Klee: New NFL requires transition from rookies: safe tackling

By Paul Klee Published: October 4, 2013 | 7:53 am 0

Editor's note: The "Broncos Roots" series takes you off the field and into the lives of the Broncos. Denver columnist Paul Klee publishes this series every Thursday.

ENGLEWOOD - When Kayvon Webster chose South Florida as a high school recruit, then-USF assistant Troy Douglas pulled a Bart Conner.

"I did a back handspring down the hallway," Douglas told me Wednesday.

Here at Broncos headquarters, the reaction to Webster's rookie season is more subdued. Publicly, anyway.

What's better than John Fox attempting a back handspring down the hallway?

Watching a rookie, like Webster, show great promise at a critical position in an NFL dominated by the passing game.

You know Webster as a thumper, the cornerback who lit up a Cardinals receiver in the preseason and a Raiders receiver in the regular season.

That's the same thing his college recruiters saw.

"When we watched his tape, in high school, he showed that physicality," said Douglas, the former secondary coach at USF and now an assistant at Iowa State. "He's not afraid to hit people."

That hasn't changed.

Fortunately, Webster is smart enough to know this is a new NFL, where hitting people can come with a price tag.

"I'm not in a place where I need a fine," Webster said.

If a defensive player smashes an offensive player with the crown of their helmet, the price tag can be a stiff fine from the league office.

The great dilemma of this NFL season is not, in fact, how to prevent Peyton Manning and the juggernaut Broncos offense from scoring touchdowns.

It's how to correctly and consistently enforce the rule of crown-of-the-helmet contact.

What's a clean hit?

What's an illegal hit?

Good questions. One Sunday a good hit earns a penalty flag; the next Sunday a seemingly illegal hit earns a "SportsCenter" highlight - and no flag.

"I can see what they're trying to do. They want to protect the players," Broncos safety Rahim Moore said.

As a player who earns a paycheck in the MMA arena known as the NFL secondary, how often does a defensive back think about the new rule before making a tackle?

"I ain't never thought when I hit. Not even when I was playing Pop Warner," Moore said. "It's just reaction, man. You don't think. You react. Or you get beat."

With this Broncos defense, the conversation has focused on the players who are missing: injured Champ Bailey and suspended Von Miller.

But what about the players the Broncos added?

They added a thumper in Duke Ihenacho, who, for the first time since Brian Dawkins, gives the Broncos a feared safety when quarterbacks go deep.

It added another thumper in Webster, who, in just 64 snaps this season, has shown the same physicality that made him an attractive recruit in high school.

These untrained eyes believe Webster was the best of the Broncos' seven draft picks.

"I like that when he goes in the game he doesn't look like it's too big for him," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.

The crown-of-the-helmet rule says players can't hit another player with, yes, the crown of their helmet.

How has it changed a defender's attitude toward making a tackle?

I asked three defensive backs in the Broncos' locker room, and their response was the same. It hasn't. It can't. The NFL game is played too fast to adjust their momentum in a snap-quick moment.

"First and foremost, you want to make the tackle. That's my job," Webster said. "Most of the time you don't even think, unless somebody calls it. You're trying to bring him down.

"Sometimes that results in a helmet-to-helmet collision. You don't want that, but it happens."

Recruited to South Florida by Larry Scott, now an assistant at Miami, Webster played mostly on offense at Miami Monsignor Pace High.

"He was a track guy. But a lot of guys can run track and can't play football," Douglas said of Webster, a former state track champion. "But Kayvon was a football player."

Now Webster is transitioning into the rules of the new NFL.

"Just stay away from the head," he said. "That's it."

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Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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