The NFL will discuss the possibility of adding a targeting rule that would require mandatory ejection for players who hit defenseless opponents above the shoulder. The framework of the rule, in place since 2013 in college football, is on the February 2018 agenda of the NFL's powerful competition committee.
"I think it's something that we have to consider," said Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, during a conference call Wednesday with reporters.
"We've seen it work. It's worked to a degree. It's clean. That play is a reviewable play at the collegiate level. But we think there's been some positives, talking to some of the conferences and the officials [at the NCAA level] and also some of the student-athletes, that it is a deterrent. It's something that we will consider. It is on our agenda."
The rule has faced criticism from some college coaches, players and fans who consider it too harsh and rigid for what in some cases is unavoidable contact. If the hit occurs in the first half, players are ejected from games and their teams are hit with a 15-yard penalty. If ejected in the second half, they are also suspended for the first half of the following game. The call is reviewed by replay officials to ensure players are not ejected by an obviously incorrect call.
Despite its controversial nature, the NFL is looking for ways to bolster ongoing efforts to minimize hits to the head. Most recently, it suspended two players for such hits after a vicious game Monday night between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. The suspension of Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was upheld on appeal, but Bengals safety George Iloka had his reduced to a $35,464.50 fine.
Still, the league has suspended nine players so far this season for on-field actions, by far the most in commissioner Roger Goodell's 11-year tenure. A total of 13 players have been ejected for various reasons, tied for most in the league since 2001.
Incorporating a targeting rule into the NFL would be a significant challenge, starting with the replay review portion. Under NFL rules, hits on defenseless players are not reviewable, part of a large swath of judgment calls the league has historically omitted from replay reviews. But the idea of mandatory ejections, without a safety net, would pose a concern that might require an exception to the NFL's replay policy.
"That's why it needs to be discussed," Vincent said, "because there is a bunch of other different ramifications that come along with that. But it is our agenda to be discussed beginning in February."
The league's competition committee typically meets at the site of the annual NFL scouting combine, scheduled this year for Feb. 27 through March 5 in Indianapolis. Rule changes often are introduced at the annual league meetings, set for March 25-28 in Orlando, Florida, and require approval by owners.