Texas Tech’s Johnson victim of inconsistent targeting penalty


In the interest of player safety, the NCAA is harming college football. Since 2013, the NCAA has put a much greater emphasis on the now infamous targeting rule which is defined as, “making forcible contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet” (Rule 9-6) according to the NCAA college football rulebook.  But the ever-increasing penchant for penalizing players for targeting when the player has indeed not committed the act as it is defined in the NCAA rulebook is taking some of the best college football players in the game off the field and harming their teams’ ability to complete.

In the NCAA rulebook, a second definition of targeting reads, “No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.” (Rules 2-27-14 and 9-6)

During Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State, Texas Tech safety Jah’Shawn Johnson fell victim to the final sentence of the previous paragraph. On a routine play where Johnson met an OSU receiver face mask to face mask just after the ball arrived, Johnson was not only penalized 15 yards, he was ejected from the game.  What is most egregious is that Johnson’s ejection was upheld by the video replay official in the press box.

Before we proceed, take a look at the play:

Now. Apply the above definitions of targeting to Johnson’s play and find where the redshirt freshman was in the wrong.

The first part of the play that defies the definition of targeting is the notion that the receiver was defenseless. On the play, the receiver has at least a half a second before the hit during which he turns and sees Johnson coming. Notice that the ball is not jarred loose by Johnson, but is dropped by the receiver as he prepares for the oncoming defender. How can a player that sees the hit coming and alters his actions be deemed defenseless?

Next, the targeting rule restricts players from initiating contact with their helmet. The contact between Johnson and the receiver is not made by the helmet but rather by the facemask.  One is likely to assume that the facemask is part of the helmet but the history of the game and simple logic implies otherwise.

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When I played high school football, I was handed two pieces of equipment by a coach and told to “attach your face mask to your helmet.  The two are separate entities that happen to be attached just like a string and a kite are separate entities attached together to achieve a desired result.

Helmets became mandatory in college football in 1939 but the original headgear did not have anything covering the face of the player. It would be another decade before facemasks became mandatory in college football. In other words, the facemask is not the helmet any more than the laces are the shoes.

The type of tackle Johnson made has been taught as a perfect form tackle for decades. As the defender, Johnson saw his target throughout the tackle never one putting either himself of the receiver in danger.

But while Johnson’s hit was deemed dangerous enough to warrant an ejection, another violent hit from this past Saturday was not penalized as targeting nor was the player ejected.

Notice how the Minnesota defender lowered his head and struck the Michigan quarterback with the crown of his helmet. Furthermore, the intent of this play was to cause harm. The contact was made near the jaw of the quarterback, a spot where the helmet is weakest because it is near the opening.

Secondly, the quarterback on this play is defenseless. The defender launches himself off the ground to deliver the hit after the quarterback has left his feet to throw the ball. Without the opportunity to regain his footing and prepare for the upcoming hit, the quarterback is far more defenseless than was the Oklahoma State receiver hit by Jah’Shawn Johnson.

As if these two plays are not enough proof that the NCAA has no consistency in regards to targeting, look at yet another play from this weekend. Keep in mind that this play WAS flagged as targeting.

Again, apply the NCAA definition of targeting to this play to see if it applies. The defender strikes the ball carrier with his shoulder not with any part of his helmet. Furthermore, the receiver takes at least two full steps towards the defender prior to the hit meaning he is in no way defenseless.

The truth is that the game of football is being forced to change in the name of safety in order to ensure the game’s survival. The NCAA is not misguided in its attempt at limiting the number of hits players take to the head (a risk that is increased by the higher number of plays being run per game in the passing era).

However, the rule must be uniform across the NCAA, especially if players are at risk of being disqualified from the game, as was the case with Texas Tech’s safety Jah’Shawn Johnson.

It is ridiculous for the powers-that-be in the NCAA to give players no uniform example of what the players are not supposed to do and then kick them out of the game for an action that is not clearly teachable and definable. The president the NCAA sets for targeting should guide how the rule is taught to kids learning the game in middle school or youth football but that can not be accomplished until the NCAA can uniformly show what targeting looks like.  Furthermore, the rule will be ineffective until the officials call the foul correctly on the field.

But how can the rule be taught until it is clearly defined and consistently policed across the board?

Recently, a Michigan linebacker was flagged for targeting when he was thrown to the ground by a Michigan State blocker, causing his helmet to incidentally strike the helmet of Michigan State’s quarterback. In response Jon Solomon, national football writer for CBSSports.com put it best when he said, “Something has to be done to provide sanity to a well-intentioned rule. The alternative is more players will get ejected because they made the criminal mistake of getting blocked.”

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