Nick Saban and Bret Bielema are stubborn, curmudgeonly traditionalists. Or they're just wusses. Those were the typical reactions to comments made by Alabama's coach last fall and Arkansas' coach last month, in which they suggested that college football's increasingly ubiquitous hurry-up offenses are becoming a health hazard for players.
Both coaches said they're concerned for athlete safety because of the inability to make defensive substitutions for extended periods of time when facing breakneck offenses, such as the ones run by Oregon and Texas A&M. "There's times where you can't get a defensive substitution in for eight, 10, 12-play drives," said Bielema, who proposed a 15-second "substitution period" following first downs. "That has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real."
Fans and proponents of those styles of offense weren't buying it. They chalked up Saban and Bielema's remarks to typical whining. Saban probably didn't help his cause by asking rhetorically: "Is this what we want football to be?"
But what if Saban and Bielema are right? Given the increased awareness surrounding the long-term health of football players, shouldn't people at least look into the possible injury risks of no-huddle offenses?
The experts have an answer: Yes, very much so.
"We don't have quantifiable data to support Bret's claim, but conceptually, it makes sense and lines up with what we observed," said Thomas Talavage, a Purdue University biomedical engineering professor who, along with colleague Eric Nauman, spent two years studying brain trauma among players on an Indiana high school team.
"I think it is a very legitimate concern to the extent that there truly is an added fatigue factor," said Dr. Randall Benson, a professor of neurology at Wayne State University who testified before Congress about traumatic brain injuries in football. "When guys are fatigued they tend to use poorer technique, which can lead to having one's head in the wrong place, putting them at risk for concussions and subconcussive hits."
At the most basic level, a team with an up-tempo offense runs more plays over the course of a game than one with a more traditional scheme, thus creating more opportunities for injuries. Louisiana Tech, then coached by early hurry-up adopters Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin (both now at Cal), ran 87.8 plays per game last season, compared with 64.1 by Alabama and 66.1 by Bielema's Wisconsin team, respectively. That discrepancy is troubling to researchers like Talavage and Nauman, whose findings show that the cumulative effect of hits from practices and games on players -- particularly those most prone to contact, such as offensive and defensive linemen -- can be dangerous.
"For us the main thing is, 10 percent of kids will get concussions, but 50 percent will show changes in the way their brain behaves that is almost equivalent," said Nauman. "I'm not worried just about the defense, I'm worried about the linemen on both sides that might take 70 hits in a game. We're looking at somewhere between 60 to 90 hits to the head per week is all you want to take."
Researchers have consistently found that it's not just the number of hits that contribute to brain trauma, but the magnitude of those hits. That's why all those who were interviewed for this story stressed the risk that comes with fatigue-induced breakdowns in technique. A player who does exactly what he's been taught by his coaches -- blocking with hands, form-tackling -- should minimize the number of high-impact hits he sustains to the head.
However, linebackers and defensive backs worn down from chasing receivers all over the field are more inclined to lunge with their head. Exhausted linemen may default to a head-on bull rush rather than using their hands. "We would anticipate these issues become more problematic the more fatigued you are," said Talavage.
"Guys will do whatever they have to do to prevent touchdowns and will hit what they can how they can," said Benson, who added that the pass-heavy nature of many hurry-up offenses also plays a factor. "... Linebackers and D-backs are forced to cover more receivers, which means more running and more fatigue. Receivers are asked to go over the middle and on short routes in seams which makes them vulnerable to high-velocity, high-impact hits by defenders."
Keep in mind, any attempts to correlate tempo with a greater risk of injury is speculative at this point. No known study has been conducted. However, Steven P. Broglio, director of the University of Michigan's Neurotrama Research Laboratory, published a study last year that correlated head injuries with a team's style of offense.
Broglio's researchers spent a season measuring the number of head impacts on both a traditional run-first high school team in Illinois (it attempted just 8.8 passes per game) and a pass-first team in Michigan (25.6 attempts per game). Not surprisingly, players on the Illinois team -- with its abundance of bunched-up formations -- sustained 50 percent more head impacts over the course of their campaign. However, players in the more spread-out passing offense endured, on average, higher-magnitude hits, due in part to running backs' and receivers' abilities to accelerate more quickly before impact.
Still, Nauman does see one potential health benefit to hurry-up offenses.
"My sense from watching teams like Oregon is they're running so much, that their linemen aren't super massive guys," he said. "From an overall health perspective, that's probably a lot safer long-term than having some of these enormous 370-, 380-pound nose tackles. They probably do have healthy cardiac functions, but as soon as they stop playing their knees are done, they have all sorts of health issues later on. I'm not sure people should be trying to get that big. Hurry-up offenses could at least curtail that a little bit."
In the meantime, none of the concussion experts in this story suggested the NCAA or conferences should implement dramatic rules changes like the one proposed by Bielema. They don't yet have data to quantifiably conclude that hurry-up offenses are an issue.
"That's part of the problem in this area right now," said Dr. Micky Collins, director of the Sports Medicine Concussion Program at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "There's so much discussion and so much concern, I'm worried decisions will be made that are knee-jerk decisions that could cause harm if not made on solid scientific evidence." As an example, he pointed to the Pac-12's recent initiative to reduce allowable contact in practices. While driven by "phenomenally good" intentions, there's not yet evidence to conclude that the benefits of less frequent hitting in practice outweigh the potential harm done by reducing players' opportunities to hone tackling techniques so important to in-game safety.
"Before we change football, and change the game, having science is really important," said Collins. "It sounds like a reasonable study can be done, to see if the incidence of concussions is higher in [hurry-up] offenses than more traditional offenses."
That study wouldn't even necessarily be as labor-intensive as some of the others mentioned in this story, which required embedding teams with special equipment.
"If you focus just on the games, you could probably look at video tapes of games and the time stamps," said Anthony Kontos, Collins' colleague, who has studied concussions at the Pop Warner level. "When are injuries happening? How many [consecutive] plays were run prior to the injury?"
Perhaps Saban was genuinely concerned with more than just how to defend Ole Miss' no-huddle attack when he made his comments last October. "... At some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety," Saban said. "... They're snapping the ball as fast as you can go and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can't even get lined up. That's when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt, when they're not ready to play."
The people who study this stuff for a living believe Saban and Bielema make a valid point. But before pushing for any changes, they need more data to prove it.