Improving the targeting rule: How should the rule be changed?
The targeting penalty has been a consistent source of controversy in college football since an automatic ejection was added to the penalty in 2013. From the early days when even if the call was overturned on review the 15-yard penalty was still enforced to the continuing attempts to clearly define was constitutes targeting, no other rule has drawn more scrutiny.
Last week offered the next round of debate over what should be done with the targeting rule. NCAA Football Rules Committee secretary-rules editor Rogers Redding told USA Today that the committee will consider a “middle ground” to the rule. That middle ground would spare a player ejection if video review of the play was unable to confirm the ejection but similarly unable to overturn it altogether. In such cases, the 15-yard penalty would be enforced but the offending player could stay in the game.
The considered change ensures that the targeting rule will once again be a subject of debate this off-season. And just as the debate has continued, there is similarly no shortage of suggestions for ways to improve the rule. Several of SI.com’s college football writers weighed in on what changes, if any, should be made.
I think the proposed rule change is a step in the right direction and would address some of my concerns with targeting. It can be such a subjective evaluation for an official on the field, with a lot to take in and weigh in a matter of seconds before making the call. This is not just a question of where a player’s foot landed or whether a ball crossed a plane; that’s why I think the ability to keep a player in the game if the call is neither confirmed nor overturned makes complete sense.
But my thought process has always gone one step further, to intentionality. There have been a handful of targeting calls over the years where I’ve had this debate: Yes, it looks like he made contact with the crown of that player’s helmet, but it also seemed like there was no way to avoid it based on his speed and trajectory, and if that was targeting, it lacked intent.
Of course it’s impossible to get into players’ heads, but I would love some sort of provision for allowing referees to have that debate over intent while evaluating their calls. As Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, told USA Today, this is about changing players’ behavior. Players are intentionally targeting less, which is why this proposed rule tweak makes sense.
I’ll take it one further, too: Perhaps if a call on the field is confirmed as targeting, the penalty could be even stiffer for those few players still hitting the way they shouldn’t. A full 60 minutes of game time sitting out? A 20-yard dock to their team? If we’re talking incentivizing to change behavior, those penalties fit the bill.
Leave the rule exactly as it is. Is it perfect? No, but its flaws—inconsistent enforcement, unclear explanations—are the same flaws that plague nearly every rule in the book. Referees are imperfect, so they blow holding calls and targeting calls alike. Targeting is at least better protected as it triggers an automatic review.
I understand the argument for creating levels of punishment rather than the one-size-fits-all ejection in the current rules. But consider the floated rule change that would result in targeting calls that can neither be confirmed nor overturned leading to a 15-yard penalty but no ejection. For those upset by the inconsistent enforcement of the current rule, does this really sound simpler?
There are similar defects with any proposal based on different penalties depending on the intent of the hitter or the egregiousness of the infraction. As vague as explanations for targeting penalties can be now, imagine refs trying to justify to a hostile crowd how the review assessed a player’s intent in a high-speed collision.
Ultimately there simply isn’t a better way to implement a rule that has made clear strides towards improving player safety. Is it going to tick you off sometimes? Absolutely. Even with the automatic review, targeting calls have been and will continue to be blown. But the rule is essential to shift college football toward a game that can still be played and enjoyed in the decades to come. Plenty more still has to be done, but the targeting rule, flaws and all, is a positive step.
On ESPN’s “Coaches Film Room” during the national title game, BYU coach Kalani Sitake questioned the value of the targeting rule. Given the effort he demands from his players during practice, Sitake insisted it was unfair to deny a player a full game’s worth of action because of a split-second decision. “I guess that makes me a defensive guy,” Sitake lamented. Sitake’s argument wasn’t a defense of helmet-to-helmet contact or leading with the crown of the helmet, but rather a quibbling with how officials apply punishment.
College football players train in the winter and early spring months during spring practice, suffer through August heat in fall camp in hopes that they’ll see playing time over 12 or 13 games throughout the fall. The amount of prep time compared to playing time is unbalanced, and if a linebacker or defensive back is flagged for targeting, he loses whatever time remains in that half plus a full half of gameplay. The punishment is draconian but one adopted by college football’s rule committee to increase player safety and minimize head trauma.
The rule is effective; blistering helmet-to-helmet hits have decreased, defenders can’t weaponize their helmets without punishment, and proper tackling technique—lead with the shoulders, lower the head to contact the “strike zone” instead of the helmet—has improved.
What hasn’t changed is the speed of the game and the time a defender has to make a play on the ball. Breaking up a pass will result in some targeting penalties because football inevitably produces high-speed collisions based on split-second decisions. The rule increases player safety but skews the game in favor of the offense.
The solution? Enforce the rule as stringently as it has been, but create degrees. Think of a flagrant 1 vs. a flagrant 2 in basketball and only eject players if they are guilty of one major targeting penalty or two minor ones.
Coaches will bray about the lack of consistency and clarity of the rule. But remember that football coaches whine about everything and badger officials to try to attract more favorable calls.
The notable decrease in violent helmet-to-helmet hits is positive. The draconian ejection-plus-suspension punishment should only be reserved for the most violent offenses. It’s a good rule, but it needs refinement.
The implementation of the targeting rule was a positive step for college football. It showed that the people in charge of players’ welfare want to curb some of the most violent aspects of the game. Yet for many fans, the rule seems more perplexing than positive.
The best path forward is to institute the tweak reported last week that would decrease the severity of the offense if targeting is not confirmed with a replay review. The rule would still levy a 15-yard penalty against the team of the player who committed the foul, but if the replay official cannot corroborate the foul, while still stopping short of reversing it, then the player would not be ejected (and, if the play in question occurs in the second half of game, he would not be barred from participating in the first half of his next game).
This is a sensible way to address one of the biggest complaints of the rule: that players are unduly removed from games under questionable circumstances.