The Times West Virginian

Sports

July 24, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Key change must start with attitude

MORGANTOWN — It comes at you almost like a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless receiver, this new rule change in college football that is targeted at eliminating targeting within the game.

If you are a football fan who likes the game because of the action rather than the tailgate parties and likes watching the hard hits more than watching the cheerleaders, then this going to bother you, not because this effort to make the game safer for the players is in the wrong spirit, but because it is somehow coming at it the wrong way.

Walt Anderson, who is in charge of the Big 12’s officiating, which is a job that will never allow him to win a popularity contest anyway, spent a good deal of time on Tuesday at the conference’s Media Day in Dallas trying to explain the new targeting rule that has been enacted.

This is a rule aimed at eliminating, or, at least, reducing head-high helmet-led blows – either blocks or tackles – that can cause concussions or other serious injuries.

As noted, there is nothing wrong with the intent and, as Anderson will tell you, something will be done to make the game safer in this area.

“Because the game is under attack, and we will either work at changing this culture from within, or it will be worked at being changed from without, and I don’t think anybody within the game will argue that we would much rather change it from within than have it changed for us from without by other people,” he said.

The problem is that most anything put in under pressure becomes distorted, and this new rule is no different.

To begin with, the penalty is far too severe. It is ruled not only unnecessary roughness, but targeting and it carries not only 15 yards but ejection from the game.

Not a warning and ejection a second time. Not a loss of down … a loss of a player.

True, because the penalty is severe, there will be mandatory replay to make sure the call is right … but get this, once targeting is called, the penalty stands even if replay shows the call was wrong; only the ejection is nullified.

“So the great compromise, if you will, was that, OK, if you got replay, rules committee says we’ll allow you to use replay to remove the DQ, but we’re not going to get into picking up flags because, although we’re very accurate relative to percentages on our accuracy — I mean, we were at 97.3 last year on our accuracy on the calls — we’re not going to go in and look at the other 2.7 percent because that’s the other side of that,” Anderson said.

Now here’s the best part. Big 12 officials made only 17 targeting calls last season, which is hardly enough to warrant a dramatic change that includes ejection, and five of them were wrong and would have had the ejection removed.

The rule, however, has such a fine line between what is right and what is wrong that even as Anderson showed an example of what is an illegal hit it led to a discussion that proved the insanity of it all.

One of the hits showed a defender in perfect position to deliver a blow to a receiver. His technique in making the tackle was perfect, just as it is coached … even to the point that he did not deliver the blow with the crown of his helmet.

This is the transcript of the conversation that took place with the question coming from a former player:

Q. Unless I’m wrong, having done this is a couple of times, that’s what you’re talking. Head up, right there, wrap him. Am I missing something here? I just want to know what the coaches are going to tell their kids now in terms of changing that technique.

WALT ANDERSON: You’ve got to lower your strike zone. That’s probably the best phrase I can use. You’ve got to get lower, and you’ve got to recognize that, even though you may exhibit some of the low-risk indicators in your actions, if your target zone is high, you’re going to be suspect of it getting called.

Q. How much lower has he got to get right there?

WALT ANDERSON: About three to four inches. And you’re right. It’s a fine line, and it’s going to be —

Q. Just back up. When he’s in a position, a little bit — one more frame, Walt. When he sees — stop. Right there. You’re saying three or four more inches.

There is no need to go further with the conversation here. You have receiver in the air coming down, a defender coming full speed, following correct technique, and he’s three or four inches too high?

Now we need officials with whistles … and rulers?

Believe me, I understand why this is important. In a high school scrimmage against another team I found myself lying on the ground – as I often did – next to a player from the other team who was crying out in anguish, “Don’t touch me. I can’t move!”

Right there next to me he lay, his neck broken. I visited him in the hospital a couple of weeks later. He was paralyzed from the neck down, in good spirits, but his life forever changed.

It is difficult to imagine, difficult to argue against rules aimed at correcting this, unless they are simply cosmetic efforts to put in a rule that can’t be followed, not in the heat of battle.

Now you can’t hit too low, you can’t too high, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t.

What you have to do is change attitude, not through 15 yards and an ejection, but allow injured former players, paralyzed former players to go around and speak to teams, to stress how helmet-to-helmet hits can change someone’s life, maybe even the man delivering the blow.

Make players want to avoid such dangerous actions, for it must start with their thought process as they get into position to deliver the blow. If it is deemed intentional, then eject them, but all too often they may just be those three or four inches off.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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