INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Inside of a dimly lit, half-full Inglewood High School auditorium, Seahawks assistant head coach Rocky Seto is trying to save football.
While that sounds like hyperbole—how can an NFL assistant coach talking to a small crowd of college and high school coaches, players and parents really be that big of a deal?—the topic Seto and other NFL assistant coaches covered during Saturday's clinic is an incredibly important one for the game of football.
For the past three years, Seto and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll have worked together to create and promote Seahawks tackling videos that demonstrate the techniques used by one of the NFL's top defenses. Not only are these techniques effective for the Seahawks, but more importantly for the overall health of the game, they're helping improve player safety by emphasizing shoulder-based tackling that takes the head out of the game.
As people continue to learn more about the dangers of concussions, including the long-term ramifications of head injuries, more and more parents are hesitant to let their children play football. The way Seto and plenty of other people see it, the only way to make sure football continues to thrive—at every level, not just the NFL—is to make the game as safe as possible. That's why Seto has traveled up and down the west coast, doing about a dozen of these free clinics the past two offseasons, preaching the importance of shoulder-based tackling to anyone who will listen, then hopefully spread the word to youth and high school players.
"This is about the game of football, protecting current players and really changing the culture of our game so it can thrive even more," Seto said. "This is Coach Carroll's and our biggest contribution to the game, period. I can't think of something bigger than this."
"This is bigger than us."
The level of importance Seto and the Seahawks place on this topic is also why, on this particular afternoon in Inglewood, rivalries are put aside for the good of the game. In addition to Seto and Seahawks linebackers coach Michael Barrow, Saturday's clinic also included Los Angeles Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel, Rams defensive quality control coach Jeff Imamura, and Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., a former Seahawks assistant.
"This is the future of football," Seto said. "The Rams are one of our great rivals, an incredible challenge every year, and we've got the Raiders here. The NFL has come together to promote a message that's bigger than competition between opponents. This is about the game of football. This is about player safety and prolonging the game beyond what we have right now."
In addition to the NFL coaches who spoke at the clinic, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner also took part, not just to support his coaches, but also because even as a 26-year-old still in the midst of his career, he can see the big picture when it comes to the future of the game.
"It's really important, especially nowadays, because it's such a unique time where we're getting a lot more information about concussions," Wagner said. "Parents are a little more scared about kids' safety, so just having somebody like Coach Seto to teach proper technique and a way to get your head out of the game and stay safe is needed.
"It's cool to see coaches from different teams wanting the same thing for the community, wanting the same thing for kids. There's a lot of talk that if the game doesn't change, it could disappear, so everybody is doing what they can to make it a safer game."
While the Seahawks have been at the forefront in terms of promoting the rugby-style tackling they teach to their own players, plenty of other teams are also focusing on shoulder-based tackling, which is why Rams coaches reached out to Seto recently, leading to this collaborative effort in their new hometown.
"Myself and (Rams head coach Jeff Fisher), we talked to Rocky this past spring about the techniques of tackling, and how we can continue to spread those techniques to the youth," Fassel said. "And Rocky obviously has spearheaded everything, he's just amazing at it—we're just jumping on with him and trying to show up in the community as much as we can.
"It's awesome the way they've gotten out and spread the word and not been secretive about it, they way they've put the DVDs out and put stuff online for kids and coaches to see. I've talked to a ton of youth coaches, and they've referred to that. It's great that youth coaches and parents are starting to gain knowledge of the right way to do it. From my perspective, I have such great respect for what they do, the coaches they have, the players they have. So I don't even look at this today as a rivalry thing at all. It's just come down here and try to get everybody doing it the right way and on the same page."
While the Seahawks aren't opening up their playbook to the public or giving away other closely-guarded secrets, the techniques and teachings Seto and others have been pushing to anyone who will listen is information that has helped the Seahawks. By focusing on these tackling techniques, the Seahawks have reduced the number of missed tackles and limited opponents' yards after catch in recent years. The Seahawks have also seen a significant drop in their concussion numbers on defense over the past three seasons compared to their first three seasons under Carroll since emphasizing shoulder-based tackling. Most significantly, that's good news for player health, but having players available also provides a competitive advantage, just not one that Carroll and Seto think is worth protecting at the expense of helping the game.
"People have asked me, 'Why would you and Coach Carroll put this out there?'" Seto said. "Are we giving up stuff that has helped us? Yes, we are, but Coach Carroll said, 'This is too big, this is bigger than us.' He understands that. Doing what's best for the game is what drove this whole venture."
"We didn't invent anything."
One thing Seto wants to emphasize is that what he and the Seahawks are preaching isn't anything new or revolutionary. It's actually something of a throwback, harkening back to the days when players learned to tackle without their heads because their heads weren't very well protected. As helmet and facemask technology improved, however, tackling changed, with players too often using their helmet as a weapon rather than a form of protection.
"We didn't invent anything," Seto said, noting that conversations with players and coaches from other eras, such as Dick Butkus, helped him better understand what he is trying to teach. "This is how they used to do it back in the day."
In other words, the change isn't inventing a new way to tackle, but rather getting away from how things were done during a certain period of time when "head hunting" wasn't necessarily considered a bad thing on defense.
"It's a big difference from when I played," said Barrow, who played at Miami in the early 1990s, then in the NFL from 1993 to 2005. "I was part of the head-hunting crew. Now with the awareness as far as concussions—back in the day, we'd just say, 'he got his bell rung'—now with the awareness, it's bringing us back to fundamentals. This is the way it has been taught before… Instead of using the helmet as protection, it became another weapon. Now we're trying to get back to the fundamentals—that helmet's there for protection. I think that's going to help alleviate a lot of fears and concerns."
And an important part of this emphasis that all of these coaches want people to understand is that safer tackling doesn't mean less effective tackling, or even less ferocious tackling. As Seto and Barrow took turns tackling each other on stage—not at full speed, mind you—they pointed out how proper technique with a shoulder tackle can be as powerful as any other hit.
"We tackle just as hard, just as tough, but now there's more awareness of what parts of the body you're using," Norton Jr. said. "It used to be you saw scratch-marks on helmet and it'd be, 'Wow, that guys a tough hitter.' Now if you see that on someone, you're saying, 'Hey, you're doing it wrong.' Now we're emphasizing how to do it. Before it was, 'Knock him down, take him out.' Now it's, 'Take him out properly, tackle properly, and it's going to help you in the long run.'"
"We're struggling getting kids to play football now."
Ultimately, what Seto is trying to do every time he hosts one of these clinics or updates the Seahawks' tackling video is spread a message to other coaches and players that will help insure a healthy future for football. Seto doesn't want people to put their heads in the sand and ignore the growing and, yes, sometimes disturbing information about head injuries and the long-term effects they have had on former players. Instead he wants people to understand that football can be made safer if everyone from the Pop Warner-level up to the NFL is willing to embrace change. It's a message that those in attendance at Inglewood were more than willing to embrace.
"We're struggling getting kids to play football now, because moms and dads are hearing about concussions and they don't want their kids to play," said James Sims, Inglewood's football coach and athletic director. "So I thought this was definitely a great tool to get that knowledge out there so kids will start returning back to the sport that I love. For the Seahawks to come out and do this, I really appreciate it. Hopefully it'll help us prevent injuries and get more people playing football."
For high school players, learning from NFL coaches and players was an eye-opening experience.
"Looking back, I realized I've been tackling totally different from how they just taught," said Inglewood senior Calvin Mosley, a two-way lineman who is getting interest from Division I schools. "This year, playing on the defensive line, I'll have a better understanding of how to tackle and how to execute."
Twins Keshawn and Teshawn White had similar thoughts on what they heard during the clinic.
"I remember in Pop Warner, I was getting taught to put your head across the body," said Keshawn, a junior defensive end. "But now I know I know how to use my shoulder and have leverage."
Added Teshawn, a junior defensive back: "If it's working for them, it should definitely work for me, because they're NFL players and coaches. I like playing football, but I want to stay safe. If I'm lucky enough to make it to the NFL, I want to have a safe career. I don't want to have brain damage, trauma, problems like that where I die at an early age. I want to stay safe."
From All-Pro middle linebackers to NFL coaches to high school kids, everyone seemed to agree on two things: football is the greatest sport in the world, and steps need to be taken to make sure it continues to thrive. One clinic at a time, one video view at a time, that's what Seto hopes will be his and Carroll's legacy.
"People know what's at stake," Seto said. "The game is what's at stake."
Seahawks assistant head coach/defense Rocky Seto, linebackers coach Michael Barrow and linebacker Bobby Wagner hosted a clinic in the Los Angeles area on Saturday, July 9 teaching the shoulder tackling technique emphasized by Seattle's defense.