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Is The Targeting Rule Destroying College Football?

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

Saturday’s UK Football game against Georgia was a big time game in a big time atmosphere with two big time teams. Say what you will about disappointment in the final score or the mistakes UK made to lose the game or just the physical nature of the Wildcats and the Bulldogs, but one thing appeared to be certain for me from watching this game. And it was not this game only but this game seemed to bring about a culmination of what I have seen in other games leading up to this point in the season.

The NCAA’s new targeting rule is destroying the game of college football. And before people start to jump on me with both feet please understand that I believe 100 percent in the safety and protection of the players. I know that the intention of the rule is to try to reduce head injuries. I am for a rule that is effective and can be enforced consistently that will eliminate any type of player injury. But I also know that the game of football consists of very large, extremely strong men running at each other at a very high speed. This creates violent collisions on every play. That is the nature of the game.

The original intent of the game is for the defensive player to try to stop the offensive player from advancing the ball through physical contact. Generally very violent physical contact. This is where the targeting rule as it is written and as it is enforced is at odds with the very nature of the game.

The targeting rule as it is written says that targeting is, “(a) dangerous hit that involves launching, upward thrust or severe strike” and it also states, “a 15-yard penalty and ejection will occur when forcible contact to the head/neck area of a defenseless opponent occurs or any forcible hit by crown of helmet.”

By the strictest interpretation of this rule almost any tackle made during a football game could be considered targeting. Every tackle made in football is “dangerous” and most involve “launching”, “upward thrust” or “severe strike.” The reason they do is that football is a full contact sport. If 250-pound men run full speed at each other and collide “severe strikes” and “forcible contact” will occur. It is inevitable.

That part of the conversation only relates to the defender tackling the ball carrier. As if that isn’t difficult enough to determine and enforce what about the constant upward thrusts and forcible contact to the head/neck area that occurs on every play at the line of scrimmage? Although it is true that both offensive and defensive players are not necessarily defenseless, nonetheless they still are subject to “severe strikes” and “forcible contact” in the head/neck areas. There is plenty of helmet to helmet contact at the line of scrimmage. Yet I have never seen targeting called on an offensive or defensive lineman engaged at the line of scrimmage.

For that matter I have also never seen an offensive ball carrier called for targeting on the defender although I have seen many instances where it has actually occurred in a game. Generally ball carriers will lower their head and use the crown of their helmet to try to drive through the defender to clear a path going forward. I have yet to see that called as targeting on the offensive player. I have also never seen an offensive player called for targeting by using a stiff arm on the opposing defender. The stiff arm is supposed to be when the ball carrier puts his arm straight out into the would be tackler’s chest to hold him off from making the tackle.

But in many cases the ball carrier thrusts his open palm directly into the defenders face or chin area in much the same way a boxer jabs his opponent in the face to keep him away. I have never seen this move by the offensive player called targeting even though it involves a “severe strike” or “upward thrust” into the opponent’s head/neck area.

The rule, as it is written, is impossible to enforce evenly because of the very general nature in which it is written.

During Saturday’s SEC games I observed three targeting calls in three different games. In the Florida-Missouri game the punter for Florida speared the ball carrier with his helmet while the ball carrier was on the ground. The on-the-field officials threw the flag for targeting. Using the crown of the helmet against a defenseless opponent. Cut and dried. Clear case of targeting per the rule. But not so fast. The SEC crew in the booth reviewed the played and ruled it was not targeting — although based on the replay it was obvious that it was a textbook example of targeting. Very confusing.

In the second instance UK player Darius West hit a Georgia ball carrier in the head and neck area with his shoulder pad as the player was being tackled by another UK defender. West’s helmet made contact with the ball carrier’s helmet. After an extremely short review West was ejected from the game and will also miss the first half of the Tennessee game next week based on the guidelines of the targeting rule. The replay showed the contact occurred but it was not as obvious as the incident in the Florida game and yet no overturning of the call occurred here. Inconsistent application.

Finally in the LSU-Alabama game an LSU player was called for targeting by the officials on the field when he hit an Alabama ball carrier with his helmet as he was making the tackle. Once again the flag was thrown for targeting. After a lengthy review — during which LSU coach Ed Orgeron repeatedly chewed out the officials for dropping the flag — the referees in the booth mysteriously overturned the call and said play on.

This after LSU star linebacker Devin White had been ejected the week before on a very, very questionable targeting call that required him to sit out the first half of the Alabama game. You get the picture. After two weeks of constant harassment from fans and media about the extremely poor call against White it didn’t appear that the officials in the booth wanted a repeat of the same thing against another LSU player. The flag disappears and the player continues on. No targeting. Again very inconsistent and confusing.

So, my beef is not necessarily the targeting rule itself — although it is open ended and very general and could be called on virtually any tackle – but my beef is with the uneven and indiscriminate enforcement of the rule and the apparent arbitrary nature of the officials in the booth that miraculously overturn some of the targeting calls and let others stand with no explanation.

In a full contact sport violent collisions will occur. Most will involve the head and neck area because one player is moving forward with a low center of gravity and another player is trying to get lower before the collision occurs so he can stop the opposing player. The old and true adage in football is “low man wins.”  That’s why these type “targeting” collisions will continue to occur. Kicking players out of the game in an arbitrary fashion will not stop that from occurring because the very nature of football requires these type collisions to occur.

Knowing that, the “powers that be” in college football need to either change the nature of the game and start using a flag system ala middle school gym class or re-write the rule to either make the penalty not so severe or make the rule very defined so that any arbitrary enforcement is eliminated.

As the rule stands now it is almost impossible for a player to play the game of football as it was intended without running afoul of some official that arbitrarily decides that on that particular play the defender was trying to inflict injury on his opponent by either striking him in the head/neck or using his helmet as a weapon.

If the players can’t count on consistency from the officials in enforcing the rule then the players won’t be able to stay within the guidelines of the rule. That also means that paying customers — the fans in the stands — will continue to be frustrated by one of the worst rules in college football. And that can’t be a good thing.


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  1. Keith
    I enjoy your writings on Vaught’s Views very much. But I have to comment on your article this time.
    I started playing high school football in the 6th grade on junior varsity then varsity. It took me a long long time to learn the correct form to block correctly and it culminated in my winning a best blocker trophy when I was a senior.
    Then I went to U of K when they had a coaching staff loaded with 6 or 7 coaches that went on to be head coaches in the NFL. But we couldn’t beat Tennessee so they replaced this amazing coaching staff with a Coach who taught blocking as spearing the opposing player with your forehead in the opponent’s sternum. And we did it for many practice hours up to 6 hours long.
    I was blessed with academic abilities and gave up my football scholarship for an academic scholarship, not all of my teammates were that fortunate.
    I went on to get advanced degrees in college and was blessed with a career in two separate areas, engineering and medicine.
    I had to have an MRI of my brain a couple of years ago and learned I had encephalomalacia of my frontal lobe which means it is “dissolving away”.
    So Keith, there was a reason that they put in the rule against spearing and even though it may be imperfect compared to the other rules of football I feel it HAS to help keep this type of football maneuver from damaging other young players.
    I really don’t like talking about my experiences but I have to comment in this instance. Please keep up your excellent writings but please be cognizant that there might be reasons for things that seem flawed to you.

    1. Claude, thanks for the kind words and especially for telling your story. I do believe that some form of the rule should exist for player safety but I also believe that the current rule needs to be adjusted and more importantly needs to be enforced consistently throughout college football. The most important thing is as you say for coaches to teach and insist on players following proper technique and then maybe the rule wouldn’t be necessary

      1. Agreed.
        Keep up your fine writing.

  2. I have already commented on this in a previous post. It is a stupid rule in that a player called for targeting has to set out for a half in the following game. Targeting favors, generally, the offensive player. I agree with Keith, it is ruining the game. It could have been called in a couple of instances against Georgia Saturday as well according to these eyes of mine, but they skated.

  3. I support rules that will protect the safety of the players. I have also seen the results on the game. I recall one game that the defensive players backed off tackling the QB to avoid a penalty, and the QB scrambled and made a play. I’ve also seen running backs lower their helmets to gain extra yards and that definitely puts a tackler at higher risk. Maybe we can come up with a more balanced perspective if we look at efforts of other contact sports to protect players? In the NHL, players are responsible for their sticks … slashing, tripping, and hitting an opposing player in the head or face with your stick, intentional or not, draws a penalty. Penalties vary with the dangerousness, and damage done, intentional or not intentional. If blood is drawn as a result, it is a major penalty. “Targeting” is either a “yes” or “no” rule with no leeway. There is a difference between an offensive player with the ball who sees a tackler coming and lowers his head (helmet) to protect himself, and an offensive player with the ball who doesn’t see the tackler coming and/or who doesn’t lower his head. With regard to QB’s, are they down when “in the grasp?” What does “in the grasp” mean? I’m sure it means one thing for a pocket passer, and something quite different for a running QB. The only way to stop helmet to helmet contact is to get rid of the helmets. There was a saying in England during the reign of Cromwell, “As soon as sheep as a lamb.” If the punishment for stealing either is hanging, then hang trying to get a sheep rather than a lamb. Makes sense. We need to think about this rule in a very practical, pragmatic way. The rule is obviously open to increasingly wide interpretation if you watched the calls this past weekend. Football is a violent, dangerous sport. Any contact sport can be violent and dangerous. I played football at 160 lbs and never got hurt. (I was quick and fast so no one really got a good lick on me. And probably lucky.) I got a high ankle sprain playing baseball stealing home that put me out of commission for a good month. Not as bad as getting hit in the had by a high tight fastball. We just need to get out of the either/or thinking.

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