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The Confidential

The ACC Sports Blog

No-Huddle Rule: Knee-Jerk Reaction to a Knee-Jerk Rule?

Between the Mike and Mike Show and the coaches running the no-huddle systems taking the airwaves, there is ample criticism of a new rule being considered in college football.  Specifically, the NCAA rules committee has recommended a rule change that will allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, excluding the final two minutes of each half, by precluding the offense from running a play during that period.  The talking heads and coaches impacted hate the rule.  The Confidential says “not so fast.”  Let’s think this through before making a knee-jerk reaction to a knee-jerk rule.

First, the Confidential does not disagree that this rule change and the timing are improper.  The rules committee did not request opinions from anyone.  Those that are criticizing the procedure in getting to this point have a very good point.  Whatever the reason for the rule, any rule change of this magnitude deserves actual deliberation and discussion–including contributions from coaches that actually run the no-huddle system.  For Nick Saban and Bret Bielema to be pushing the rule through when it is so clearly beneficial to their teams certainly suggests a conflict of interest.

Second, the Confidential absolutely disagrees with the suggestion that the rule change should not happen because there is no evidence or empirical data to support a player safety rationale.  For example, see these paragraphs from the ESPN article above:

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team also runs an uptempo offense, wants to know if there is actual proof that uptempo offenses cause more injuries to players.

“Is there documented medical evidence that supports this rule change that tempo offenses are putting players at a higher degree of risk than others? If there is then show it to us,” Freeze told ESPN.com Wednesday night. “Where is it? They’re going to have to show us some evidence. If there’s not any evidence, then they should table it.

“You can do it the last two minutes of the game. Isn’t that when you should be most fatigued?”

Added Leach: “That’s really insulting that they are hiding behind player safety just because somebody wants an advantage. That’s crazy.”

The Confidential questions how anyone could have data to support the issue.  Controlled studies?  Regardless, a rule change for player safety need not be bolstered by a scientific study to be meritorious.  Nor should the NCAA wait for injuries before concluding that there is a player safety issue.  Once upon a time, concussions were brushed away as “getting your bell rung.”

Indeed, the Confidential posits that a rule change of some sort may be appropriate to address the issue of college defenders being stuck on the field for too many plays in a row–especially the larger defensive linemen.  The defensive linemen often rotate significantly throughout a game.   College football just tragically lost a 21-year old defensive end from Cal, Ted Agu, during training.  The risks of “acute rhabdomyolysis tied to sickle cell trait” and sports (including football) are well known.  See http://www.nata.org/sites/default/files/SickleCellTraitAndTheAthlete.pdf.  Overall, there have been 20 college football deaths in recent years.  While we may not yet know why Agu died, we do know that it is not entirely uncommon for large football players to collapse and pass away.  It is not impossible for a football player to die.  Let’s be clear.

The question to ask is the likelihood of an 18 to 22-year-old  requesting to voluntarily take the necessary steps to come out of a game while feeling faint during the defense of a fast-paced drive.  When the pace of the play is normal, there is time to wave yourself out and get off the field, allowing another defender to get on the field in time  When the pace of the play is so fast, there might not be enough time to bother seeking to wave yourself out based on concern that the substitution cannot be made.

The solution may be to only play the fittest players against the high-tempo offenses.  And that makes complete sense at the professional level.  But at the collegiate level, there is still a bit of oversight required–as young men are less likely to recognize their own limitations.  Maybe this is why there are more deaths at the collegiate level (a lot more players obviously too).  The Confidential’s main point is that a rule change that is premised on the idea that defenders need to be able to get off the field if feeling faint–may simply not yet be supportable by “data” and may be worth passing simply to avoid an on-field tragedy.

Third, a compromise solution is certainly possible here.  On the one hand, there needs to be offensive freedom to run a fast-paced offense.  On the other hand, there needs to be a way to get defenders off the field after a handful of plays.  The Confidential believes the best solution is to amend the rule so that it only applies on first down.  In the NCAA, the clock already stops on first downs–make it a 12 second clock stoppage, free substitution period for the defense.  The offense–having just achieved a first down–is not hampered too much, as it can run 3-4 straight plays before the next stoppage.  And they can run the 3rd and 4th down plays with the fatigue advantage.  By allowing the substitutions after a first down, we can assume the offense succeeded–all an offense can ask for.  By allowing the substitutions at various points of a drive, there are checks and balances to allow defenders to come out.

Football is a game of strategy.  It is a game of conditioning.  The rules should not change because so-called geniuses like Nick Saban cannot stop the fast paced offenses.  But the rules can be tweaked to prevent harm even before it occurs.  If we assume there is no risk because there has been no tragedy, that is a bit absurd.  And it is unclear what data can be generated to support a conclusion that there is a risk.  We know young men think they are invincible, yet we know that all too many athletes have died on the field or training.  Let’s not respond to a knee-jerk rule with a knee-jerk reaction.  In fact, let’s not give too much weight to the coaches running the faced-paced offenses either.  They have the same personal interest in maintaining the status quo that Saban, etc., have to change the rules.  Think it through.

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8 thoughts on “No-Huddle Rule: Knee-Jerk Reaction to a Knee-Jerk Rule?

  1. M. Caffrey on said:

    When the pace of the play is so fast, there might not be enough time to bother seeking to wave yourself out based on concern that the substitution cannot be made.

    That’s not entirely true. If a player is injured or too fatigued to play the next snap, they simply have to go down to the ground. The referees will stop the play every time, much to the chagrin and bemoaning of the team’s fans on offense.

    To paraphrase Todd Akin, “If a legitimate player substitution is required, then there are ways for the refs to shut that whole thing down”. The player must then sit out at least one play until they are ready to resume play.

    It seems to me that the real issue is not player safety, but that coaches are getting stuck with the wrong defensive package and getting exploited. If coaches want to substitute then they should take a time out.

    However I like your idea of allowing substitutions on first down plays, or at the very least require that refs have to take a certain amount of time to move the chains…like a play clock for refs.

    • How would a coach know if a player was feeling faint? Some players are not aware that they are nearing a danger zone. The studies show that it is the fast bursts of energy (i.e. wind sprints) that are more dangerous than the distance training. Sounds an awful lot like the fast-paced offenses that the defenders are against.

      In basketball, there are 100 dead balls a game to make switches. And if someone is bent over, the play will stop ASAP if nobody is about to score. In baseball, it is one large dead ball period. In hockey, you can make live line changes. In football, you can ordinarily substitute.

      The new wrinkle prevents substitution. It is designed to not only be a strategic advantage, but to take advantage of tired players. However, a tired player is a player at risk. If he cannot get himself out without laying on the ground, something is wrong.

      I get that the men in the NFL can be held to a higher standard of being self-aware of their health limitations. But this is a legitimate safety issue–just because nobody has collapsed yet or there are no “studies,” and just because people don’t like or respect Saban, that does not mean that it is automatically not true.

      I am shocked that nobody is thinking this through.

      The Miami Dolphin situation shows the level of machismo in pro football. College football is similar. There must be the ability to substitute every 3-4 plays.

      • M. Caffrey on said:

        You are trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. In football, at any level, players regularly go down after a play when they are injured, tired, or simply need to get their team a break to substitute other players. Especially during the final 2 minutes of a game when the team on offense employs their no-huddle attack.

        The fact that there are not any “studies” or examples of players collapsing on the field isn’t because no one has thought to research it, it’s because players and coaches already know how to manipulate this and have been doing it for years.

        But now coaches just want a way to slow-down the game without having to take out their better players.

        • Who has thought to research???? If there is research proving I am wrong, show it to me.

          Read what I wrote. Just because you don’t like the messenger or the procedure, the idea is not bad.

        • M. Caffrey on said:

          You’re tilting at windmills with the whole injury/player safety thing. Occam’s razor says that the reason that no one has thought to research whether players get injured as a result of hurry-up offenses is because it doesn’t occur with any regularity or severity. If anything, stoppage of play is usually for something benign like leg cramps in which case the player goes to the ground, gets stretched out, and then has to sit out a play.

          C’mon, you’ve watched enough football over the past 35 years to know that players have no problem taking a knee to slow down a 2-minute offense or to get a substitution, whether they are injured or not. This is not the same as the NFL turning a blind eye as guys were getting knocked cold and then going back out on the field a few plays later.

          Now I agree that you make a very valid point that when there is a first down the defense should have time to make substitutions while the clock is stopped, if only because otherwise the offense could continue exploiting a weakness in the defense that helps them to move the ball with ease, and that makes the game less enjoyable for everyone.

          On the other hand, if the offense is moving the ball that efficiently, there’s a good chance the defense will be back on the bench shortly.

          But trying to take the “player safety” approach is fruitless. Just call it what it is: a desperate attempt by coaches to try and slow down the game and level-the-playing field against uptempo offenses.

          In fact, there’s a very interesting quote in the ESPN article you linked to. The NCAA is considering overturning the 15-yard penalty if a player is determined to not have been targeting another player.

          So, it’s perfectly legal to have a violent collision…even one that may appear to have been targeting, but if the refs determine that it’s not actually targeting then no penalty. How does that improve player safety? But they need to slow down highly effective offenses because of mysterious injuries that have never been reported…

        • 1. The 15-yard penalty. It is a collision sport. An illegal play is far more likely to lead to injury to either the hitter or hittee. If it is illegal, a penalty is appropriate. If it is not illegal, a penalty is inappropriate. Under the old rule, a play could be deemed legal, but a penalty would still stand. How does that make sense? That rule change was agreed to by all to correct an obvious oversight.

          2. Reading comprehension is fundamental. The points of the article: (a) the current rule is problematic in terms of both the actual rule and the procedure, as well as the motives; (b) the idea of a rule change is not necessarily bad, even in the absence of “studies” and “evidence” because there is something troublesome about players not being able to get off the damn field; and (c) an alternate proposal.

          3. How can you be in favor of a rule change for strategy purposes, but not for the same rule for safety purposes? That just means you agree with the poor motives of Saban and want to reward him for same.

          As always, just because the messenger is disagreeable and not credible, that does not mean that there is not SOME truth in the message worth exploring. To conclude otherwise is to be closed-minded.

        • M. Caffrey on said:

          I’m in favor of your rule change (allowing defense to substitute on first downs) because of the element of strategy that it could add to the game.

          However, I think the NCAA should just come out and say as much, instead of trying to sound as though they honestly care about the safety of the players above all else.

          This is a rule change to try and allow the defense to minimize an offense’s advantage. Just leave it at that and don’t try to justify it with player safety when it doesn’t make sense.

  2. Limiting the rule to 1st down is sheer GENIUS! I love it!

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