Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly added his voice this week to the growing chorus of college football coaches decrying the NCAA’s new targeting penalty and its inconsistent implementations.
Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt's ejection Saturday caused coach Brian Kelly to question the new rule and its consequences.
At times Kelly did little more than throw his hands in the air and shake his head when peppered with questions about losing star defensive end Stephon Tuitt to the targeting rule in the second quarter of a 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh last weekend.
“We have a problem,” Kelly said. “We all recognize that. It’s a real shame that a young man misses a game. I think we all recognize that is has to be dealt with, but we just can deal with it until the end of the year.”
Tuitt and Pitt quarterback Tom Savage collided on the first play of the quarter while the latter was scrambling toward a first down. Both players lowered their heads and their helmets appeared to make contact. Referees flagged Tuitt, reviewed the call immediately and found nothing to change their minds. Representatives from the Atlantic Coast Conference also stood by the decision to eject Tuitt after examining the call earlier this week.
The rule in question defines targeting as taking “aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with an apparent intent that goes beyond making a legal tackle.” Kelly said when he asked for an explanation during Saturday’s game the official told him they stuck to “the letter of the law.”
General sentiment among football’s rulemakers is to remove judgment calls whenever possible, but enforcing “the letter of the law” when it comes to “apparent intent” seems to be an inherent contradiction. In this case, Kelly says he’d like to see a little more common sense injected into the targeting rule’s enforcement in the future.
“I think that a lot of reasonable people can get together in a room and understand that when somebody is intentionally using their helmet to inflict harm that that’s pretty easy to see,” he said. “We also know when someone is trying to make a play and inadvertently the helmet is part of the contact.”
Kelly said he hopes to be one of those people in that room working to a better solution following the season. He said his biggest qualm with the rule is that certain conferences interpret it in different ways than others.
The NCAA’s rules oversight panel approved the targeting rule and its accompanying ejection policy in March. The reminders of why the rule exists were not hard to find Saturday in Pittsburgh or in the week that followed. Pitt defensive back Trenton Coles left the game in the second half with a concussion after smashing head-first into one of his teammates.
Two days later the Washington Time published a story about a Div. III player in Maryland who died from repetitive brain trauma. Last week, former Pitt star running back Tony Dorsett — who led the Panthers onto the field when Notre Dame last visited Heinz Field in 2011 — announced he has been diagnosed with CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has reshaped the way American views its favorite game.
The new rule and its stiff consequences are designed to train players to make safe tackles, wrapping up with their arms instead of hurling their bodies at oncoming opponents. Coaches are afraid the change will keep players from “selling out” and giving a full effort to make stops.
“When a 320-pound inside player is running from the hash to the numbers at full speed and trying to make a play and gets thrown out of the game, I don’t think that’s what the rule was intended for,” Kelly said.
Head injuries are unavoidable in a full-speed football game. Helmets crash into the turf or shoulder pads if not other helmets. The targeting penalty seeks to eliminate those that can be avoided. Kelly and many of his peers hope that future tweaks to the new rule will keep the game from changing in order to stop hits that can’t realistically be prevented.