On the biggest stage imaginable—with more eyeballs watching than for any game over the past 23 years—college football’s targeting rule was exposed.
When it was announced early on in the offseason that dangerous tackles of defenseless players above the shoulders (aka targeting) would be an ejectable offense—and subject to immediate review—the dramatic rule change was greeted with mixed response.
It was taken to task long before its flawed integration was put on display for the world to see, but one play in the much-anticipated Alabama-Texas A&M game served as the culmination of building offseason concern.
Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix avoided ejection for his hit on Texas A&M receiver Derel Walker, although the possibility of an ejection should never have reached the immediate review. Or, at the very least, such review should have taken place far away from an impatient, overflowing stadium.
And why in the holy name of common sense would the refs still mark off yardage for a penalty that they just admitted did not occur? Getting these calls right will be difficult, because in most cases they are difficult to assess. But penalizing a team for something that never happened is just downright bizarre.
Our concerns with college football’s targeting rule have been realized, and coaches who remained somewhat quiet over this dramatic, philosophical change over the offseason are now speaking up. It is impacting them, or it will soon.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban had a front row seat for last Saturday's call, and he touched on the penalty on Monday. His words echoed the millions of living room conversations that took place simultaneously.
Personally, on the rule itself, if you can review a play to say a guy should be ejected or not be ejected, to me, you should be able to review if it was a penalty or not a penalty. That's not what the rule is. You asked me my opinion. I'm giving you my opinion.
Texas head coach Mack Brown may have bigger problems on his hand—like getting his players to tackle at all—but he too spoke up on the review process of this penalty and the message it sends in its current state.
If we're going upstairs, let's be fair to the teams, too. Let's be fair to the young man who makes a great hit that is not targeting and we can say, 'Well, you're right, Coach. We missed it, but we can't take it back.' Let's take it back. Let's make it fair and do what's right. To me that makes so much sense, it's too simple.
The intention of college football’s new aggressive stance on targeting was never in question. The implementation of this rule, however, felt hastily put together long before the first player was tossed from a game. As it turns out—and as many expected—the targeting rule is not only incredibly difficult to interpret during live action, but the process following the hit in question is in dire need of tinkering.
This is not an argument against eliminating targeting or a fight against player safety. Some of these high hits pose the possibility of devastating results, and attempting to limit these situations is, of course, the proper step to take.
On the other hand, why rush it? Why eject a player on the spot in front of an anxious, football-starved stadium without ample replays and time to assess what is already a difficult play to understand? And if we’re going to use these replays in real time, why not take advantage of the information gathered in seeing a play more than once.
Seven players were ejected in Week 1 of the college football season, and three other calls that would have led to ejections were overruled. The trend has continued throughout the first few weeks, with a mixed bag of hits (no pun intended) and misses.
Some of these calls were no-brainers, like the ugly hit Oregon defensive back Terrance Mitchell put on Nicholls State QB Beaux Hebert.
Other questionable moments of contact were much more difficult to assess, as one might expect. The definition of targeting might seem simple enough, but the calls are anything but. It’s not just how a defender throws himself at a “defenseless” player. The reaction of the defensive player, the body movements of both and the available camera angles all factor into the potential ejection.
Does the new targeting rule need to be changed?
And already, the average college football fan—the one who only started bickering over this rule change, perhaps just this past Saturday—is waiting for the next controversial hit.
All sports have moments that are difficult to define, tougher to monitor and aggravating in nature. For basketball, it's the charging and blocking calls that occur a few feet from the basket. This scenario and past issues making these calls have prompted a movement to eliminate “floppers” with heavy fines.
This isn’t a safety problem. Dealing with “floppers” is another way to improve the game. Yes, this on-court contact between two players pales in comparison to violent hits in an open field at full speed, but the assessment of such actions from officials in real time is clearly an issue.
College football has attempted to tackle its own issues with targeting ejections, taking a dramatic leap forward from its postgame suspensions handed out a year ago. This isn't a matter of flopping, but rather a bold attempt to eliminate something it no longer wants to see.
In an effort to remove these hits as quickly as possible, however, it has overlooked the delicate process of doing so. With two of the game’s most well-known coaches already pointing out the flawed logic behind these reviews—and millions getting a close-up look at the cracks in the foundation—further modifications to a seemingly ever-changing and complex rule could be coming.