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In NFL, making a tackle seems simple, but...

McClatchy Newspapers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Gunther Cunningham cringes, gets red in the face, shouts and even curses when one of his players misses a tackle attempt.

There is, however, a small part of him that understands when the job doesn't get done.

"We always say it isn't natural to hit a human being that's running full speed," said Cunningham, the Chiefs' defensive coordinator. "You have to hit him head-on and get him on the ground. A lot of people have that in their heart."

What Cunningham left unsaid is that some don't. And can you blame them?

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Tackling may be one of football's fundamentals, along with blocking. It is also the sport's most contrary of acts.

To come face to face with, say, 230 terrifying pounds of Larry Johnson and be charged with bringing him to the ground? It's just human nature to find a nice, soft patch of grass to dive on as Johnson wheels by, and let someone else do the ghastly job.

That's why, to be a tackler, it helps to be a little bit crazy.

"Tackling is fun. At least it is to me," Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen said. "It's why you play defense. It's your job. You've got to like it. If you don't like to do it, you'd better find another job."

A lot of people do find another line of work. It's not the simplest thing to find players who get their thrills in tackling.

"You can see guys that are gun-shy," Cunningham said. "They're all over the place. They stand out. There are guys you know can't do it, and they usually don't last that long."

Players who like to tackle are in such short supply that when teams run across one, they usually jump on him. The Chiefs did that this year with safety Bernard Pollard, who was drafted in the second round.

"Tackling is when you find out who wants to play ball," he said. "A coach can do only so much for you. He can't tackle for you. He can't save you."

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Even in the NFL, much practice time is spent on teaching proper tackling techniques. The Chiefs devote the early portion of many training camp practices to tackling.

So for a strong, physically conditioned young man armed with the proper knowledge and time to prepare, tackling is not a difficult art. But things move fast on a football field, and rarely are conditions just right for a meeting with a big bruiser like Johnson.

"It's easy for me a lot of times because I don't have time to think about it," Chiefs linebacker Kawika Mitchell said. "It's all a mind-set. You have to be hungry. You have to want to do it."

Tackling then often becomes a test of wills. Johnson said that as a game progresses, he senses that a lot of defenders lose their will as he approaches.

"They don't want to tackle a 230-, 240-pound running back," he said. "They've got to be smart about it. They're trying to protect their bodies."

Defensive players remember their favorite tackles, and surprise, they aren't the vicious highlight-show hits. The real trophies are the clean, open-field tackles against the toughest opponents to bring down like Johnson or Oakland's LaMont Jordan -- a point of pride for the smallest players on the field.

Increasingly, though, it seems players aren't getting the job done. Chiefs fans have been frustrated with sloppy tackling, and it came to a boil last year against the Giants. The relatively diminutive Tiki Barber, at 205 pounds, ran through too many Chiefs tackle attempts for 220 yards.

Situations like that make tackling appear to be a lost art. Some veteran coaches such as Cunningham point to players coming to the NFL with less fundamental work. Colleges have a 20-hour limit on weekly preparation, and many players don't spend four seasons in college. But others, like coach Herm Edwards, disagree.

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"The guys they're trying to tackle are faster, bigger and better athletes. So it's harder," Edwards said. "When I played, there weren't that many formations that spread you out. Offenses spread you out so much now. They get you in space and these guys are so big and so fast and so strong, it's hard to tackle them. It's a different game. There are so many more open-field situations."

And more missed tackles, which leave Cunningham yearning for the old days.

"The game is so complicated and so difficult with the way the offense plays it now," he said. "It's so wide open. The college coaches don't have enough time to teach the fundamentals anymore."

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