- By Cedric Golden American-Statesman Staff
Earl Campbell had a laundry list of highlight runs in his Hall of Famer NFL career, but one revealed the essence of the greatest power back ever.
Ask any knowledgeable NFL fan from the 1970s to name the most violent play of the decade, and some will point to Campbell’s run against Los Angeles Rams in 1978.
The Tyler Rose, in his rookie season with the Houston Oilers, avoided an initial tackler and saw linebacker Isiah Robertson standing between him and a first down.
Instead of using his speed to elude the tackler, Campbell lowered his head and plunged his helmet into the number 58 on Robertson’s chest. He then stiff-armed another would-be tackler as three Rams converged to take him down with his tearaway jersey in tatters, shoulder pads flapping.
While Campbell’s teammates celebrated the most jaw-dropping 20-yard run of that season, Robertson lay in a crumpled mess 15 yards behind the pile. A good player in his own right, his productive career was reduced, in the minds of some, to him becoming the answer to a trivia question: “Who was that Rams linebacker Earl Campbell trucked on that run?”
Forty seasons later, Campbell has lost count of how many times he has been asked about that play. Here’s what angers anyone who loves a good, violent collision on a football field: Campbell would be flagged for a personal foul under today’s rules. The league’s controversial new helmet contact rule penalizes any player with a 15-yard personal foul — that includes running backs — for lowering their head to initiate contact to any part of a tackler’s body.
The NFL explains it this way: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. Contact does not have to be to an opponent’s head or neck area — lowering the head and initiating contact to an opponent’s torso, hips, and lower body, is also a foul.”
Earl doesn’t follow the pro game as much these days, preferring to devote his Saturday afternoons to watching his Texas Longhorns at DKR or following the national college football scene at home with sons Christian and Tyler. When asked about the new helmet rule, he dropped a real bombshell.
“I wouldn’t be successful in today’s game,” he told me last week.
Come again, Earl?
“I mean it,” he said. “Football is a very brutal sport, and it’s something I knew I was getting into when I played. With the rules they have today and the penalties, it would be tough for me to do my job. I used my whole body as a weapon back then: the stiff arm, my helmet, whatever I could use. Now they’re penalizing players for being physical.”
While I respectfully disagree with the Hall of Famer — he would have been great in any era — there’s no denying that the implementation of this rule is a dangerous play for NFL owners and television networks who have pocketed untold billions on the backs of players running into one another at full speed Sunday after Sunday.
Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer told reporters earlier this offseason that he believes the rule will eventually cost someone his job, and he wasn’t talking about a referee. Imagine a running back in the open field at full speed having to engage a converging tackler with little time to avoid him. If he lowers his head and makes contact, bye-bye long run and hello yellow flag.
I can’t blame the league for trying to make the game safer and avoid life-altering injuries like the one suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier. He had to undergo spinal stabilization surgery after he made a tackle with his helmet down in a Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in December. Shazier, 25, still dreams of returning to the field, but he has a long way to go. He is attending daily therapy sessions but walks with the aid of a cane.
With that said, this will prove to be the most difficult rule to police, right there with pass interference and holding.
Austin resident Thomas Henderson, a Super Bowl winner with the Dallas Cowboys, is already seeing the rule as catering to running backs while defenders have been stripped of their physicality.
“It doesn’t seem equal that a running back can seemingly put this head down going into a defensive player,” he told me last week. “I understand what they’re doing because I’m one of the players who was part of the billion-dollar settlement for concussions. The bottom line is they want more scoring. They don’t want 7-3 games. They want 45-41 games. I think it’s mostly for the game and a little bit is safety.”
The settlement Henderson mentioned was a $530 million agreement made by league owners in 2013 to pay former players who were struggling physically and mentally from the toll on their bodies playing such a violent game over a long period of time. More than 20,500 players received compensation, but many of them are still struggling today.
As the NFL works to do a better job of protecting its players, some youth leagues are being encouraged to teach smarter tackling techniques. Plus, there is the never-ending quest to make helmets a better safeguard against concussions. But there is an extremely thin line between making things safer and taking away the beautiful violent game that has transfixed a nation for the last 60 years.
Henderson, a renaissance man whose grandson Carl Chester plays ball at Hendrickson High, thinks the league should bring back the old leather helmets from the early years of league before something really bad happens.
“I’ve had this recurring dream that an NFL player will die on the field,” he said. “I don’t want to see that happen.”
The game is evolving, and the owners know today’s players should be protected up to a point.
But like the great Earl Campbell said, these players understand the risks involved.