GREENSBORO, N.C. — At the tail end of a lively presentation and debate on new regulations on existing penalties for illegal hits, ACC coordinator of football officials Doug Rhoads raised a few eyebrows Monday.
The final question from reporters was point-blank: Would Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina's superstar defensive end, been flagged and — under the new rules — ejected from the Outback Bowl for his famous helmet-flying hit of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith?
“Yeah. I probably would have gone with that,” Rhoads said. “In my judgment, yes.”
Clowney wasn't ejected. He wasn't flagged. He was celebrated. Just last week he won an ESPY award for Best Play — as in the best play in all of sports for the past 12 months.
That may be the future of football. Defensive players who lead with the crown of their helmet or hit an opposing player above the shoulder pads will be heavily disciplined.
Starting this fall, such acts won't just draw a 15-yard personal foul. The offending player will be suspended for the remainder of the game, and if it's in the second half, he'll miss the first half of his next game as well.
“Coaches say, 'what do I tell my players? I don't know how to coach my players.' You tell them, don't do this stuff,” Rhoads said. “That's a serious neck injury, that's a concussion issue, and that's where the game is under attack.”
Mike Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating and a FOX officiating analyst, watched the Clowney play with SB Nation's Steven Godfrey on Monday at Big 12 Media Days and said Clowney should have been ejected for leading with the crown of his helmet.
“When you look at the play by the NFL rules of the runner vs. the tackler, I think it would be (an ejection),” Pereira said. “That's where the danger lies. You take what's perceived to be a great play and it turns into a penalty and an ejection.”
Pereira watched the play frame by frame and added, “If I'm an official, based on 'when in doubt, he's out,' he's ejected. And when that goes to replay, there's no way they overturn it. There's a great potential that hit causes an ejection this year.”
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
During the 2012 season, there were 190 penalties called for targeting a defenseless receiver or initiating contact with the domed portion of one's helmet (the crown) — including 16 flags in the ACC.
The NCAA, with harsher penalties about to be handed down, wants to decrease that number significantly.
“We know it's a violent game. We know it's a physical game. We know it's an aggressive game. You don't want to take any of that out of it,” Rhoads said. “You've just got to know ... just coming in to blow that guy up is no longer a part of the game.”
The rationale is aggressive-minded defenders are equally susceptible to concussion or other serious injury by leading with the crown of his helmet as his target.
NFL players have argued that defenders were trained to play a certain way in youth football, and it's difficult to alter technique as grown men. That, combined with the ever-amplifying speed of college football, makes life complicated for officials and in conference offices.
“There's dialogue weekly. Because what's going to happen is we'll call some of these and we'll argue about judgment until we all die,” Rhoads said. “But what we're after here, is let's make a culture shift in those kinds of plays.”
All targeting ejections are reviewable by video replay, and players are allowed to be reinstated immediately if the lead official deems necessary.
A few other interesting nuggets from a 75-minute discourse from Rhoads:
• Indicators of targeting that referees look for include launching (leaving the feet with an upward thrust); tackles from a crouch stance (followed by an upward thrust); leading with the helmet, forearm, fist, hand or elbow; and lowering the head before attacking.
• So who are defenseless players? Those have long been defined as players in the act of or just completing a pass, punt or kick; players focusing on catching a pass, punt or kick return; players on the ground at the end of a play; and players clearly out of bounds.
New rules in 2013 add the following three individuals to the list: a player who takes a blind-side block; a ball carrier in the grasp of other tacklers; or a quarterback any time after a change of possession. The last addition could be in response to the SEC championship game, in which following an interception, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was leveled unsuspectingly by Alabama defensive tackle Quinton Dial, when Murray was making no attempt to tackle the returner.
• Rhoads, a 30-year football official and 26-year veteran of the FBI, despises the term “late flag.” He uses the old FBI term “ready-fire-aim” to describe the wrong way for officials to make decisions. “A late flag, in my terminology and officiating terminology? There's no such thing. I tell the official: don't be so quick on the trigger to throw that. I want you to take a full second, digest what you've just seen, comprehend it, and go through a mental checklist before I (throw the flag.)”
• Interesting new rules for 2013 that have nothing to do with illegal hits. From now on, in the final minute of either half, if the clock must be stopped for no other reason besides an injured player, the “offended” team (who doesn't have the injured player) has the option of a 10-second runoff. In other words, a trailing team on offense trying to preserve time for a comeback cannot do so by “faking” or embellishing an injury. One caveat: if the injured player's team has a timeout, that team may take a timeout to avoid the 10-second penalty if it applies.
• If a team wants to quickly snap the ball and spike it to stop the clock, there must be at least three seconds remaining in the half to do so. If there are fewer than three seconds, the half is deemed over, and no play is run. Officials have been concerned with bang-bang occasions when it's difficult to determine whether time was left on the clock. One example is the 2012 Rose Bowl: Oregon beat Wisconsin when it was inconclusive whether Russell Wilson spiked the ball on time.
• One more new rule: if a player's helmet comes off, he still must head to the sideline. But if his team does have a timeout, it may choose to use one, in which case that player is eligible to return to the field without missing one play. This will satisfy Tajh Boyd to some degree.