When it came to football in Louisiana in 2018, the rules ruled. And not in a benevolent way.
There was of course one of the top-10 all-time worst calls in sports history, the no-call hit on Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis in the NFC Championship Game (pass interference or targeting, take your pick, we’re feeling generous). And there was the targeting call on LSU linebacker Devin White against Mississippi State that kept him out the first half two weeks later against Alabama.
The NFL righted the wrong against the Saints — sort of — allowing coaches to challenge pass interference in the final two minutes of the game. College football righted the wrong against White to an extent as well, raising the bar on what can be called targeting.
Just like nothing will give the Saints back their almost certain Super Bowl appearance had the flag been thrown when Lewis got laid out, nothing will change whatever chance White had to alter the arc of that showdown with Alabama (though he would have had to be more powerful than a locomotive to change Bama 29, LSU 0). But perhaps there will be less chance of an LSU player getting docked a half on a questionable targeting call.
Whether you want to buy what the Southeastern Conference is selling or not, the league has been proactive in trying to be more open about what goes into officiating decisions. Examples of change in the targeting rule have been put on display at the SEC Spring Meeting in May, at SEC Media Days in July and again at preseason practices across the conference in August.
As it pertains to targeting, a call must either be confirmed by the replay official or it must be overturned based on three criteria:
“Number one, do we have a defenseless player,” SEC coordinator of football officials Steve Shaw said at media days. “Second, is there an indicator (where) the player lowers his head and attacks.
“And third, is there forcible contact to the head or neck area?”
SEC referees were on LSU’s campus last week, giving players hands-on instruction in how rules have changed.
“It helped,” safety Todd Harris said. “Some of the calls I thought would have been targeting aren’t targeting. Now they have certain things they’re going to look at. It should benefit us.”
A day after returning to LSU preseason camp after a prolonged absence, starting cornerback Kristian Fulton was missing once again from practic…
Linebacker Michael Divinity said based on what he was shown, if the targeting rule was interpreted last year the way it is supposed to be this year, White would not have been ejected and would have played the whole game against Alabama.
“D White would never have been kicked out,” Divinity said. “As long as you don’t launch or come with the crown of your helmet down, you’re perfect. In that play you see he didn’t have his head down, he used straight hands. They’re not going to call that now. And I’m happy where they have instant replay now before they make a (final) call.”
Still, things are tougher than they used to be for defensive players the game over.
The way Harris sees it, there is now a greater chance of a defender missing tackles and blowing critical plays.
“The targeting rule is for player safety, so I understand that,” Harris said. “(But) you have to tweak your body to get into certain positions so you don’t get called for targeting. I feel like that can cause you to miss a tackle.
“The game of football is based on reaction, so it’s hard to control. You’re just trying to get the guy on the ground, man. You’re just trying to make a play. You have to be smart about it now and try not to lead with a shoulder or in the neck area so they don’t call targeting.”
Safety JaCoby Stevens is trying to take a positive tack, saying player safety rules have brought more skill to the art of tackling.
“Back in the day you could just run and hit somebody and it would be OK,” Stevens said. “Now you have a strike zone you can have.”
Not that anyone would or should argue against player safety and reducing the number of helmet-to-helmet contacts, but as a byproduct some part of what football once was has been undoubtedly eroded.
Defensive end Breiden Fehoko for one misses it.
“I know they’re trying to protect the players,” he said. “I know football is become a more safety-aware sport with CTE, concussions and all that. But at the end of the day you sign up to play a sport where people watch where Player A beats up Player B or Player B beats up Player A. People pay to see big hits, big men go out and brawl against each other. It’s a clash of titans.
“In a way I can see things being toned down a bit. But I still miss seeing Devin White come across the middle and clean somebody out.”
Perhaps if there is a Devin White-like hit on someone this year, that player will at least get the benefit of the doubt.