If you’ve watched college football in the past three years, you’ve no doubt found yourself, or another member of your watch party, asking “what is targeting?”. It’s not that you don’t know that the rule was instituted to punish helmet to helmet collisions and other reckless tackles likely to result in head injuries. Rather, you don’t know under the current rules what actually merits a targeting call with its 15 yard penalty and automatic ejection of the guilty player and what doesn’t.
Guess what? No one does.
Let’s examine two potential targeting infractions in last week’s Big 12 conference action.
Malcolm Roach on James Washington
In the third quarter of Oklahoma State’s victory over Texas on Saturday, star wide receiver James Washington caught a short pass and found himself wrapped up by a Longhorn defender. Washington was spun around as the two grappled for the ball. Then, was dropped with a decisive shot from defensive end Malcolm Roach.
Roach contacted Washington’s head and shoulder area with his own head or shoulder when Washington was in a defenseless position. Roach even appears to lean into the tackle as Washington is spun into him. The officials on the field threw the flag for targeting, but upon video review, the penalty and the ejection were both waved off.
Washington left the game with a concussion and did not return. He’s said to be likely to play in the Cowboys game this Saturday against Iowa State.
Paul Whitmill on Joe Mixon
Oklahoma survived in Fort Worth on Saturday for a much-needed win over TCU, but a scary moment early in the 2nd quarter nearly took tailback Joe Mixon out of the game.
While fielding a punt, Mixon was blasted by TCU linebacker Paul Whitmill. Contact between the two occurred before the ball arrived, and Whitmill lead with the crown of his helmet as Mixon watched the incoming punt.
The officials on the field threw the flag for targeting, and it was upheld after video review, which resulted in a 15 yard penalty and the ejection of Whitmill.
Mixon was able to return to action shortly afterwards and has no listed injury as a result of the illegal hit.
What is targeting?
Answer this question: who is more defenseless, a returner watching a punt fly towards him, or a receiver who has his arms wrapped up and is being spun around by a defender?
The joke’s on you because there’s no right answer. But really, maybe the joke is on all college football officials, because the current rules force them to answer. Roach’s hit on Washington was explained as not targeting in part because Washington was, at the moment of contact, a ball carrier and not defenseless. Have someone swing you around with your arms pinned and tell me how well you feel you can defend yourself from a 250-pound freight train.
Coincidentally, the NCAA rulebook includes in the definition of a defenseless player: “A ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped.”
Whitmill’s hit was deemed illegal because Mixon was defenseless as he waited to field a punt. No argument here. But, the hit on Mixon also fit another criteria of the targeting rule. Whitmill hit Mixon with the crown of his helmet. Meanwhile, Washington was hit with the side of Roach’s helmet.
Ask yourself which is worse? Is the crown of the helmet inherently harder than the side? Doubtful. Can a defender deliver a more powerful blow with the crown of his helmet than the side? Potentially. But, if targeting was a rule instituted for player safety, why are we asking officials to make a distinction between forceful helmet to helmet collisions?
Stanford coach David Shaw made a similar point after one of his players was concussed against UCLA.
“To me, the letter of the law is immaterial,” Shaw said. “If you have contact on one helmet to another helmet, that should be a penalty. We should go back and reword our rulings”
In regards to the same hit, the NCAA released a statement clarifying that the crown of the helmet doesn’t only refer to the top, but the front as well. Meanwhile, the side of the helmet remains legal to bash and maim with.
The Washington hit ended with a concussion. You obviously can’t call penalties based on the result of the hit, but you can also conclude that a hit that causes a concussion is exactly the type of hit these rules are meant to eliminate.
Targeting Rule Changes
Since I don’t want to be one of those people who only complains about a problem without presenting a solution, like that coworker of yours (you know the one), I have some thoughts for a better way to police illegal, malicious, and dangerous hits.
Let me start by saying I don’t think that every hit that fits the definition of targeting warrants an ejection. The rule doesn’t attempt to measure intent. So, you’re punishing an amateur (stifle your laughter) athlete for making a mistake that is sometimes unavoidable in the course of action.
Meanwhile, late hits come with no threat of ejection, despite them being malicious and egregious more often. Taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct, while potentially much less dangerous plays, also have no ejection penalty tied to them despite being intentional acts by the offending player.
But, we can learn from a recently instituted NFL rule. If a player receives two of these 15 yard personal foul penalties in the same game, they’re ejected. Two penalties signals a pattern of behavior that needs to be punished severely.
Compare that to the NCAA basketball rule for flagrant fouls. A flagrant 1 carries a stiffer penalty than a common foul, but the player isn’t ejected. A flagrant 2 results in ejection.
Why not use those same principles with targeting?
Each targeting foul is reviewed by the replay booth already. I know the idea of allowing officials to use more of their own judgement is scary. Still, introducing a distinction between an accidental or understandable targeting penalty, and a malicious and intentional targeting penalty allows for an expansion of the protection afforded to players.
A targeting 1 penalty could include any forceful hit to the head or neck area of an offensive player. The Roach hit on James Washington would qualify. Should Roach have been ejected? No. He was trying to bring down a ball carrier and came in with poor form at the wrong time. But, he should be saddled with a penalty that carries an ejection should he commit the same foul again.
The Whitmill hit on Joe Mixon would not change. It would be a targeting 2 penalty and Whitmill would be disqualified. Was his hit intentional and malicious? You could argue no. But, he had every opportunity to avoid Mixon, to hit him with another part of his body, and to hit him lower than the shoulders. He failed on all counts.
Targeting is a good addition to the game, but it seems somewhere between the genesis of the rule and the institution of it, the reason behind it got obscured.
The idea is to protect your players from serious injury. So change the rule to actually protect them.