When in doubt, throw the flag: Clowney Hit theater of the absurd

CHICAGO -- When in doubt, throw the flag.

That's where we are on Day 3 of the Jadeveon Clowney theater of the absurd.

An issue that bubbled up on Monday is now a national talking point. If you haven't seen Clowney's monster hit on Michigan's Vincent Smith in January's Outback Bowl then you've been living under Howard's Rock. Turns out what could be the star linebacker's Heisman moment would have gotten him ejected if current rules were in place. That was the conclusion Monday of ACC officiating supervisor Doug Rhoads and Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira.

Sort of. A little digging into the statements by each man revealed some significant qualifications. First, some background: Starting this season any flag for "targeting" -- hitting a player in, or near, the head (with a helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder) -- carries an automatic ejection.

It will be up to the replay official to overturn the ejection. The flag will always stand. The targeting rule itself has been around since 2008.

That brings up a host of issues, but none more significant than the implications of Clowney's celebrated hit put in context with the 2013 rules. Clowney can win the Heisman because Notre Dame's Manti Teo cleared the way for him last year by earning the most votes ever by a defensive player. Clowney can win because voters have shown a willingness to select a sophomore (Tim Tebow) and Johnny Manziel (freshman) in recent years, why not a dominant defensive player?

But given the targeting context, Clowney's Heisman moment would have gotten him kicked out of a 2013 game -- according to Rhoads andPereira. Big 12 coordinators Walt Anderson told me Tuesday there was "potential" that Clowney would have been kicked out. (I had to show Anderson -- an NFL official -- the play on my laptop at the Big 12 media days. He did not immediately recall it.)

"Officials are being told across the board by their coordinators, 'When in doubt, throw [the flag],"Pereira said Wednesday at the Big Ten media days.

We'll have to wait until Thursday to get Bill Carollo's reaction at the Big Ten media days. He's the league's officials coordinator.

Pereiraand Rhoads, though, wanted to clarify since they had become quasi-celebrities over the past couple of days. Pereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating, told Clowney's hit would have been called maybe two out of 10 times but, "the ejection would have stood and it would have created a lot more comments than there are right now. It is the nature of the beast. The form tackle is not the form tackle anymore."

That's essentially the national discussion with the misinformed cries about the game becoming touch football. National officiating coordinator Rogers Redding has said many times the culture of head shots has to be taken out of the game. It will. This is college's version of fining pro players for such hits.

It worked last year when players were forced to sit out a play after losing their helmets. They and their coaches adjusted. There were significantly less helmet issues in the second half, Redding said.

"For someone who fell off a slide at two years old and had a major fracture of my skull, then being told I couldn't play contact sports, people think that explains the reason why the way I am what I am," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I think we're in a positive trend in player safety."

Rhoads qualified his statement saying officials are taught, " ... when in question, it's a foul. Officials' [habit] is, err on the side of safety."

Pereira: "When you see contact like that and the helmet goes flying off of the player, you'll have officials react and throw flags. At least in my mind, if they would have reacted with the way the penalty is now and called that a targeting hit, replay would have gotten involved and not overturned the ejection."

Two out of 10 times.

How big a deal is this going to be? The Big 12 called only 17 targeting fouls last year according to Anderson. The ACC called 16, Rhoads said. That's not a lot. But considering Clowney -- perhaps the No. 1 draft pick next spring -- his talent and the conference he plays (the always level-headed SEC), the issue could be huge.

Big game, superstar player, suddenly out of the game ...

Players ejected in the first half will miss the remainder of the game. Players ejected in the second half, will miss the rest of the game and the first half of the next game.

"I don't know to be honest with you," said Brady Hoke when asked about Clowney's hit on his player. "I don't know if I would have called it."

Did it ever enter your mind that it was a dirty play?

"No," Michigan's coach said. "I'm a defensive coach so a guy makes a great play, makes a great move ... "

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