The SEC will push to change one key part of the new targeting rules. But overall, the conference’s head of officials believes the rule is being enforced properly and as intended.
In an unusual move, the SEC made Steve Shaw available on the weekly coaches teleconference Wednesday. Shaw used the opportunity to reveal that he and SEC commissioner Mike Slive would urge a change to the automatic, non-reversible 15-yard penalty that comes after a flag for targeting.
That rule proved costly to Georgia in its 31-27 loss at Vanderbilt, as a fourth-quarter targeting call was overturned on replay, but it only overturned a Georgia player’s ejection, not the 15-yard penalty.
“Even our commissioner has serious reservations about the penalty philosophy around targeting fouls when they’re overturned,” Shaw said. “He and I have talked, he’s challenged me, and together we’re going to work with the rules committee to revisit the penalty if a disqualification is overturned for targeting.”
Of course, that change cannot happen until after the season. And it will have to be coaches who make the change. Shaw pointed out that the football rules committee is made up of coaches, which was also his way of pointing out that coaches now complaining about the rule were the ones who instituted it.
“The only people that get a vote on the rules committee are coaches,” Shaw said.
Still, for now it is officials who are interpreting the targeting rule on the field. Shaw addressed that on Wednesday.
Shaw brought up that there were four targeting calls Saturday in the SEC.
“Two were absolute textbook targeting. One was in the gray area, but clearly by rule it was a targeting foul. And then we had one that was properly overturned,” he said.
The overturn was Ramik Wilson’s hit in the fourth quarter, which was ruled a legal hit on replay, but the penalty remained, giving Vanderbilt new life on a critical drive.
The targeting call that was “in the gray area” was almost certainly Ray Drew’s hit on Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels in the second quarter. Drew appeared to only shove the quarterback on the shoulders, but the targeting call, made by referee Matt Moore, was upheld on replay review. Drew was ejected.
Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin said earlier, on his portion of the conference call, that it was well-known entering the season that anything in that “gray area” would get a targeting call. Shaw declined to agree or disagree with that characterization, only calling it “a significant challenge” to decide whether or not it was targeting, “when you look at the speed of some of these hits.”
Shaw said there was no special emphasis on targeting this past weekend. Every official is evaluated by Shaw and the SEC office after every game, receiving a report by Wednesday evening. Those reports are not made public, nor is any discipline.
The SEC made clear before the call that Shaw would not discuss specific calls. But he was asked general questions that clearly applied to calls, including whether officials are being told to call targeting rather than a late hit, as appeared the case with Moore’s call against Drew on Saturday.
“Whether I like it or not the rule book says when in question it’s a foul,” Shaw said. “I heard the term err on the side of safety. I don’t want us to err. I want to make sure we’re clear on this call. We can’t guess. We can’t think it might have been. We’ve gotta see it and know that it’s a foul before we put the marker on the ground.
“But like I said these things happen in a split second. And so when in question the book says put the marker on the ground.”
There have been 52 targeting fouls this year at FBS level, 14 of them in the SEC. And of those 14, six have been overturned on replay. Of course, the 15-yard penalty stayed on all of them.
One big goal of the rule, Shaw said, was to emphasize tackling and wrapping up, rather than launching. He believes that is happening.
“We’ve actually seen players’ reaction change on these types (of) hits,” Shaw said. “Last year we saw a big hit like this and the player would be chest-bumping and high-fiving his teammates. Now it’s almost, ‘Uh oh,’ hands on the helmet or whatever. So I think the players are getting it.”
They might be getting it, but they don’t like it.
Georgia players did little to hide their disgust with the targeting calls, with outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins saying afterward the targeting rule would “ruin the game.” Given a few days to cool off, Jenkins did not quite back off, adding that it was causing more defensive players to aim for the knees. That in turn results in more knee injuries, such as when Georgia’s Keith Marshall tore his ACL on Oct. 5 at Tennessee.
“DBs, they’re afraid to hit as hard as they want to or tackle the way they want to because they’re afraid of getting the targeting rule,” Jenkins said.
“I think a lot of fans say, ‘Boy y’all are trying to ruin the game.’ Shaw said. “I don’t think the rules committee had any intent of ruining the game. It’s a physical game, it will always be a physical game. But there is a relatively new phenomenon on this targeting. If you go back and watch some of the great games from the late-’80s, early-’90s, we didn’t see this launch into a player like you see it today. I don’t know what’s caused it, I don’t know if it’s the “SportsCenter’ highlight mentality, the great equipment we have for helmets that makes you feel indestructible, but it’s a relatively new phenomenon.”
The concern with also overturning the penalty via a replay review was “getting close to the bright line of are we officiating games from the booth,” Shaw said.
But in this case it may be worth doing so, he added.
“We need to talk about that with the rules committee and really flesh it out,” Shaw said. “Our (officials) are having a really great year. This is a very tough rule to call sometimes. These hits at full speed happen very fast, and our guys have to work to continue to get better and better so they can make the call.”