Remember the “Tuck Rule” game from the 2001-2002 playoffs? That was one of the few times I’ve been infuriated over a call in a game I had no rooting interest in. The truth about that incident was the rule.
The Tuck Rule was a rule that had come into play a handful of times that season. It just wasn’t a huge deal until most of America learned about it during a pivotal time in an important game.
The same is true now for the “Fumble through the end zone” rule, though to a lesser degree. Much of the talk this week in the football world has been centered around the rule itself, and how it may or may not be a silly rule.
That’s all fine and dandy. You can make a case for it both ways, but what we should be talking about is the helmet to helmet contact that caused the fumble and why, somehow, that still isn’t reviewable.
Targeting: History and Implementation
Targeting has been a penalty in College Football since 2008. Following the CTE investigations, the NFL implemented the “Heads-up” tackling initiative — which was objectively stupid. After that, pressure began to mount regarding CTE and the NFL wanted to crack down on those types of injuries.
In the NFL, Targeting officially became a rule in 2017. When the rule was first implemented in the NFL, the idea was that if targeting was called on the field, a review of the play would occur. If targeting was confirmed, the flag would stand. If it were deemed flagrant, the offending player could be ejected.
In 2020, the NFL expanded upon the rule to include hits on defenseless players — which includes a long list of scenarios. Absent from this long list of prerequisites, is the ability to review plays that were not called targeting on the field. Considering how arbitrary a targeting call can be now, it’s odd how the play can’t be reviewed, even if there is clear targeting on a play that was missed by the refs.
How to realistically implement reviews for targeting
Remember a few years ago when the NFL implemented reviews for pass interference? Well, it failed miserably. It failed because PI is still very much a judgement call. The refs can make whatever decision they want and just say, “hand fighting” and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
It failed because only a few pass interference calls were changed as a result of challenges. We all know that rule only came into existence because of the Saints incident on the no-call in the NFC title game, but it inevitably proved to be just a posture move for the NFL (the NFL only used it for one season).
As for targeting and the lack of an ability to challenge it, the issue has officially come to a head. Last week, the Browns trailed 16-3 with under two minutes to go. Baker Mayfield completes a long pass to Higgins, who gets hit while diving to stretch for a touchdown. The helmet-to-helmet contact was clear. It subsequently caused the fumble. The Chiefs then went down and kicked a field goal just before the half, to go up 19-3.
The play screwed the Browns in multiple ways. For one, the “fumble through the end zone” rule gave the Chiefs the ball. That’s not the issue, though. Secondly, Sorenson was not flagged for targeting, so he stayed in the game (no one is mentioning this).
Now, let’s break this down. On this play (a turnover play, at that), targeting caused the fumble. The officials review the play to make sure the turnover was clear, but had to ignore the obvious targeting on the play. They ruled it was the Chiefs ball, with no admission of targeting or anything.
I understand the inherent reasoning behind reviewing a play for potential targeting. It could happen a lot in a game if it were permitted and it could really bog down a game. However, this play was already being reviewed, so there’s no logical reason for the NFL to say, “we can’t waste time reviewing targeting.”
They were already wasting time reviewing a play we knew the result of, so what’s the issue with trying to get it right? Isn’t that the objective of reviewing a play? I think another issue here is that the refs’ hands are tied. They know what should’ve been called, but if they were to take the ruling into their own hands and throw a flag after the fact, the NFL would fire them as soon as they could.
Adding to the agony caused by the helplessness of the situation, fans of the team hurt by calls like this get to see just how dumb some football fans are. There are a certain group of people out there who will defend whatever dumb judgement the NFL makes on a play who say, “Well, maybe they should’ve done more during the rest of the game.”
That doesn’t solve the issue. All you’re doing is deflecting blame as a means to make your team’s win feel validated. When there’s a problem, you acknowledge it, present options to fix it, and make a decision to resolve the issue.
An easy fix
There’s an old saying common in many professions. “Don’t come with me with problems. Come to me with solutions.” This situation is too easy to resolve. All the NFL has to do is add it to the off-season docket in the league meeting, by which teams can vote on it.
The NFL can add a rule saying, “If a turnover play is under review, and a potential targeting violation may have directly caused the turnover, the play can be reviewed for targeting, even if it wasn’t ruled on the field.”
That’s too easy. It wouldn’t slow the game down any more than it already is, and it would allow the NFL to make the right call, without opening the door to more arbitrary reviews.
The big question is, “will the NFL bother to fix it?” That’s a question only the NFL knows the answer to. I was under the impression the league was concerned about CTE and competitive integrity, but this issue says otherwise. Hopefully, the NFL can prove me wrong.