The NFL will consider a college-style targeting rule for next season. I know, I know. But please, do me a favor before you blow a gasket. Slow down. Take a breath. Consider a few important points.
First: A targeting rule would run up against a swarm of long-held and deeply felt NFL philosophies, from the way the league uses replay to the very idea of ejections. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that targeting — mandatory ejection for a player who hits a defenseless opponent above the shoulders — would represent a fundamental break from the way the NFL does business.
Second: When Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said on Wednesday that the issue is “on our agenda,” it was in no way an announcement or even a statement of intent. Vincent was participating in a conference call with reporters about player discipline handed out this week. When asked whether the NFL would add a targeting rule, in light of two brutal head shots on defenseless players during Monday night’s Pittsburgh Steelers–Cincinnati Bengals matchup, Vincent said it was something the league must “consider.” He noted the college version is a “deterrent” and, in saying the competition committee would discuss the matter in February, provided a version of the stock answer league officials always give about potential rule changes.
Third: If crafted with care, a targeting rule might actually be of some use.
Let’s be honest. The primary benefit of adding this rule would be to boost public confidence that the NFL is doing what it can to minimize head injuries and make the game safer for the brain. But there is also reason to believe that it could deliver a more orderly set of discipline — and thus clarify the consequences to players — when these circumstances arise.
NFL rules already prohibit hits to the head or neck area of players who receive defenseless protection. That definition includes quarterbacks in the process of throwing, receivers in the process of making a catch and defenders who take a blindside block. The problem for the league is what comes next.
Referees are required to levy a 15-yard penalty, as Walt Anderson did on Monday night to Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bengals safety George Iloka. Officials are given the option to eject a player for what they judge to be “flagrant” fouls, but historically referees have been reluctant to use it for “football” plays.
There have been 13 ejections this season, tied for the most in the NFL since at least 2001, but none have been for hits to the head. Ten have been for fighting or throwing a punch, and the other three for contact with an official. In other words, all have been to punish extracurricular activity.
A targeting rule would take that judgment out of a referee’s hands. It’s “clean,” to use Vincent’s word. There would be no doubt or debate, for anyone, about the consequences of a head shot on a defenseless player. If it happens, the player is ejected. And at the college level, at least in theory, the mandatory review supplies a safety net to ensure that a player is not ejected by mistake.
So goes the 35,000-foot argument for why the NFL should consider this rule. Respected voices such as former NFL officiating chief Mike Pereira, now a Fox Sports analyst, have begun advocating for the change.
The reality, of course, is messier.
I’m not sure you can argue that targeting has been a success on the college level. Targeting penalties have increased every year since the mandatory ejection was added in 2013. If it were working, you would think the numbers would have decreased.
And there is little doubt that it is enforced inconsistently, perhaps because of the large numbers of schools, conferences and officials involved. The NFL has some inherent inconsistencies as well, but on a relative scale, they’re more centralized.
The bigger problem for the NFL is whether enough owners would add targeting to replay review. To this point, a large group of traditionalists have refused to consider reviews for judgment calls such as holding, pass interference and hits against defenseless players. Instead, they have limited reviews to black-or-white calls such as fumbles, catches and ball placement.
I can’t conceive a scenario in which a targeting rule would work without replay, because I can’t imagine officials put in the position to make such an important call — one that carried such dire consequences — without a safety net. And even if that concession is made, the league would still have to make a fundamental shift in its approach to ejections. Although ejections are up this season, the NFL still operates from a perspective of keeping players on the field at all costs.
“We want the game to be played on the field,” Vincent said. “We don’t want to be in the business of ejecting players. That’s something the coaches are adamant about, general managers and owners, about ejecting players during the season. There’s only 17 weeks. The philosophy is, if it gets out of control, we do ask referees to maintain control of the game. Give them that flexibility. They have that flexibility, but we really emphasize, let the players play. But if things begin to get out of control, you must maintain control of the game during that window.”
It would be difficult to cling to that philosophy with a targeting rule that, in 2017, led to an enforced targeting penalty in roughly only one out of every five FBS games. That doesn’t count instances when a second-half ejection led to a player to being held out from the first half of the following game, as the NCAA requires. That rate would be a massive shift in the way the NFL operates. To be palatable, an NFL version might need to curtail that extension to one quarter of the following game, if at all.
Has the time come for such dramatic measures? Perhaps. The NFL can no longer be what it was Monday night — not when brain health should be its top priority. Targeting can’t solve the problem entirely. But it can amplify and clarify the consequences for such play, better incentivizing coaches and players to find alternative ways to block and tackle.
I don’t know if the NFL can bring itself to do this. I’m not entirely certain it should. But it has to consider it, along with every other option to address brain health. At this point, no part of a solution should be cast aside. Such is the existential threat facing the league, the game and all those who participate in it.