The Issue with Targeting

Ohio+State%27s+Shaun+Wade%27s+%2824%29+hit+on+Clemson+quarterback+Trevor+Lawrence+that+drew+the+targeting+call+and+caused+Wade%27s+disqualification.

ESPN

Ohio State's Shaun Wade's (24) hit on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence that drew the targeting call and caused Wade's disqualification.

Jacob Myers, Sports Writer

As an Ohio State fan, I have an unconscious bias towards anything going for any Ohio State sports team. But, there comes a level to which officiating at any level needs to be held to a standard, not only for Ohio State games, but in every sport. Just recently, John Tortorella, coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, went on a minute-long rant post game in a loss to the Chicago Blackhawks about the clock winding down a second late in the game, eventually costing the Blue Jackets a win given that the Jackets scored less than a second after time expired. The officiating in sports is at an all-time divide from the fans, coaches, and players alike, and nothing demonstrates this divide much like the targeting call in football.

Targeting, contrary to popular belief, is not simply a helmet-to-helmet hit. Officially, it is defined as, “taking aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.” That definition is very vague, but most examples of targeting fall into these categories: a launch off the ground into another player, leading with helmet, shoulder forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, and making forcible contact with the crown of a helmet.

The official 2018 Football Code of the NCAA Football Rules Committee encourages that, “players and coaches should emphasize the elimination of targeting and initiating contact against a defenseless opponent and/or with the crown of the helmet.” But, what makes a defenseless player? Well, there’s a lot: a receiver just after catching a ball with no way to protect himself, a passer just as or after a throw is thrown, a kicker in the act of kicking or just after, a returner who hasn’t had time to protect themselves, a player on the ground, someone completely out of the play, someone being blind-side blocked, a ball carrier already being moved backwards by an opponent, a quarterback after a change of possession, and finally, a ball carrier obviously giving themselves up by sliding. So, there’s a lot of ways for an official to call targeting. Additionally, any possible call for charging can result in immediate review, even if it wasn’t originally called on the field. 

To top it all off, the player charged with the penalty is immediately disqualified, and has to sit out a full half of game time. So, if a player was penalized for targeting in the third quarter, they miss the rest of that game, plus the first half of the next game. All of that for, most times, a hit that didn’t involve malicious intent. Most times a player is simply trying to bring down a runner or passer, but for some reason ends up making contact to the head and neck area, and can’t play the rest of the game, possibly costing their team by having to play a lesser player. 

For example, take Ohio State against Clemson in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl in the College Football Playoff. Shaun Wade, most likely a first-round draft pick, comes unblocked from his corner back position and lays a hit on Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, knocking Lawrence down and possibly injuring him. No flag is thrown on the field, but as Lawrence sits on the ground getting help from trainers, Wade is reviewed, and then disqualified for targeting. Ohio State then puts in Junior Amir Riep, who only had 17 total tackles and two pass break-ups going into the Clemson game, mostly in games when Ohio State blew out their opponents. The penalty came on third down, which gave Clemson a first down and 15 yards for an offense that had been stagnant all game to that point. After giving up the targeting, Clemson’s offense came alive the rest of the game and ended up winning, with some favorable (and iffy) calls, with the targeting being one of them. But, one of Ohio State’s top defenders was out the whole game for the hit. If it was targeting was a bigger question, but the whole story surrounding the call brings into question the validity of the penalty. Obviously Shaun Wade’s hit wasn’t one with any malicious intent, he was simply going for the quarterback. The QB ducked down to absorb the hit, and Wade ended up hitting Lawrence in the head. In the true definition of targeting, it truly was, but with what was happening, Wade should not have been penalized for what he did. The targeting rule needs a change, so how should football in general fix it?

The answer: a level system, Class A and Class B. The level system would further distinguish the rules for a targeting call, with Class A being more severe with malicious intent, and Class B being simply more for the hits when someone is simply trying to tackle, but lowers the helmet and hits to the head area. Any viewer can tell a Class A targeting penalty given that the player obviously makes an effort to hurt someone else, whereas a Class B would be a hit that unfortunately went to the head. With this system, players have a chance to be less penalized for something they didn’t intend on doing. For a Class B, the 15 yard penalty would stay, but the player would not be disqualified. With A, the 15 yards would also stay, but the player would have to leave just like today’s game. It similarly models the NBA and their flagrant foul system, two flagrant ones and the player is out; two Class B targeting calls and the player is ejected as well. 

Let’s look to the game before the Ohio State-Clemson game, with the Sooners of Oklahoma taking on the LSU Tigers. Oklahoma DB Brendan Radley-Hiles was called for targeting with a hit to LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire. His targeting would be a Class A given the fact that Radley-Hiles purposefully launched himself, shoulder-first, into the helmet area of the running back. As well, it was pretty obvious that Joe Burrow (the QB) was going to scramble, so the running back was seemingly out of the play. The hit was a launch, shoulder-first, blindside into a defenseless player’s head with obvious malicious intent. Radley-Hiles would get a Class A targeting, and removed from the game. Shaun Wade, on the other hand, would be deemed a Class B targeting, given that Wade was making a play on the football, and he had no malicious intent towards the QB. In slow motion, it was apparent that Lawrence was bracing for the hit, and Wade meant no true harm with the hit. It was still targeting given the hit was from the crown of the helmet to the head area, but Wade would not be disqualified.

These small changes could truly help the game. Less defensive stars would be removed, the games would become more fair, and fans could stop arguing over small things involved in targeting plays and agree with the referees. Some of the divide would be healed between officials, players, and fans, with the games being more enjoyable being able to watch with the best players on the field.