Hip-Drop Tackle: How Will New Penalty Affect the 2024 NFL Season?

The following is an excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2024 Football Preview book. In addition to Warren’s deep, detailed write-up on all 32 NFL teams, each chapter features page after page of full-color charts, stats, and heatmaps as well as penalty analysis from Joe Gibbs. Click here for a full chapter from the 2023 Football Preview.

The notable rule change this offseason was the competition committee banning the hip-drop tackle.

The technique became a talking point after multiple incidents over the past two seasons resulted in injuries to high-profile players.

The NFL has stated the injury rate is 25 times higher with this particular type of tackle.

The result is the introduction of a new penalty that is complex in its wording and has been met with skepticism by current and former defensive players.

The hip-drop tackle penalty consists of two sections.

“Section A” states that a hip-drop tackle can only occur if a defender “grabs the runner with both hands or wraps the runner with both arms” as the starting point, which is easy to understand. This occurs with the majority of tackles in the NFL.

“Section B” of the hip-drop tackle rule is where things get interesting and referee subjectivity kicks into high gear.

If the defensive player fulfills the conditions in “Section A” and then “un-weighs himself by swiveling and dropping his hips and/or lower body, landing on and trapping the runner’s leg(s) at or below the knee,” that will be considered a hip-drop tackle.

The NFL claims this sequence of events occurred 230 times throughout the 2023 season. Keep that number of 230 in mind as we continue to preview the potential impact of the hip-drop tackle penalty moving forward.

There have been conflicting messages from league executives throughout the offseason, adding to the intrigue of how the hip-drop tackle penalty will be enforced

NFL EVP of Communications Jeff Miller stated during competition committee meetings that the hip-drop tackle was “a behavior that hopefully can be officiated.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell followed that up during an interview at the 2024 NFL Draft with, “We’ve got to coach it out, we’ve got to educate it out, but we may have to officiate it out or fine it out.

For us, there are two ways to look at it.

This rule could simply be a public relations move to further the narrative of player safety as the league’s top priority, similar to the lowering head to make forcible contact penalty.

That infraction was a total non-factor after it was reintroduced in 2023. Its predecessor was shelved after the 2021 season.

In fact, lowering the head was called a total of five times last season. Two of those infractions were assessed in Week 1 before it essentially disappeared from the NFL landscape for the remainder of the season.

Conversely, do we take the league at its word? Will the hip-drop tackle become a major point of emphasis and strictly enforced?

If that’s the case, will we see enforcement similar to illegal contact in 2022, where a zero-tolerance approach was taken by many officiating crews in the early part of the season?

We’ll get into the weeds regarding that infraction as a point of comparison later.

That’s the hip-drop tackle backstory.

Introduced into the NFL landscape with “a behavior that hopefully can be officiated” comment from a high-profile NFL executive, it feels like a slippery slope.

One thing is for certain. The introduction of this penalty just made life more difficult for anyone playing defense in the NFL.

What can we learn from existing penalties?

We’re going to look at a pre-existing group of four penalties that are similar in scope to the new hip-drop tackle rule.

These penalties result in the same outcome: 15 yards and an automatic first down.

The four penalties that fit the criteria are roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness, horse-collar tackle, and face mask.

These four infractions accounted for 11.5% of penalties but represented almost 19% of overall penalty yards enforced in the 2023 season.

If the hip-drop tackle is made a point of emphasis in addition to the aforementioned infractions, the advantage to the offenses via penalties and subsequent yardage would increase significantly.

In fact, let’s go to that number of 230 hip-drop-like tackles the NFL claimed took place last season.

We’ll round it down to 200 penalties and consider the impact it would have on games in 2024.

  • There were 794 automatic first-down penalties awarded in 2023.
  • An additional 200 automatic first downs benefitting the offenses via hip-drop tackle penalties would represent a 25.1% increase in this category from last season.
  • If the hip-drop tackle is enforced at that rate, we’re talking an additional 3,000 penalty yards.
  • That would represent a 35.7% yardage increase from the total yards assessed via automatic first-down penalties in 2023.

The yardage total may be slightly less as occasionally a penalty near the goal line would result in fewer penalty yards.

Regardless, it’s a significant amount of potential yardage added to automatic first-down penalties.

The numbers are eye-opening and based on a penalty count lower than the number of times the NFL claims this sequence of events occurred in 2023.

Now, having detailed this, I think it’s inconceivable the NFL will allow officials to call that volume of penalties.

That would make the hip-drop tackle the fourth-highest volume penalty based on 2023 totals.

By comparison, unnecessary roughness was called 173 times last season, ranking fifth overall in total penalty volume.

Roughing the passer is the poster child for zero tolerance in the league’s attempt to protect quarterbacks, and there were 99 penalties assessed in that category last season.

That seems a more realistic total if we are to believe enforcement of the hip-drop penalty is legitimate, but that number would still result in a significant advantage to offensive units.

If hip-drop tackle penalties are made a point of emphasis, expect a flurry of calls early to set the tone if the aforementioned illegal contact penalty in 2022 is any indication.

20.9% of overall illegal contact penalties for the 2022 season were assessed in the first two weeks, and 34.9% were called through the first four weeks of that season.

That initial onslaught was followed by a decline over the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.

Despite the hip-drop tackle being framed as a safety-related issue, the NFL may have ulterior motives headed into the 2024 season.

This new rule is illegal contact on steroids, and frankly, the league may need that if they intend to increase scoring in any meaningful way.

Intended or unintended consequences

Aside from the tangible aspect of surrendering an automatic first down and 15 yards of field position, what impact will the enforcement of this penalty have on defensive units?

The reality is a 200-pound defensive back was already at a disadvantage versus a 260-pound tight end running at full speed before the implementation of this penalty category.

The threat of a penalty being enforced does not change the physics of the game. The smaller player will use his weight in any capacity in an attempt to stop the larger player.

There have been multiple instances of the runner’s force, often via a stiff arm, actually “un-weighting” (as the rule details) a defensive player.

This sequence of events puts into motion the criteria deemed punishable for the hip-drop tackle to occur.

By the letter of the law, it’s an automatic first down and 15 yards despite the defensive player doing nothing wrong.

How nuanced is the judgment from game officials going to be, or is the zero tolerance edict the justification for a flag no matter the circumstances leading up to the tackle?

With the hip-drop rule now in effect, will defensive players hesitate or overthink their approach to tackles in certain situations?

Do they completely change their tackling technique altogether and go lower, directly at a player’s legs or knees instead of the traditional arm-first approach?

Without sounding conspiratorial, an intended by-product of this penalty may be having defenses playing on their back foot.

Theoretically, it would facilitate more offense and more points per game than we’ve seen in recent seasons.

The fact is football is a violent game. Attempting to police defensive players while moving at full speed in high-leverage situations can only lead to hotly debated penalties and more missed tackles.

When it’s all said and done, it puts more pressure on referees to make impactful calls.

The Referee Impact

Ultimately, new and existing rules come down to enforcement on game days. That brings us to the most important part of the equation: the officiating.

In the lead-up to the vote on the hip-drop tackle penalty, Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton said, “I think that’s the concern everyone has. Can we officiate it? We’re already struggling to call certain fouls.”

No matter the penalty category, the interpretation is subjective.

Rules like defensive holding and roughing the passer are well-defined in terms of understanding the language put forth to make a decision yet are still the source of debate.

NFL Competition Committee Chairman Rick McKay stated, “This will be a hard one to call on the field. You have to see every element of it. We want to make it a rule so we can deal with the discipline during the week.”

That sounds good in theory. However, “Section B” of the rule may be the most complex of any penalty in the NFL.

Requiring all elements of the rule to occur for the penalty to be called seems like wishful thinking.

With certain officiating crews, it is often a case of when in doubt throw the flag.

Gauging the tolerance level for a new rule is never easy, but we’ve compiled a three-season sample size (2021, 2022, 2023) of each referee’s enforcement of the aforementioned group of four penalties that align closely with the hip-drop tackle penalty.

These four provide the most reliable roadmap to potential enforcement in 2024.

We’ll get a sense early as to what crews, if any, are dialed in on making this a point of emphasis.

The mixed messaging from the league makes it a fluid situation, but here are some important numbers heading into the season:

  • As previously detailed, since the kickoff to the 2021 season, 11.5% of overall penalties are assessed via roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness, horse-collar tackles, and face mask.
  • Shawn Smith and Land Clark have led all referees since the start of 2021 with 15.3% and 13.1% respectively of their total penalties being assessed in these four categories.
  • The Alan Eck crew led the NFL in 2023 with 17.5% of overall penalties assessed in the group of four. It must be noted that 2023 was Eck’s first season as a head referee, so we are dealing with a small sample size when assessing his numbers.
  • Brad Allen and Clay Martin-led crews have called the lowest overall percentage of these penalties since the start of 2021, with both registering at 8.6%. Scott Novak was at 9.1%.
  • Percentages can be slightly misleading due to the fact some referees average more penalties per game than others. If we use straight-up hard numbers over that span, Shawn Smith leads all referees in the enforcement of these infractions. Rounding out the top four in order are Land Clark, Alex Kemp, and Shawn Hochuli.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, Brad Allen has assessed the fewest overall penalties in these categories since the start of the 2021 season. Rounding out the bottom four calling the fewest penalties in order are Clay Martin, Scott Novak, and Bill Vinovich.
  • The most recent example of a “point of emphasis” promoted before the season by the NFL was illegal contact back in 2022.
  • Despite the small sample size of comparing the 2021 and 2022 seasons as our guide, certain referees went above and beyond to enforce the rule versus others who were indifferent to the crackdown.
  • The John Hussey and Shawn Smith-led crews had the largest year-over-year increases for illegal contact infractions.
  • The crews led by Alex Kemp, Carl Cheffers, and Craig Wrolstad rounded out the top five in year-over-year enforcement of the illegal contact point of emphasis.
  • Conversely, officiating crews led by Bill Vinovich, Land Clark, Brad Allen, and Clay Martin remained flat or decreased from their 2021 figure for illegal contact penalties in the 2022 season.

Again, we’re dealing with a small sample size here, but that is all we have to use as a guide

The Bottom Line

Until the season kicks off, we simply won’t know how serious the league is about clamping down on this type of tackle.

That said, when was the last time Roger Goodell discussed a specific penalty being a key component in changing defensive behavior on a national show?

That alone would lead me to believe there will be a crackdown on hip-drop tackles, especially if the byproduct is more points on the board.

Whether it’s via actual on-field penalties, discipline-related fines, or a combination of both, the new rule ushers in a major sea change for defensive players.

Like it or not, there is no changing the rule now. It’s another judgment call potentially putting game outcomes in the hands of officials.

The bottom line is that the hip-drop tackle rule may be well-intentioned, but it is confusing.

How it’s called on game days looms as a major point of interest as we head into the 2024 NFL season.

This analysis continues in the 2024 Football Preview

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