Nowhere is the divergency of football more evident than in the targeting rule. The safety and health of the players come to cross purposes with the fans and the replay love of the pad-popping, helmet-rocking, slobberknocking collision.
For the last three seasons, college football’s targeting rule has been a 15-yard penalty plus an ejection for the player committing the hit. Since its inception, the rule designed to eliminate dangerous hits has undergone considerable tweaking because the milliseconds of judgment required by an official, coupled with an instant replay review, have put the targeting rule in a bright-hot spotlight.
This season, the instant replay official has an expanded role and authority. In the past, the replay official reviewed targeting calls to verify the on-field decision. This season, the replay official can call a targeting penalty if the on-field officials miss it.
“Everybody needs to understand that that doesn’t mean we’re stopping every big hit in a football game just in case it might be targeting,” Big 12 officiating coordinator Walt Anderson said. “So the language I told the officials is we’re going to stop play on the should have’s. We’re not going to stop play on the could have’s … It has to be shockingly bad.”
David Coleman, Vice President of Pac-12 Officiating, had his own explanation of a replay official stepping in to call targeting.
“I’m talking about a big one,” he said.
“If you’re watching on TV, you saw it, everybody in the stands saw it, the player who did it probably knows that he did it, the player who received the blow knows he received the blow, but for some reason the officials on the field did not get it. Replay will stop the game, targeting will be called and administered under the normal procedure.”
In the FBS last season, there were 161 targeting fouls called out of the 151,365 plays that were run. Of those 161 targeting penalties, 44 were reversed after being viewed by instant replay.
Anderson said that since the rule’s inception, targeting calls have dropped each season as players and coaches have adjusted. Last season in the Big 12, targeting was called eight times and half were reversed upon replay (one of those reversals was made in error).
“The rule book says when in question, it’s a targeting foul,” Southeastern Conference officiating supervisor Steve Shaw said. “If it’s close, we expect our guys to get the marker on the ground on the field. We went through all of last year, all of our video, and we actually had two plays for the season, two plays that we feel like the replay official would have come in.”
Anderson said a prime example of a missed targeting call occurred in last season’s West Virginia-Oklahoma game. Mountaineers safety Karl Joseph lowered the boom on OU’s Dede Westbrook. Instant replay angles showed Joseph making helmet-to-helmet contact with both players going full speed.
“This is targeting times two,” Anderson said.
It’s also an example of the razor-thin difference between a legal play and a penalty. Two players sprinting full speed for 20 to 30 yards collide and … what’s the call? On pass plays over the middle, the receiver often ducks his head anticipating a hit. That brings the tackler’s helmet into contact with the offensive player’s head gear. Plus, mind-reading skills are required to assess the tackler’s intent.
“Yeah, for sure. You know if someone is hitting you to make a play or hitting trying to hurt you,” Iowa State junior wide receiver Allen Lazard said. “But it’s a hard decision to make, even for a ref that might be four feet away.”
Lazard’s teammate, safety Kamari Cotton-Moya, offered this:
“We understand the rule, but things happen. I think the only time it should be called is if it’s intentional. Sometimes, you see a receiver and you know, ‘Hey, I can take that guy’s head off.’ But when you’re making a tackle, maybe it’s late in the game, you’re a little tired, your technique is poor and they call you for targeting … I don’t think that’s right.”
“The game has changed for the better,” said Kansas senior safety Fish Smithson, who led the Big 12 in tackles. “It’s not my place to make the rules. We’re not trying to hurt guys. But we play a physical game and sometimes there are hits you can’t avoid.”
College football administrators, coaches and officials believe that the process of turning big hits into safe hits is a work in progress … but in a better position than a few years ago.
“Rather than launch, turn your head to the side. Rather than strike or lead to the head, lower your strike zone,” Anderson said. “That’s probably what’s made the biggest impact we’ve had on the field.
“It’s evident every game that there are far more better hits – even if they are sometimes violent and vicious – than what there used to be.”