DALLAS, Texas — Full-speed linebackers steaming toward the quarterback’s chin. Safeties launching themselves like predatory missiles. Special-teams blockers decleating pursuers with blind-side knockouts.
Walt Anderson, throughout 27 years officiating college and NFL games, has seen these kill-shots celebrated on sidelines and in highlight videos. They energize stadiums. They make home viewers clamor for a cringe-inducing replay. They become remember-when moments. And to the well-trained eyes of Anderson, they threaten the existence of football.
“There are certain types of hits that are being glorified. We’ve got to get away from this headhunter mentality.” — Walt Anderson, Big 12 coordinator of football officials
“The game is under attack like it hasn’t been for 100 years since the Teddy Roosevelt days,” the 60-year-old Anderson told a gathering of 400 college football officials last weekend. Himself a former college quarterback, Anderson foresees a not-so-distant day when civil litigation or congressional mandates—or pressure from both—could diminish the new American pastime and perhaps completely outlaw it.
“We will change it from within,” he said, “or others outside the game will change it for us.”
Therefore the Big 12′s coordinator of football officials since 2006 supports the sport’s most controversial rule change in decades: Players penalized for “targeting” this season will be ejected, and if the penalty occurs in the second-half, they also must sit out the first half of the ensuing game. It’s a severe-but-necessary measure as ever-deepening insights into concussions propel efforts to further prioritize player safety.
Not surprisingly, some defensive players aren’t thrilled about the new rule.
“As a defensive player, you can’t really control where you hit,” Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “They basically are making us play flag football.”
But Anderson, in his folksy Texas drawl, rebuffed the notion football is sacrificing toughness. He contended the game can maintain all the physicality that makes it compelling—he simply envisions it evolving into something a little less gladiatorial.
“There are certain types of hits that are being glorified,” he said. “We’ve got to get away from this headhunter mentality.
“There’s nothing wrong with celebrating a good, hard and, at times, violent hit. But it needs to be a legal hit.”
The man respected enough to officiate two Super Bowls cited the need to stamp out a culture that thrives on hits “way above what is necessary in football.” Too often Anderson saw players dancing around after laying vicious, illegal licks—completely undeterred by 15-yard penalties. Now, with more teeth in the rule, players face the prospect of missing up to four quarters of action.
“We need to get this out of the game,” Anderson said. “Players need to understand that your six seconds of glory is going to cost you.”
WHAT IS TARGETING?
The concept of targeting isn’t new, having been a part of the NCAA rulebook the past four seasons. But the heavy consequence of seeing players disqualified assures that refs who call the infraction—and replay officials who have mere minutes to sustain or overturn it—will face heightened scrutiny. With kickoff only seven weeks away, Anderson admitted even the most seasoned refs are experiencing “uh-oh” moments.
During the recent three-day conference in Dallas, where officials from the Big 12 and Mountain West studied alongside peers from several smaller conferences, talk of targeting headlined the general sessions and many of the breakout groups.
To help refs recognize what is and what isn’t targeting, national coordinator of officials Rogers Redding specified high-risk mannerisms. Just as identifying mechanical tells years ago brought clarity to holding penalties (grab-and-restrict, takedowns, hooking with the arm) and better defined defensive pass interference (grabbing, arm-bars, cutoffs, hook-and-turns), the hope is these national guidelines will lend consistency to how targeting is flagged across different conferences.
Here are four indicators that generally contribute to targeting:
Launching: The offending player leaves his feet and goes nearly horizontal. This usually occurs on big hits downfield against defenseless receivers, or when a tackler launches into a ballcarrier who has been stood up. It also surfaces on some vicious blind-side blocks.
Thrusting: From a squatting position, the player makes an upward direction toward the head and neck area. Think launching without the player leaving his feet.
Striking: Elbows, forearms or hands to the head. This typically pertains to over-aggressive pass rushers, though Anderson emphasized the intent is not to penalize a blitzer whose “fingernail grazes the quarterback’s helmet.”
This is more about instances where rushers swipe down harshly and thwack the passer across the face mask. “A player may say ‘I was only trying to block the pass,’ but no, you were trying to put the quarterback out of the game,” Anderson said.
Hitting with the crown: Players who use the top of the helmet to initiate contact are subject to disqualification even on plays that don’t result in an above the shoulders blow. “It doesn’t matter where you hit him,” Anderson said. “You can’t hit with the crown of your helmet. You can’t use your helmet as a weapon.”
The definition of “defenseless player” has expanded this year to include players falling victim to blind-side blocks. Anderson pointed out the infamous SEC Championship game play fro last season on which Alabama’s Quinton Dial blasted Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray after a turnover. “There’s nobody in the country that didn’t feel like that wasn’t a flagrant act and warranted a suspension,” said Anderson.
Along with those high-risk indicators, officials also are studying newly written criteria for what typically constitutes a legal hit:
Heads-up: A player who sees what he’s hitting can’t strike with the crown of the helmet.
Wrap up: “When players use their arms in the process of making a tackle,” Anderson said, “they’re not physically thinking about knocking the guy’s head off.”
Head to the side: By a player turning his head away, he’s limiting the intent of a helmet-to-helmet hit.
Position change: This safeguards against penalizing a defender who inadvertently makes helmet-to-helmet contact when the ballcarrier instinctively ducks at the last instant.
Yet for all the descriptives detailed in memorandums, the flash-moment of decision will remain nuanced. When an official throws the flag for the most serious penalty college football has ever seen, he’ll be relying upon common sense as much as training.
Because as Anderson noted, “targeting carries with it the element of intent. And, yes, that’s a judgment call.”
WHEN IN DOUBT, CALL TARGETING
So adamant is the emphasis on eliminating illegal hits that officials in many conferences are being encouraged to call targeting on 50-50 plays.
“We want to be erring on the side of safety,” Anderson said, noting the replay booth can overturn a targeting ejection but lacks the authority to create one.
Of course, as with other replays of catches and fumbles, the booth official requires indisputable video evidence to reverse a disqualification, so the original on-field call carries a heavy burden. That’s all the more reason Anderson challenged Big 12 officials to improve their pregame preparation and apply the targeting penalties with consistency.
“The game needs that,” he said.
More than ever, the game also needs cooperation from the entire on-field crew, particularly with officials having the gumption to interject themselves on plays outside their area. Because the nearest official doesn’t always have the clearest viewpoint, Anderson encouraged all officials to trust their eyes and open their mouths upon noticing tell-tale signs leading up to impact.
Anderson lauded crews for growing “more comfortable questioning ourselves on the field,” a notion upending the old-school philosophy that said never dispute the call of a fellow ref.
“(Back then) it was like a club,” he said. “We felt like it was the seven of us against the world, and even if the call was wrong, we were just going to circle the wagons. We can’t do that anymore. The accountability that we’re charged with is too great.”