New targeting rule well intended, but bound to spark controversy
DALLAS -- A receiver stretches to catch a pass near the sideline. As that receiver drifts back to earth, a safety, his eyes up the entire time, plants his facemask in the receiver's chest, churns his legs and drives the receiver to the ground.
Good tackle, right?
Depends on the official watching the play. In some cases, that hit might get the safety thrown out of the game.
Big 12 coordinator of officials Walt Anderson showed just such a play on Tuesday as an example of how college football's new targeting rule -- which carries an automatic ejection -- will affect the game. In this case, Anderson said, the safety would be thrown out because he struck too high on the chest and, in the process of driving through the tackle, created a head-to-head collision with the receiver.
In other words, a player would get ejected from a game for a style of tackle taught by nearly every defensive coach in America for decades. This will not go over well.
Before we get to the frustrating part, let's make one thing abundantly clear: The people in charge of football at all levels are wise to craft rules that make the game safer, even if those rules will be controversial. As more information arrives about the long-term dangers of the headshots football players absorb at the high school, college and pro levels, something has to change. The next few years will be messy. The game needs saving, because if it continues as it has, it will get decimated by lawsuits and by parents of young children who decide the potential adverse effects aren't worth the risk. No youth participation in 10 years equals no college football or NFL in 25-30 years. So new rules are necessary, just as they were in 1905 when President Teddy Roosevelt ordered the leaders of America's football-playing universities to drastically change rules to make the game safer. But it will take years of trial and error before the leaders of the game can create a set of guidelines that make the game safer and allow for a uniform application of those rules.
"There are going to be contacts to the helmet that are going to be a natural and normal part of football," Anderson said, "and the difference is that we need to be sure we all understand and are on the same page relative to what's legal and allowed and what's illegal, should be called, should be hopefully changed and, to the extent possible, eliminated."
The targeting rule almost certainly will affect a game with national championship implications this season. The numbers say it must. Last year, 17 players in the Big 12 were flagged for such hits. Of those, Anderson said, five calls would have been overturned and the players would have been allowed to stay in the game. Since the Big 12 has the fewest members of any major conference, it stands to reason the other leagues will have as many or more targeting calls. So more than 100 players likely will get tossed from games next season for breaking a rule that isn't clearly defined and certainly won't be administered uniformly.
Need a better example? How about South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's hit on Michigan back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl? Clowney made what for years has been considered a clean hit. Smith's helmet popped off, but not because Clowney targeted Smith's head. Clowney struck Smith in the chest. Monday, ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads said he would have flagged Clowney for targeting on the play -- which, under the current rule, would have gotten Clowney tossed.
The controversy won't come from blatant headshots. Anderson showed a clip Tuesday of a Nevada defensive back blatantly headhunting against Fresno State. That sort of unsafe play should be punished severely. The howls will come when a player gets thrown out after aiming to strike an opponent in the chest only to have the opponent duck his head into the tackle or change elevation at the last moment. Anderson said officials have a checklist of items to consider that should help them decide what crosses the line.
According to a handout produced by College Football Officiating, LLC, if officials see the following things, the risk of a targeting foul is high:
• Launching toward an opponent to make contact in the head or neck area.
• A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust with contact at the head or neck area.
• Leading with the helmet, forearm, fist, hand or elbow into the head or neck area.
• Lowering the head before attacking and initiating with the crown of the helmet.
According to that same handout, the following factors would indicate less risk of a targeting penalty being called:
• A heads-up tackle where the crown of the helmet does not strike above the shoulders.
• A wrap-up tackle.
• The head is to the side rather than used to initiate contact.
• Incidental helmet contact due to players changing position during the play.
"We want you to put your head to the side, turn your shoulder into the player, and lower your strike zone, and if you do those things, there are going to be times when, just through the normal course of play, there may be some incidental contact," Anderson said. "We want to be sure we're differentiating that type of action from the intentional act of targeting a player high."
That sounds perfectly reasonable, but try evaluating those factors in a quarter of a second -- as officials will have to do this season. Replay officials will review every hit that draws an ejection and can overturn the call, but even that seemingly sensible rule tweak is not without controversy. If the replay official determines that a player is not guilty of targeting -- in other words, he committed no foul on the play -- officials will still march off a 15-yard penalty.
Anderson explained that the Big 12 was one of the leagues that lobbied for an opportunity to review such calls, but he said the tradeoff was letting the penalty stand, thereby punishing teams that actually committed no penalty at all. If Anderson realized how stupid that sounds, he didn't show it Tuesday. "What's going to happen if we don't do that is officials are going to stop calling it," Anderson said. "Then it's going to continue to occur. We won't get it out of the game." So, essentially, your team could be losing 15 critical yards so a guy in stripes doesn't get his feelings hurt.
Big 12 coaches said Tuesday that they would bring officials to campus to speak to their players about what will and won't get them ejected. "It's a big one when you think about it," Oklahoma's Bob Stoops said. "Hopefully they're getting it right, because that's a big penalty to have a guy tossed out of a game." Still, Stoops understands the need for tougher rules. "Anything we could do to try and make the game more controlled or better for the players is a positive thing," he said. "So we can all live with it if it's going to make it healthier and better for the players, and which they are, we should always be looking at ways to do that."
That's the toughest thing about this rule. Everyone's heart is in the right place, but that won't stop the people from wanting blood when an on-field official and a replay official team to blow one of these calls. But what choice did the rules committee have? The game had to change. "The game is under attack, and we will either work at changing this culture from within, or it will be worked at being changed from without," Anderson said. "And I don't think anybody within the game will argue that we would much rather change it from within than have it changed for us from without by other people."
Anderson is correct. Someone had to do something. But that probably won't make anyone feel any better if improper application of a fairly vague rule costs a team a game.