Should Anyone Still Be Doing the Oklahoma Drill?

It's been banned by the NFL, but is the old-school drill still worth it for younger players?

Several months ago, we published an article outlining how the NFL had officially banned the use of the Oklahoma Drill.

Judging by the comments we received, you would've thought they'd done away with tackling all together and made the games two-hand touch. Some excerpts:

And about a thousand different variations of "soft!"


Several months ago, we published an article outlining how the NFL had officially banned the use of the Oklahoma Drill.

Judging by the comments we received, you would've thought they'd done away with tackling all together and made the games two-hand touch. Some excerpts:

  • "National cupcake league"
  • "Maybe they can hand out the participation trophies on that day instead?!?!?"
  • "If you're worried about helmet to helmet contact, then play basketball"
  • "The NFL is turning into Powder Puff football"

And about a thousand different variations of "soft!"

Many folks expressed their belief the drill is an essential part of learning how to block, tackle and "be tough." On the flip side, many commenters applauded the move and said they'd like to see lower levels of football follow suit.

Several variations of the Oklahoma Drill exist, but it often features two linemen, one linebacker and one running back in an enclosed area. Players and coaches typically gather around the drill to add to the claustrophobic, energetic atmosphere. Jarring contact and helmet-to-helmet hits are all but unavoidable:

"(We) believe by prohibiting some of these drills, that will (also) happen at the college and high school and youth football levels, which we believe should happen," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN of the decision.

It all begs a bigger question—should any football players, anywhere, still be performing the Oklahoma Drill?

Putting the question of "building toughness" aside for a second, the Oklahoma Drill simply might not be a good use of a team's time for several reasons. In a world where many teams are now limited in the amount of time they can spend on full-speed contact, using those minutes on a scenario that isn't all that reflective of real 11-on-11 football—and that only allows a few players to get reps at a time—might be unwise.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense, especially in our time-crunched world, with limited contacts allowed for our players by state associations or the NCAA, to use it on a drill that has absolutely no schematic carryover," Andy Ryland, Senior Manager of Education & Training at USA Football, told STACK.

"If you run a traditional four down defensive front, you never line your guys head up. But for the sake of this drill, we're going to line them up in those situations. Or we're going to line up our pairs of defensive backs and wide receivers in positions to make a block, but it's not scheme specific. We're really doing contact for contact's sake, not contact within the context of the offense or defense we play. So I would make the argument that it's not a wise use of our time."

The fact every player knows it's going to be a run before the whistle even blows—and that the run is going to come through a very specific, narrow alleyway—further diminishes the carryover to real football and likely increases the risk of head injury.

The Oklahoma Drill also drastically limits the number of ways a player can be successful. It's essentially all about brute force, and if you're going up against a significantly bigger, stronger player, you're at a massive disadvantage. Inside the confines of the Oklahoma Drill, which typically shrinks the width of the playing field from the standard 53.33 yards to just 3-5 yards, the impact of skills like football IQ, anticipation, vision, speed, elusiveness and agility are dramatically lessened.

"The drill doesn't create alternative means of winning. If the space is so small that you can't win with angles or you can't win with body position, you have to win with just high force and high collision, it isn't very representative of the game. And it probably puts your players in position for contact after contact, and you have to ask, 'What's the outcome?," says Ryland, a former linebacker at Penn State and member of the U.S. Men's National Rugby Team.

Many experts agree the safety issue alone is warrant enough to move away from the traditional forms of the drill, and I think most rational people will have a tough time disagreeing with them.

Proponents maintain the benefits outweigh the risk, however, and their support of the drill always come back to one topic—toughness. The Oklahoma Drill evokes all the classic "football guy"-isms. It weeds out the weak. It builds character. It turns men into boys. Yada yada yada.

For young football players whose technique is still very much a work in progress, the "winner" of the Oklahoma Drill is usually the one who's more physically mature or more confident (or both). Confidence comes from being sure of your ability, and when you're confident, you play fast and hard. For kids who struggle in the Oklahoma Drill, is it really an issue of "toughness"? Or is it more often a lack of confidence stemming from insecurity in their technique and ability?

"Young football players don't need to get tougher. They need to grow in confidence so they can perform the fundamentals that are necessary to shed blocks and tackle opponents," Ryland writes in a USA Football blog on the topic.

And exactly how much coaching goes on during the Oklahoma Drill? The reality is very little. Young players are often thrown into this environment with few mental or physical tools for success, then shamed when they aren't successful.

"It's just exposure to contact, and we're all gonna cross our fingers and hope some of the athletes figure out what it means to stay strong in the box when all their peers are watching," says Ryland.

"We're exposing them to the difficult situations and simply hoping the athlete figures them out by themselves…I just don't think it's coupled with the right support mechanisms to actually support youths."

The Oklahoma Drill has tradition behind it, but not much else. There are now other, safer ways we can build better football players.

If you're having trouble getting young athletes to 'play physical', the answer does not lie in the Oklahoma Drill. If you want to know what really works, read this.

Photo Credit: YouTube