Maybe the most refreshing take about a proposed rule change that would tap the brakes on college football’s pedal-to-the-metal offenses came from Temple coach Matt Rhule.
“I’m selfishly for it,” Rhule said.
Rhule shares some of the safety concerns held by Arkansas’ Bret Bielema and Alabama’s Nick Saban about how hurry-up offenses increase the number of plays per game and don’t allow defenses to substitute for fatigued players. Rhule said it’s better to be out in front of a potentially dangerous situation than too late.
Citing player safety, the NCAA football rules committee passed a proposal two weeks ago to prohibit teams from snapping the ball until at least 10 seconds had run off the 40-second clock, with the exception of the final two minutes of each half.
Ultimately, Rhule supports the proposal because he believes it helps his team, which does not push the pace offensively the way programs such as Oregon, Auburn and Texas Tech do. He said the introduction of the 40-second clock in 2008 and the rise of up-tempo offenses have fundamentally changed college football and created an advantage defenses can’t combat.
“Shouldn’t both sides be able to decide if they want to make substitutions?” he asked.
Whether you agree with Rhule or not, there is some validity to his argument.
Points per game (27 to 29.5), yards per game (371.6 to 412.5) and yards per play (5.48 to 5.75) have been steadily rising since the 40-second clock was introduced in 2008.
“The pace of the game was now being turned over to the offense,” NCAA coordinator of officials Rogers Redding said. “I don’t think anybody anticipated at the time that would lead to the great proliferation of up-tempo and no-huddle offenses like we see today.”
Bielema explained his stance to reporters last week, and it didn’t seem to win over any of the dissenters. Instead, he drew the ire of the University of California by referencing Golden Bears player Ted Agu, who died after collapsing during a conditioning run Feb. 7, as evidence to support the proposal.
Bielema said he’s concerned about athletes with the sickle cell trait, a genetic condition that can alter red blood cells during strenuous exercise and cause muscles to break down. Bielema said they could be put in grave danger by no-huddle offenses that don’t allow defenses to freely substitute.
There is no reason to doubt Bielema’s sincerity, but when football coaches play doctor, things get messy.
“Using that as an argument lacks any real medical or scientific support,” said Dr. Andrew Gregory, associate professor of orthopedics and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University.
Gregory said the cases of sickle cell-related deaths in college football have been caused by what he called “heroic training,” during which players push themselves past their limits.
“But those issues surround training and not the game,” he said. “You don’t see muscle breakdown during the game because you’re probably not playing enough to get in trouble.”
At this point it will be surprising if the pace-of-play proposal is passed. The rules committee could even decide to withdraw the proposal before it gets to the playing rules oversight panel.
The pace-of-play issue isn’t going away, but maybe the debate can become more about data than drama.