “I think taking the hip drop out of the game is the right thing to do.”

But even with its outlawing, there are questions, most notably will defenders be less effective stopping a ball carrier moving at speeds sometimes faster than 20 mph while avoiding committing the penalty, and how will referees be able to officiate it accurately?

The answers perhaps can be found in another game whose origin traces back nearly 200 years, is played with an oblong ball and became popularized in a faraway land nearly 10,000 miles from the United States.

Rugby union was first played in Australia in 1839, with its next iteration, rugby league — the sport’s closest thing to the modern day NFL — holding its first full season nearly six decades later in 1907. Like football in this country, rugby union has seen the speed of its players increase exponentially over the years. With speed, of course, comes danger — and a higher risk of injury.

Before the hip-drop tackle became a buzzy phrase and fast-rising concern around the NFL, it was already something the National Rugby League, headquartered in Sydney, was looking to eliminate from its game.

“We were noticing three or four years ago we were getting a lot of lower leg injuries, ankle injuries, in some cases knee injuries, where they all had fairly similar attributes in relation to the type of tackle that was performed,” NRL’s head of football Graham Annesley told The Baltimore Sun. “They all had three common elements: holding the player with both hands, the tackler twists their body, then the bulk of their body weight falling onto the lower limb.

“We got to the point a few years ago where we said this is causing too many injuries, we’ve got too many players out of the game for extended periods of time as a result of it, and we need to make a concerted effort across the game to try and eliminate it as much as possible and significantly reduce the incidents of it.”

Unsurprisingly, the NFL, which says it routinely consults with a variety of football leagues around the globe and reached out to the NRL two years ago, had also seen its own increase in injuries as a result of the tackle, some of which were high profile.

In addition to Andrews, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith were among the players who suffered injuries related to hip-drop tackles. In 2022, Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes and then-Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard were also injured after being tackled that way. And last month, NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller said the league’s research found that hip-drop tackles resulted in an injury rate 20 to 25 times greater than other tackles.

Ravens vs. Bengals
Baltimore Ravens' Mark Andrews catches a ball against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun
The hip-drop tackle that injured Ravens tight end Mark Andrews in November has been banned by the NFL starting next season. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

It had also become a problem for the NRL, which is why in 2020 it sent a memo to clubs outlining its concerns about the injuries involved. Three years later, the league formally banned it.

In the NRL’s initial conversations, though, the pushback was predictable and foretelling: Players and coaches said the injuries were simply the consequence of playing a contact sport. Not long after, however, the league outlined the specifics of the new rule, how players could be coached on how to avoid committing the offense and worked with match officials on how to call it.

The league also sent instructional videos to clubs and referees and had dialogue with both.

“We brought it down to hold, twist, drop,” Annesley told The Sun. “We kind of simplified it as much as possible.”

Still, there was a learning curve, as there likely will be in the NFL next season.

Said Annesley: “We did have some confusion initially where we were seeing some action taken where it wasn’t necessarily a hip drop because we had to educate them that the drop component needed to be a direct drop onto the limb, rather than subsequent contact with the limb.”

In the days after Andrews’ injury, suffered when he was dragged to the ground by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson in the opening quarter of a November game at M&T Bank Stadium, then-Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen and safety Kyle Hamilton, like many rugby players before them, were against the idea of outlawing the tackle.

“How else do you want us to tackle?” Queen said, in part. “Just let the guy run past you? … At the end of the day, we play football. We have pads on. We have all that stuff on for a reason.”

Added Hamilton: “I feel like you can’t necessarily [avoid it] because you don’t know exactly what’s gonna happen. You’re trying to get them down by any means necessary.”

Rabbitohs Jacob Gagai runs through Sea Eagles Jaxson Paulo to score a try during the opening match of the NRL between the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, March 2, 2024. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Banning the hip-drop tackle resulted in a “significant” decrease in injuries, the National Rugby League’s head of football Graham Annesley told The Baltimore Sun. (David Becker/AP)

But the NFL believes, as does the NRL, that there is a safer and more effective way for players to continue to tackle while lowering the injury risk, and that it can be officiated consistently.

“We still see a number of similar tackles that aren’t necessarily offenses,” Annesley told The Sun. “The ones that we see that aren’t charged under our judiciary code — they still have the grab and the twist, but in many cases the players are much better at their body weight actually hitting the ground before it hits the leg. That’s how most of our coaches have dealt with it here to try and avoid it.

“There’s still the occasional one that goes wrong … but we’re now seeing much more awareness from the players where they try to move their body weight out of the way of the leg so the body weight hits the ground. The ball carrier’s leg may still finish under the body of the tackler, but we’ve avoided as much as possible the full body weight dropping directly onto the leg.”

Still, the NFL Players Association has been steadfast in its opposition to it being banned.

“The players oppose any attempt by the NFL to implement a rule prohibiting a ‘swivel hip-drop’ tackle,” it said in a statement after the league’s competition committee’s rule change proposal became public. “While the NFLPA remains committed to improvements to our game with health and safety in mind, we cannot support a rule change that causes confusion for us as players, for coaches, for officials and especially, for fans. We call on the NFL, again, to reconsider implementing this rule.”

But the league and its 32 owners disagreed, approving the change with a swift vote Monday.

In Australia, meanwhile, the NRL has had its share of controversial calls over the tackle with some players being penalized and others not, causing confusion and discontent with some players, coaches and fans. But it has also resulted in a “significant” decrease in injury, according to Annesley, who said there was always going to be an adjustment period for players and officials but that the change will be beneficial for the long term.

“No one wants to see players hurt,” Annesley told The Sun. “We have to balance that against the fact that these are body contact sports where accidents do happen. But we have to make sure there’s a duty of care and that we are always exercising our duty of care to try to keep the players safe as possible.”

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