Coaches express outrage over proposed no-huddle rule change

Friday February 14th, 2014

Oregon has revolutionized the up-tempo system, pushing the pace like a fast break in basketball.
John W. McDonough/SI

On Wednesday around 5 p.m. ET, a soon-to-be-controversial NCAA press release hit the Internet. It detailed two changes proposed by the Football Rules Committee following their two-day meeting this week in Indianapolis. The headline: "Football Rules Committee Slightly Adjusts Targeting Rule, Defensive Substitution."

In other news, Derek Jeter is slightly adjusting his future employment status with the New York Yankees.

There's nothing slight about the radical "10-second rule" for defensive substitutions that the committee put forward for approval. The proposal -- in which offenses would be prevented from snapping the ball on a given play until the 40-second clock hits 29 seconds (excluding the last two minutes of a half) -- is a direct assault on the no-huddle, hurry-up offenses that are all the rage in college football.

Across the country, coaches who preach on behalf of those offenses were incredulous.

"Is this real?" one coach texted shortly after the news broke. "I thought it was a joke. No way that passes."

It's not a joke. But it would compel officials to call a delay of game penalty on a team for moving too fast.

"It's crazy," said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. "College football is the pinnacle of success right now. How do you even mess with that? It would slow the game down. It wouldn't be as fun for the fans."

"The 10-second rule is like asking basketball to take away the shot clock - Boring!" Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy tweeted Thursday. "It's like asking a blitzing linebacker to raise his hand."

The proposal apparently blindsided the coaching industry. Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, who serves on the board of the American Football Coaches Association, told the AP that the subject never came up at the association's annual convention in January. But the impetus behind the proposal -- which the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel will consider for approval March 6 -- is hardly a surprise.

Two prominent coaches, Alabama's Nick Saban and Arkansas' Bret Bielema -- both of whom happen to run more traditional, slow-paced offenses -- had voiced public concerns in the past about possible player-safety risks resulting from defenses' inability to substitute against hurry-up offenses. Bielema even disclosed last summer that during his own term on the Football Rules Committee he'd proposed a 15-second substitution period after every first down.

ELLIS: NCAA proposes rule change to allow time for defensive substitutions

It's no coincidence that the same panel would end up authoring a similar proposal under the same purported pretense. The proposal is being billed solely as an issue of player safety, and in fact, because this is a "non-rule change" year for the committee, the only way it can put something forward is if it is a tweak to an existing rule (like targeting) or if there's an athlete safety concern.

According to its release, the NCAA's Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports -- comprised of team physicians and trainers -- requested that "sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety."

"You want to be able to have varied [offensive] styles, but that can't be the driver [of rules]," said Air Force coach and committee chairman Troy Calhoun. "The question that was brought up by medical people and athletic trainers -- is there a way for a defensive player to get off the field? That was the single thing that was brought up."

The hurry-up coaches aren't buying it. "That's b.s. by those guys," said Kingsbury. Feeding their paranoia, Calhoun confirmed to that both Bielema (as a non-voting member) and Saban (who spoke during a 90-minute open "rules discussion" period) traveled to Indianapolis for the meetings. Calhoun and Louisiana-Monroe's Todd Berry are the only FBS members listed on the committee's official roster.

In 2012, Saban memorably said of hurry-up offenses, "Is this what we want football to be?" Last season his offense ranked 116th out of 125 FBS teams in plays run per game (65.9). Bielema, who as the coach at Wisconsin described his old-school style of offense as "real American football," oversaw an Arkansas offense that ranked 121st (64.7).

Meanwhile, their division, the SEC West, now includes three hurry-up proponents, Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze. Saban's Crimson Tide lost to A&M in 2012 and Auburn last season.

"The thing that's most shameful about this is it's a clear manipulation, through self-interest, by people who don't want to coach within the parameters where strategy and ingenuity [have] taken the game," said Washington State coach Mike Leach. "So now they want to manipulate the rules, and in needing an excuse to do this, they try to hide behind player safety. It's ridiculous."

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Bielema declined comment on Thursday through a school spokesman. An Alabama spokesman said that Saban was not available.

Calhoun noted that his Air Force teams have "never huddled" during his seven-year tenure (though his team ranked 104th in plays per game last year). "We knew you'd ask," he said about the presence at the meeting of Bielema and Saban before insisting that "the strategic part of it isn't the real driver [behind the proposal]."

"There's a safety concern about getting a defensive player off the field," he said. "How do you do it for a guy who is out there for seven, eight, nine plays in a row, especially if it's a kid you have to manage that maybe has a sickle cell trait or asthma. How do you substitute for that player? There are very few [special cases], but if that one player is involved, it's a concern."

Of course, as Calhoun also noted, "One of the things you can do is create a turnover on first or second down, force a three-and-out or use a timeout."

Last summer I wrote a story on this very topic in which I asked several concussion researchers whether the player safety concerns of Saban and Bielema held any merit. The researchers universally said yes, primarily pointing to the fact that when players are fatigued their tackling and blocking technique gets worse, which puts them at increased injury risk. However, they also conceded that there has been no authoritative study to quantify their assertion and thus it would be premature to enact any dramatic rules changes.

"Is there any hard data, or just somebody saying that?" Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez told USA Today of the player safety notion. "If there was big concern with that, wouldn't the teams that practice fast be concerned with it? We don't have any more injuries because we practice fast."

The only research cited in the committee's proposal "indicated that teams with fast-paced, no-huddle offenses rarely snap the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock." That of course led to more scoffing by the hurry-up coaches.

"If it's only a small percentage of teams that it would affect, then why do it?" said Baylor's Art Briles. "If the large percentage are good with the way things are then leave them alone."

But it's not the actual time between snaps that most taxes opposing defensive coordinators. The mere threat of the offense snapping the ball quickly prevents them from swapping players in and out, be it for fear of garnering a substitution penalty or simply not getting lined up in time. That inability to adjust frustrates coaches like Saban, whose complex defenses are built in part on situational packages involving specific players.

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"You can't play specialty third-down stuff," Saban told last September. "You can't hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it's got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you're doing."

Hurry-up proponents counter that limiting substitutions is no more advantageous to the offense than a defense's ability to move before the snap and disguise blitzes.

"Offenses don't have any control over what defensive players they play against, so why all of a sudden are we giving defenses control over what offensive players they're facing?" said Leach. "If it's strictly about payer safety, then let's not blitz and let's not tackle quarterbacks and let's all play flag football."

The group that will ultimately decide the rule's fate, the Playing Rules Oversight Panel (PROP), is comprised entirely of administrators, is not sport-specific and, unlike with broader NCAA legislation, does not invoke a formal process for feedback or overrides by the membership.

"Normally there doesn't tend to be much debate about [proposals] but it's not unheard of for [PROP] to not adopt a rule," said John Infante, publisher of the Bylaw Blog. "They don't rubber stamp everything.

Given the uproar and the disruption a rule change would cause for hurry-up teams, most of whom practice at a more frenetic pace than they play, their coaches aren't likely to sit idly by and watch the rule pass. And PROP won't likely be oblivious to the criticism. One of its members is Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, whose conference includes several hurry-up proponents, including Leach and Rodriguez. Scott declined comment on Thursday due to his involvement on the committee.

But even if this rule doesn't pass, the discussion likely won't go away. Football is under unprecedented scrutiny over player-safety issues, with the NCAA currently facing myriad concussion lawsuits. If the rules committee and the NCAA's medical committee are truly concerned about hurry-up offenses the logical next step would be to launch a study this coming season to produce the hard data that the NCAA is currently lacking.

The committee's off-year requirement "gives PROP an easy out where they can say the safety link has not been well established enough," said Infante. "They can say, If you want to do this, come back next year when it's the normal year to do rule changes."

Or, the rule will pass, much to the delight of Saban and Bielema, and much to the chagrin of hurry-up coaches.

"It's irrational at every level, nothing about it makes sense," said Leach. "I don't know why we're compelled to constantly change rules in America's most successful game. We should think about how to reduce the football rulebook to a pamphlet from the Encyclopedia Britannica."

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