Imagine, for a moment, that a safety just collided with a tight end stretching out for an overthrown ball. The tight end crumbles to the ground, causing a synchronized gasp to echo throughout the stadium, and yellow flags paint the field.
The officials quickly meet and conclude—well, speculate feels more appropriate—that the safety targeted the defenseless player who still remains down on the turf. At that moment, the defender knows exactly what’s coming. His body language speaks volumes.
His arms fall limp to his sides; his head bows in disgust. The lead official approaches, reaching into his pocket as he maneuvers toward the guilty player, and he reveals a yellow card.
He lifts it to the sky and boos rain down.
The 15-yard penalty is assessed as the tight end is helped to the sideline—returning a few plays later. The safety stays in the game knowing the room for error is now none.
“It’s a total hypothetical,” said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, when asked about a solution he brought up at Big Ten Media Days. “I’d rather warn the player, telling him this is not the hit we want in football.”
Hypothetical or not, he’s onto something. And if yellow cards aren’t the answer, at least the possibility of a new, bold idea is being discussed.
The new targeting rule—in which players can be ejected immediately for hitting defenseless opponents above the shoulders—was the talk of the conference media day circuit. At some point, each coach in the country was asked to provide their input.
While most did little to offer up soundbites beyond “whatever is in the best interest of the kids” or “we’ll see,” a few took notable stances.
Stanford head coach David Shaw was one of the few to strongly defend it, according to NFL.com’s Dan Greenspan, saying, “College football needs the rule, just like the NFL needs the rule.”
On the opposite end of the reaction spectrum, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and Washington State’s Mike Leach stated their concerns. Each coach expressed his displeasure, especially when pressed on the possibility of Jadeveon Clowney’s hit on Vincent Smith suddenly being worthy of an ejection.
Leach, via Howie Stalwick of Scout.com, offered up his thoughts. Hey, at least he said "with all due respect" first.
"Clowney’s hit … with all due respect to the officials, you’ve got old guys (officials) out there with bifocals on trying to identify in a split second who lowered their head first."
Controversy is brewing—despite the good intentions—well before the first questionable call is made and game-changing ejection takes place. Many are bracing for the absolute worst, while others see this as a necessary move.
Then there is Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker sporting a football pedigree matched by few, tossing around a soccer solution for one of his game’s biggest problems.
“Our young men have an opportunity to play 48 games and maybe a few more if they’re lucky,” Fitzgerald said. “Taking away one game can be significant.”
Put aside the soccer disdain if such contempt exists, and for many of you, it likely does.
This is not an attempt to somehow transform football into futbol but rather to use its guidelines to discourage certain behavior. That’s the purpose of a yellow card. It serves as one free pass before the individual—and team—suffers the consequences, and it discourages repeating such actions.
“Say the hit wasn’t malicious and there wasn’t an intent to injure, but, by definition, it was a high hit,” Fitzgerald said on providing warnings for targeting. “The next time you do it for the rest of the season, you’re going to lose a game.”
Fitzgerald didn’t go on to outline a full campaign for a yellow card movement, but the intent behind this idea is clear: Provide a small window of error for players (and officials) before minutes are taken away.
Let’s not stop there. Taking his brainstorm one step further, a yellow card could come with a 15-yard penalty and an automatic review following the game.
If the hit in question is deemed suspension-worthy after officials watch various replays—similar to the review process utilized a season ago—a conference has the power to suspend the player the following game.
Is the new targeting rule a permanent solution for college football?
If it is a questionable call, the player will be on notice for the rest of the season. Any yellow card received from that point on will be an immediate suspension for the player.
Teams can also be fined if a certain threshold of yellow cards is reached. The fine, in itself, sends a message. Coaches must teach their players the appropriate way to tackle, or they’ll have an unpleasant sit-down with their superiors. This movement starts from the very top.
For the officials, the yellow cards could provide some valuable leeway. With so much gray area on what constitutes targeting, a warning—along with ample time to review postgame—could soften the pressure off those now tasked with making an impossible call in real-time.
This, of course, is all a hypothetical solution to an assumed problem.
It’s assumed that the new targeting rule will fail, that ejections will be rampant and rulings will be inconsistent. Perhaps this won’t be the case, although the rushed evaluation isn’t the appropriate way to tackle a complex issue.
Adding yellow cards—or blue cards, or an orange towel or whatever would serve as a warning sign—is merely another solution to throw on the top of a growing pile. It would provide a philosophical change, but all out-of-the-box ideas are welcome.
The issue of player safety will only become more prominent, and ensuring that these safety guidelines are maintained will generate both controversy and discussions regarding ways to improve them.
Fitzgerald’s open brainstorm may not be the ultimate solution, but it is a simple (yet somehow radical) idea to mull over as the debut of the new targeting rule approaches.
If an immediate ejection isn’t the answer, it's back to the drawing board.
*Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.