Player safety a bogus reason for rule, but don't cry for any offense
Protecting players is subpar explanation for the proposed defensive substitution rule, but don't buy the outrage coming from offenses. They'll be fine, and college football isn't actually changing.
Even Bryce Petty and Baylor, college football's most explosive offense, would survive the sub rule.
Matt Kartozian / USA TODAY Sports
By Teddy Mitrosilis
The NCAA football rules committee had a couple ideas Wednesday, and as you might expect, the criticism for one of them came pouring in immediately upon public consumption of the proposal.
The good idea: Adding some common sense to the targeting rule’s application — specifically, if the targeting call is reversed, then so is the corresponding 15-yard penalty, which was still enforced last season even if the flagged player remained in the game (the rule calls for an ejection of said player if upheld).
Everyone agrees with this.
The other proposed rule — a mandated 10-second window at the beginning of each play to allow for defensive substitutions, which means the offense would be penalized if it snapped the ball with more than 29 seconds still on the play clock — irritated the masses, from coaches to fans to media.
Part of this is a misunderstanding of the proposal, and part of it is the committee’s reasoning behind the sub rule.
“This rules change is being made to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute,” Air Force head coach and committee chair Troy Calhoun said in a statement. “As the average number of plays per game has increased, this issue has been discussed with greater frequency by the committee in recent years and we felt like it was time to act in the interests of protecting our student-athletes.”
That all sounds good — because nobody’s ever against “protecting our student athletes” — but there are holes in the theory that were quickly exposed by Calhoun’s peers.
“Is there any hard data [connecting injuries to tempo], or just somebody saying that?” Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “If there was a 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.”
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze also asked to see evidence that playing up-tempo offense leads to more injuries, and the answer to that inquiry, as SI’s Stewart Mandel detailed in a piece last summer, is there really isn’t any for now. It’s too early in the research process.
Colorado School of Mines coach Bob Stitt, who’s unconventional in his ways and also a superb Twitter follow, poked fun at the defensive-minded request:
The only thing risking injury in an up tempo football game is the defense's pride! Nut up, it's football!
We gloss over all kinds of health concerns in football that pinning tempo offense as the primary producer of injuries seems like a stretch.
In this instance, however, there’s actually a credible safety reason for keeping the proposed sub concept given the almost nonexistent downside of the rule.
“I’d be concerned about the defensive linemen,” Van Malone, who coaches corners at Oklahoma State, told FOXSports.com. “I want to slow it down for my DBs, to give them some rest, but really those guys run around all day. The safety part is for the D-linemen. They have to run everywhere to make a tackle, so it’s those guys who are getting tired as hell.”
The D-line might be the most vulnerable position group, in this context, because of the conflicting requirements of their job. They have to carry weight in order to compete in the trenches, but unlike the O-line, they are sprinting sideline to sideline on each play in pursuit of ballcarriers. As Malone noted, offensive linemen walk up 10 yards, snap the ball and rarely move outside the hashmarks.
This puts D-linemen at severe risk of dangerous fatigue levels. In Mandel’s piece, a neurology professor touched on the problem this creates.
“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,” Dr. Randall Benson told Mandel.
If this is an easy opportunity to make football even a little bit safer for even a select group of players, the NCAA should do it, because the reality — as much as we like to voice complaints — is it won’t substantially affect any offense that likes to play fast.
“We face hyper-speed, but most offenses slow down a bit,” Malone said. “In the Big 12, offenses are about 14 seconds, and that’s really the fastest.”
Baylor, perhaps college football’s most prolific offense last season at 52.4 points per game (first nationally) and 7.48 yards per play (third), likely wouldn’t be hurt at all by the sub rule.
Here’s video of every drive from Baylor’s game against Texas last season, which gives you a little feel for its tempo and time between plays:
Rarely, if ever, do the Bears come particularly close to snapping the ball before at least 10 seconds have come off the clock (excluding the instances where a first down or player getting out of bonds stops the game clock momentarily).
No, the rules committee isn’t banning no-huddle offense, as some fans have wildly concluded, and it isn’t stifling tempo.
The proposed rule is a technicality more than any true threat to alter how college football is played, because the 10-second window isn’t really significant — as Malone said, offenses don’t run plays within that period anyway. The tangible benefit here for defenses is merely gaining the ability to substitute on its terms, not having to wait for the offense to substitute in order to swap personnel, as the rules currently dictate.
“As a defense, we just want to be able to sub whenever we want,” Malone told me. “But [the sub rule] is not as much help as it would lead you to believe. The offenses know it won’t hurt them.”
So, yes, all the outrage is a bit overblown.
Tempo offenses are not — given the evidence we currently have — the enemy to player safety, and tempo offenses will do just fine with this 10-second sub window.
If it makes the game just a little bit safer for those heavy D-linemen running around, then sure, adopt it.
Either way, not much of significance is changing here. College football in 2014 will look very much like the kind you enjoyed last year and the years before that.
Teddy Mitrosilis writes and edits college football for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter and email him at email@example.com.