NFL’s New Targeting Rule About to Cause a World of Officiating Chaos

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ATLANTA — It’s difficult to shame the National Football League for doing what ultimately is right with its new penalty on players who lower their heads and hit with the helmet. In the not-too-distant future, we will all look back and wonder why more wasn’t done earlier to eliminate hits with and to the head, and we will all be embarrassed.

But this new 15-yard penalty, enacted at the NFL owners’ meetings back in March, is sure to cause chaos for a league that seems to bring on a new controversy every year. The rule change, explained in-depth by senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron at the NFL’s owners meetings on Tuesday, will force coaches to teach differently, make players of all positions play differently and give fans another rule that they don’t understand in the league’s expanding rulebook.

The rule is simple, and that appears to be the problem upon first and second review. The player must 1. lower his head, 2. lower his head to initiate contact with an opponent and then 3. make that contact. It doesn’t matter if it’s even to the head/neck area of the opponent. Do those three things—and have an official see the play from start to finish—and it’s a 15-yard penalty.

“This has to go into the NCAA, the high schools and then to the youth leagues,” Riveron said. “It’s a culture change, and it’s something we are taking full responsibility [for].”

So credit the league for that. It cannot go to every Pop Warner team in the country, teach new techniques, hope it funnels up and in a dozen years say, “This is the way we play football now.” There must be a trickle-down effect by the football leaders. But make no mistake—this is going to be a mess at the beginning.

In Tuesday’s Q&A session with Riveron, Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole pointed out that teams are tackling less and less during training camps, giving the players less time to adjust to this significant rule change and giving officials less time to learn what is and isn’t a foul. Doesn’t matter, Riveron said. The onus is on the players—and the coaches—to get it right now. 

That rolls into the next issue of coaching. If players are faced with three defenders triangulating in front of him, coaches have long taught players to put his head down and get as many yards as he can. No more, said Rich McKay, the NFL competition committee chairman.

“That is illegal now. It wasn’t. It is now,” McKay said. “You’ve got to teach [the player] now that he’s got to pick a side of that person in front of him and try to get as many yards as he can but not by lowering his head and delivering his blow.”

And finally, the league isn’t rolling this rule out and granting players a few weeks to work out the kinks. This rule will be officiated in Week 1 of the 2018 season the same way it will be officiated in Week 17 of the 2018 season.

“There’s no grace period. There’s no leniency,” Riveron said authoritatively. “No. This is going to happen now.”

Just like you can call holding on just about any play, you could theoretically flag this, too. Defensive linemen are going to fire off the ball and try to create leverage by leading with their heads. Running backs will look to get extra yards by leading with their heads. Defensive backs get a headstart by leading with their heads, and they’re still doing it in nearly every game.

That will be eradicated from the game, and there’s no telling how many flags it will take to do that. (Ejections are far more egregious—the offender must have an unobstructed path to the player he hits—and Riveron promised this wouldn’t be “an ejection-fest.”)

Interestingly, and thankfully, what won’t be taken out of the game are quarterback sneaks. In the league’s eyes, quarterbacks are not lowering their head to initiate contact with an opponent but rather to protect themselves.

“If you watch quarterbacks immediately, yes they’re moving forward but they’re immediately going into a protective mode,” Riveron said. “A running back going through the line is going into a protective mode as he’s going through the line.

“However, you have a running back on a sweep, he has a pulling guard, now they have choices on what they’re going to do. Space and distance a lot of times will determine whether they’re initiating.”

Sorry, Earl Campbell.

Hopefully this rule will ultimately make the game safer, even though it will be decried for months and shouts of “this isn’t football!” will rain. And hopefully this rule is spelled out more clearly than the former catch rule so that the ambiguity and subjectivity will be lessened.

But this rule is going to dominate the talk around the league in September. Unless, of course, the league decides to install an objectively terrible policy related to protests during the national anthem.

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