Nebraska's Nate Gerry was ejected in the first half of the Foster Farms Bowl. The call was controversial, and causing plenty of outcry from fans; not just Nebraska fans, but from college football fans who wondered what the game has become.
Gerry's tackle looked like an excellent defensive play. He didn't spear the offensive player, nor did he attempt to "blow him up", i.e., make a big impressive hit without wrapping his arms. It looked like a textbook form tackle.
Unfortunately, the officiating crew did not see it that way. Or, more specifically, at least one official on the field and the replay official did not see it that way.
Hence, controversy, including some to call for an end to the targeting rule, which isn't going away regardless of how much you want it to. The NCAA does not want to appear to be soft on player safety, and the targeting rule is about player safety. (You might be inclined to point out that the coaches want to get rid of it, but bringing up Tim Beckman or the Michigan incident with Shane Morris and your argument is negated.)
I spoke at length with a FBS official yesterday about the Nate Gerry penalty and targeting in general in an effort to get an official's perspective.
Before I get into that conversation it's important to understand what specifically was called against Nate Gerry.
There are two types of targeting calls as defined by the NCAA 2015 Rules and Interpretations handbook. They are as follows:
Targeting and Making Forcible Contact With the Crown of the Helmet
ARTICLE 3. No player shall target and make forcible contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul. (Rule 9-6) (A.R. 9-1-3-I)
Targeting and Making Forcible Contact to Head or Neck Area of a Defenseless Player
ARTICLE 4. 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).
The official on the field called Gerry for the second form of the rule. There are nine different instances which specifically define a "defenseless player". These are as follows:
• A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.
• A receiver attempting to catch a forward pass or in position to receive a backward pass, or one who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
• A kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball, or during the kick or the return.
• A kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, or one who has completed a catch or recovery and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
• A player on the ground.
• A player obviously out of the play.
• A player who receives a blind-side block.
• A ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped.
• A quarterback any time after a change of possession.
Note the definition in bold. The official who made the call clearly felt that the receiver did not have time to establish himself as a runner and therefore was still in a defenseless position per the rule.
This is what happened with regards to the Nate Gerry penalty:
One of the officials called the second form of targeting. As the rule states, if it is in question, it is a foul. Officials are told to call it and let replay fix it. Again, note the "defenseless player" call, with this emphasis: any contact to head or neck area with any part of the defender's body is targeting by rule.
The replay official cannot change the call, in other words, the replay official could not change the call on the field to the first form of targeting. The replay official then makes the ultimate determination as to whether the penalty will be enforced and the player ejected. The head referee cannot overrule the replay official.
Per our source, "by the letter of the law, it (the Nate Gerry hit) is targeting".
A fair portion of my discussion with the FBS official centered around how difficult it is to make calls because of the speed of the game. Late calls sometimes come not because the official didn't see the play, but because it takes a few moments for the brain to process the information.
"In a five-second play, I have to make about 20 decisions."
Take a look at this Vine of the Nate Gerry hit. Note the difference in game speed and the slowed down version of the hit from a closer viewpoint.
Note that this SBNation.com article also shows a slowed down version of the hit.
You might be thinking, "but the replay official had the slowed down version of the hit to review", and you would be right, but his hands were tied by the "defenseless player" call made on the field.
As I stated earlier, the targeting rule is not going away, but there may be a way to make it better. Our source felt that the change made in 2014 to include review had made it better than it was previously. He pointed out that another way to make the rule better would be to allow the referee on the field to be involved in the decision with the replay official.
The referee is the face of the crew and likely has a better feel for what's happening on the field. Our source pointed out that a lot of the replay officials have been out of the game for a long time and may lose the feel for the game when they haven't been on field for so long.
A lack of accountability by the officials was a common complaint echoed across the Nebraska twitter landscape Saturday night. I asked our source official to comment.
He pointed out that officials are graded on every play after every game. A training video is released to the crews on Monday/Tuesday after the game. Coaches submit plays for review that they thought were screwed up, and by Friday a response is sent to the coaches.
If you continue to make bad calls you won't be back the following year, and if you get too many coaches complaining about your officiating you won't be doing it any more.
Officials do not have to explain themselves to the media.
Would it make a difference? Doubtful. We tend to think officials are biased for the other team (Source: "Like I care who wins the game.") or that they have it out for certain players (Source: "After the game you tend to forget who the players are."). I seriously doubt it would make a difference; we'd hate the officials no matter what explanation they gave.
There is also the question as to why calls are so subjective. The correct answer (if somewhat flippant) is mine: "because football is a game played by humans and officiated by humans, not robots." Ask two humans to describe the same car accident and you will get very different stories. Why would we expect sports to be any different?