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This is from the archives on 11/12/2004

Every NFL team does its own tackle tally

By PAUL KUHARSKY

Staff Writer

It is football's most fundamental play, the action that sends both teams back to the huddle. But a tackle can be a difficult thing to define, particularly when it comes to statistics.

In the NFL, press box statisticians dole out tackles as each game plays out, and those numbers are part of the official game book. The next day, though, defensive coaches around the league look at game film and generally determine for themselves what qualified as a tackle and what didn't.

The statistical packages put out weekly by 31 franchises include tackling numbers (the Oakland Raiders, befitting their rebel image, don't). There are no tackles to be found in the NFL's weekly stat sheets.

So while you'll find leaders in sacks and interceptions, there is no NFL tackling leader since tackles are not an official stat.

Opinion is mixed as to whether they should or will ever be.

''If a guy runs past you and you take a swipe at him and he starts to stumble but he doesn't go down and a second guy hits him and knocks him down, who tackled him?'' asks Titans General Manager Floyd Reese, who recorded tackles by special teamers and linebackers in his days as an assistant coach.

''That's always the argument. I'd say, 'I tackled him because if nobody else touched him he would have gone down anyway.' Then somebody says, 'Well what if he had put his hand down?' The second guy says, 'Well I tackled him, because I put him on the ground.'

''I don't know what the answer is. It's one of those you could debate for days.''

Methods

Each NFL team has a stat crew working its home games. The Titans have a seven-person crew which quickly breaks down each play and enters the data into a computer program that's used in every NFL stadium.

The defensive spotter who calls out tackles and assists has the toughest job, according to Russ Hudson, who oversees the crew as director of information systems for the Titans.

''He's got binoculars and he's up there looking,'' Hudson said. ''But when they run a play up the gut and six guys are there, it's a judgment call. He doesn't have two different angles to watch on film. We do have TiVo and rewind to check several plays a game.''

Some players, coaches and team public relations officials joke about the stat crews.

''I don't think the league does a good job of it, they're real nonchalant about it,'' Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. ''There'll be a game where the league stat sheet might have six, seven, eight tackles and then I come in and I have 12, 13 tackles (from coaches). I don't know if they do a real accurate job of paying attention.''

Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is considered one of the NFL's premier tacklers, and he's not comfortable with the numbers coming out of the press box.

''The first guy they see, they give the tackle to,'' he said. ''It is hard to tell what exactly they are doing or how they do it. So I like it when the coaches go back, because it gives you a really solid number of what you did in a game or what someone did in a game.''

Kevin Byrne, an executive with the Baltimore Ravens, also worked for the old Cleveland Browns. He said a Cincinnati stat crew in the late 1980s gave the Browns 27 tackles in a game where the Bengals ran 72 plays.

Complaints, however, are not always warranted.

Miami Dolphins star defensive end Jason Taylor wasn't credited with so much as an assist in an Oct. 17 loss at Buffalo, and he wasn't pleased about it.

''I had some tackles this past game,'' he said. ''It was the people up there in the box that do those stats. Half the time they are spilling ketchup on themselves and trying to wipe it off.''

If the people up there in the box took those comments personally, they were vindicated. Taylor's coaches didn't award him a tackle either.

Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said it's simply not feasible for anybody to determine tackles and assists watching a play at full speed and then moving forward to the next one.

''It's impossible,'' he said. ''You see a big stack of people, who do you give it to? You have to do it off film. They do sacks off film if there's ever a discrepancy.''

Tackles are considered an easy-to-be-earned incentive that Reese said he generally stays away from in contract negotiations.

As a special teams coach early in his career Reese said he was told late in the season to be especially careful as he computed tackles. He asked why.

''They said, 'Because so-and-so has a $5,000 incentive (for leading special teams in tackles),' '' Reese said. ''I said, 'Why did you tell me that? Now if he doesn't make it it's my fault and if he does make it it's my fault. I'd just as soon not know.'''

Standards

Every head coach and defensive coach in the league has a standard for assessing tackles, and they all believe theirs is the correct one. In turn, they'd say some of their colleagues are imprecise.

A solo tackle and an assist each count as one in a player's total tackle column. The New York Giants and Green Bay Packers currently have just 23 percent of their totals tackles from assists, while 40 percent of the tackles by the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns are from assists.

''Some places, you get credit for a tackle when you jump on a pile,'' Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said. ''That's not what we do. The ball carrier has to be up, he cannot be down. You can make impact with the ball carrier before he's ruled down, clean impact, then you'll be given an assist.

''The guy that has wrapped it typically is going to get credit for a tackle. The second guy is going to get the assist. That's it.''

Said Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell: ''Some of these guys you see, they have 10 and 20 tackles a game. If you look at the number of offensive plays that have been run in a game, it's almost impossible. Some teams keep them differently; we try to be honest and fair & You give a guy what he earns, what he did on the field. We don't give tackles to a guy who didn't have a tackle.''

The Tennessean took tackle numbers from every team, subtracted incomplete passes and touchdowns, then divided tackles by defensive plays to come up with tackles per play.

By that formula, the Packers have awarded their defense a league-low 1.205 tackles per play this season while the Minnesota Vikings have awarded a league-high 1.720 a difference of more than half a tackle per play.

There are plenty of variables, so it's much more of a general gauge than a hard-line determinant. Maybe the Vikings simply need more defenders involved to get a ball carrier to the ground than the Packers do. Maybe the Vikings swarm to the ball better.

Those are the kinds of issues a league-wide standard and an official stat might help answer.

Seymour Siwoff, head of Elias Sports Bureau, the NFL's statistician, said he'd like to take on tackles as an official stat but that the league is unwilling to give him the go ahead. He understands why.

''There is no way because of the nature of the thing itself,'' he said. ''Look at the problems they have with sharing sacks, and there are only two guys involved. It's too cloudy, it's too muddy. The clubs come back and they'd be challenging it all day.''

Some coaches, like Chicago's Lovie Smith, don't have an interest in any universal judgment for tackles. Others, like Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, would quickly agree to a system where Elias determined tackles league-wide.

''That would be tremendous,'' Lewis said.

Bulluck, too, would like to see the NFL find a way to make tackles an official stat that was reviewed the same way for everybody.

''I believe that's fair,'' he said. ''They pay attention to everything else you don't have enough white in your socks, your jersey's not tucked in and they can't pay attention to stats that may mean something in someone's career down the line?''

Status

Harvey Green, chief public relations official with the Dolphins for 16 years, said every so often at offseason PR meetings the topic of making tackles an official stat comes up.

''It's the last frontier, so to speak, as far as statistics go,'' he said. ''Nobody's ever sat down and said what it is or what it isn't. If you use sacks, it's basically the same perception. Why can't you do it on every play as opposed to only the ones where a quarterback is tackled behind the line of scrimmage?

''The fact that it hasn't happened, OK, we're just resigned to the fact it's one of those things, kind of an anomaly.''

While NFL oversight of tackles might sound good, not everyone is sure it could work completely or that it would ultimately be useful.

Schwartz, who has a degree in economics from Georgetown University, said the job could conceivably be done by an Elias team trained to analyze film and empowered like official scorers in baseball.

''You could do it and you could be about 90 percent right, but that's not official to me,'' he said. ''It's just so subjective.''

Besides, the tackle isn't always the key to a defensive stop. Lewis said a player making a whole lot of tackles 7 or 8 yards from the line of scrimmage isn't making a big impact on a game.

To Schwartz, the debate is an inherent part of football.

''Football is blocking and tackling, and both of those are hard to define,'' he said. ''You can have a linebacker who steps up and fills a gap, takes on a fullback and blows a play up, and another guy, a safety who's unblocked, coming down into the box and making the tackle.

''Well who made that play? Who did the better job on the play, the guy that was unblocked on the tackle, or the guy that actually stopped the run, actually thwarted the running play? Tackles are a fundamental thing, but they don't always give the credit to the person who did the best job on the play.''

Paul Kuharsky covers the Titans and the NFL for The Tennessean. He can be reached at pkuharsky@tennessean.com or 259-8024.

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