Last summer, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald casually outlined an outside-the-box solution well before it was officially necessary. It wasn’t a demand or some desk-pounding ultimatum, but rather a public brainstorming session that made quite a bit of sense.
Before college football’s targeting rule was deemed broken after its much-anticipated failure, Fitzgerald proposed the concept of bringing red and yellow cards to the table when asked about the immediate ejection protocol that would soon be put in play.
“It’s a total hypothetical,” Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Days about the card concept. “I’d rather warn the player, telling him this is not the hit we want in football.”
His response came without a sample size to judge from. With a year of results to look back on, however, the concerns over this brash and rushed addition were realized. It was doomed before the first flag was ever thrown, but once the games commenced, the chaos ensued. Ejections were made and overruled, and the entire process was a mess from start to finish.
The intentions of this bold change were never in question, nor should they be going forward. There are hits that the game needs to remove and player safety is—and will continue to be—the focus of many drastic changes going forward. But this rulebook literature requires a dramatic overhaul. That much is clear.
So let’s give it that overhaul.
The current system is somewhat simple in nature: When a questionable, above-the-shoulder hit—or launch—occurs on the field against a defenseless player, the penalty flag is thrown.
The head official announces that targeting is the call and the guilty player is ejected. The play is then immediately reviewed to determine if the call should stand. If it does, the player will remain ejected. If the play occurs in the second half of the game, he will also be suspended for the first half of the following game.
If the ejection is overturned, the player will be allowed back into the game. The 15-yard penalty and automatic first down will still be assessed regardless of the review, however. And this is where the reconstruction begins.
Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was on the wrong end of this quirk in the rule against Texas A&M when he collided with wideout Derel Walker. It was clearly shoulder-to-shoulder contact, and thus he was not ejected for his clean hit following the review.
The 15-yard penalty was still tacked on. This, obviously, cannot continue. If the officials just took the time to review a play and admitted the penalty did not occur, why assess the penalty yardage for something that did not happen?
This is common sense. It’s also a realistic change that will likely be put in motion before the 2014 season begins.
That’s the easy part. We just changed the doorknob on the master bathroom. Now we’re going to start taking out walls. To do that, let’s take a lesson out of the punting handbook.
Punting—yes, punting—can teach us quite a bit about the way targeting should be officiated going forward. If we have two different penalties to differentiate how a punter is contacted by a player on the opposing team—the five-yard running into the kicker call and the groan-inducing, first-down generating roughing variety—then the most dangerous hits in college football warrant more than a yes or no.
This became abundantly clear when watching these hits and calls add up over the course of the season. We need to categorize them, or at the very least, differentiate between the extreme, dangerous plays and the many close calls that are toeing the line.
The message can still be sent that these hits are no longer acceptable, but with purpose and care. That’s where Pat Fitzgerald’s concept of red and yellow cards could be a welcomed edition. Please, put your potential soccer angst aside. Or if you feel better, make the cards whatever color you want. Heck, make them toothbrushes if that helps.
Let’s keep immediate ejections incorporated because realistically they aren’t going away. And quite frankly, there are certain moments that warrant an ejection. The intent can be debated, although there were a handful of hits that were textbook targeting during the 2013 season.
Take this hit by Oregon defensive back Terrance Mitchell, for example. One of the earliest ejections of the year came when Mitchell dove headfirst into Nicholls State QB Beaux Hebert.
While the level of contact changes with Hebert’s slide, this is the kind of tackle the sport has to attempt to eliminate.
This, for purposes relevant to this solution, would be deemed a red card (or blue toothbrush or whatever you came up with). The player would be ejected, the play would be reviewed and the 15-yard penalty would be tacked on where the play occurred.
Sound familiar? It should.
It’s the same process we have now, still in motion when the time calls for it. Here’s where we go our separate ways, though.
For the unclear moments, the hits that are walking the grey area of the rule—or the initial calls that were simply incorrect after multiple, slowed viewings—another qualification is needed. It’s close enough to draw a flag, which is worth something. But it’s not textbook targeting, and the replay shows that the original call was either a) up for serious debate or b) wrong altogether.
One play that comes to mind—and there were many that fall under this grey area—is Texas A&M defensive back Deshazor Everett’s hit on Rice receiver Klein Kubiak early in the 2013 season.
Deshazor didn’t make contact with his helmet, but the hit was violent and high enough—at least according to the officials—to warrant his removal from the game.
Despite the play, Kubiak actually sent out a tweet following the game to defend the hit. It didn't have an impact on the ejection, of course, but it also highlights further confusion on these plays.
That’s where a yellow card comes in, a warning of sorts and a reminder to the player that the contact is getting close to a play the game doesn’t want to see. There’s no need to tack on yardage or grant an automatic first down for a play that almost broke the rules, but that doesn’t mean yellow cards won’t matter.
A message has been sent. And if a player receives two yellow cards in a two-game span—meaning a questionable hit occurred later in that same contest or sometime during the next—then he is ejected following the second flagged hit regardless of the review.
Fitzgerald actually had a slightly different take when it came to yellow cards, using the first questionable hit a player gets carded for during the season as the only warning he would receive for the rest of the year.
Does the targeting rule need to change?
“Say the hit wasn’t malicious and there wasn’t an intent to injure, but, by definition, it was a high hit,” Fitzgerald said. “The next time you do it for the rest of the season, you’re going to lose a game.”
Both ideas certainly could work. And yes, both are subjective to the officials working a given game. The reality of these incredibly difficult calls is they will always be subjective no matter how well the rules are written and understood.
Officials have been put in an impossible position having to call (and assess) these high-speed collisions. The immediate review certainly helps, but there needs to be more than thumbs-up or thumbs-down outcomes. That’s where the yellow cards come in, serving as a buffer of sorts.
Not only would this added level give players an extra chance, it would also save the officials from altering the course of a game if it's not warranted. There would be an option between the results spectrum, something they'd certainly welcome with open arms.
There has to be something in between, that much is clear. Keep the intent of the rule in play but add to the depth of how these plays are monitored and understood.
Is it perfect? The rule will never be, not given the current confusion surrounding what constitutes targeting and simply executing a tackle. But it would be improved, and more importantly, it would put the players and officials in a more reasonable situation to ensure the proper course is followed.
The moments deserve and require something more. Change is necessary.
*Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.