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NFL to consider ‘mechanics’ of tackle that injured Cowboys’ Tony Pollard

Dallas’s Tony Pollard grimaces while being tackled by San Francisco’s Jimmie Ward. (Scot Tucker/AP)
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The NFL does not believe the tackles that injured Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard during this past weekend’s divisional-round playoff games were illegal under the current rules, multiple people familiar with the deliberations said Wednesday.

Still, the league and its competition committee do plan to consider the “mechanics of the tackle in Pollard’s case” as part of their offseason discussions, one of those people said.

The current view by the league would make it unlikely that Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Arden Key or San Francisco 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward would face disciplinary action by the league for their roles in the plays, although final decisions on fines from this past weekend’s games were not clear by Wednesday.

Pollard left the Cowboys’ season-ending loss to the 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday and underwent surgery Tuesday to have ligaments in his ankle repaired. He suffered a high-ankle sprain when his foot was trapped beneath Ward’s body as Ward tackled him. Pollard also suffered a fractured fibula on the play.

Mahomes suffered a high-ankle sprain on a tackle by Key during the Chiefs’ victory Saturday over the Jaguars at Kansas City, Mo. The star quarterback was briefly pulled from the game, despite his objections, to undergo X-rays. Mahomes returned to the field to begin the second half and finished the game. He said Wednesday he intends to play against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals in Sunday’s AFC championship game.

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Representatives of the league and the competition committee meet annually during the offseason to discuss potential rule changes, with an emphasis on player-safety measures, and review plays from the previous season. Their plan to review Ward’s tackle of Pollard does not mean there necessarily will be a rule change proposed. But it does signal at least a measure of concern over the technique used by Ward.

A potential precedent for making a rule change might be found in Australia, where the National Rugby League has banned tackles similar in appearance to those that brought down Mahomes and Pollard. Starting in 2020, the NRL has levied punishment, including multigame suspensions, for what it describes as “hip drop” tackles.

An official with the NRL said that decision came after the Sydney-based organization “saw an increased occurrence of these types of tackles, some of which resulted in serious injuries to attacking players including a broken ankle, ACL tear and many high-ankle sprains.”

The NFL has responded in the past to high-profile injuries with rule changes or modifications, including a 2009 addition to its roughing-the-passer criteria after low hits sidelined star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Carson Palmer. Perhaps most pertinent to a consideration of a change in the wake of the Pollard injury, the league enacted a ban on horse-collar tackles in 2005 following several injuries on such plays, including a sprained ankle and a broken right fibula suffered by Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens upon being pulled down from behind by Cowboys safety Roy Williams.

As with horse-collar tackles, hip drop tackles tend to occur either directly from behind or at an angle and can place a ballcarrier at great risk of suffering a major lower-body injury.

In a video issued last year by the NRL to clarify what it deemed illegal hip drop tackles, the league pointed to three “key indicators”:

  • A defender gaining a grip on an opposing ballcarrier and using it to “lift or maintain body weight to then drop or swing their hip(s) around.” This movement would be notable for its “unnatural” appearance in the context of the sport.
  • The defender then swiveling his hips away from the ballcarrier and dropping onto the latter’s body, usually the lower limbs, to bring the ballcarrier to a sudden halt.
  • The defender landing his full body weight onto the ballcarrier’s affected area, with a result of “trapping the lower limb into a dangerous position.”

“Whilst we didn’t believe that players were deliberately looking to injure other players with this type of tackle,” Nathan McGuirk, the NRL’s general manager for competitions and operations, wrote in an email this week, “it was clear that players were acting in a careless manner and breaching their duty of care to their opposing players.”

“It’s important to note, though, that we weren’t saying that all contact made by defenders with the lower limbs of players was now illegal,” the NRL official added. “The point of emphasis was on the technique of defenders trapping the legs/ankles of attacking players by dropping their body weight through their hips, legs or buttocks.”

As with the NFL’s rule against roughing the passer, some in the NRL have criticized what they see as inconsistent application of the ban on hip drops, either by game or league officials. McGuirk said that while the ban on hip drop tackles was not immediately embraced by everyone, his impression was that “the public sentiment has definitely changed on these style of tackles and there is a level of acceptance now.”

Another NFL injury along the lines of those suffered by Mahomes and Pollard occurred in December, when 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel was carted off the field after having his left leg twisted as he was brought down from behind by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Rakeem Nunez-Roches. The 2021 Pro Bowl pick ended up missing three games with knee and ankle injuries.

Pollard’s injuries could prove costly for the fourth-year player, who is set to hit free agency unless the Cowboys use the franchise tag on him. Pollard, who accumulated 12 touchdowns and 1,378 yards from scrimmage this season, is reportedly expected to recover before NFL teams start training camp this summer.