The first shot was fired when the NCAA Football Rules Committee proposed a surprising change, ruffling some feathers without warning. In reality, however, the discussion regarding tempo is simply a precursor of the conversation to come.
There’s a battle brewing between two of college football’s most prized entities: safety vs. popularity.
It’s more complex than that, of course. But the various parties are aligning. Stances are being taken when it comes to pace of play, which is a complex question with few easy answers. That hasn’t stopped the discussion from evolving into purposed legislation, and it won’t stop it from taking the next step to relevancy.
The NCAA sees tempo as a potential matter of safety—at least that’s what’s being crafted publicly—while the coaches trying to push the limits on speed understand that this form of football is easy on the eyes.
The average fan likes rapid movements, scoreboards with crooked numbers and points. They don’t like downtime. Tempo-built offenses tend to hit on the necessary criteria.
So when the proposed “defensive substitutions” rule was tossed out into the open, it was as if someone heaved a live grenade in a crowded room. Under this rule, offenses would not be allowed to snap the ball within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock except for the last two minutes of each half.
Doing so would result in a delay-of-game penalty, which is pretty much the most fitting college football penalty you could ever conceive.
Troy Calhoun, NCAA Football Rules Committee chair (and Air Force Academy head coach), justified the proposal when it was first announced.
This rules change is being made to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute. 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.
Less than a week later, Calhoun’s tune changed drastically when speaking on a conference call with reporters. This was in response to the various backlash heard when it was announced. Calhoun addressed the need for evidence (without actually saying so) according to David Ching of ESPN.com.
The key is this: I think the only way that it can or it should become a rule is if it is indeed a safety concern. And that can't be something that's a speculation or a possibility. I think there's got to be something empirical there where you realize, "Yep, this truly is a health matter" in terms of not being able to get a defensive player off the field.
Judging from his public step backwards, along with the coaches who have weighed in—Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, to name a few—this will not be a new rule in 2014.
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema tends to differ, although he seems to be one of the coaches to be on the other side. Alabama coach Nick Saban also leans toward this side, which prompted South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier to refer to this as the "Saban Rule," per USA Today.
Malzahn, the individual who might be impacted most by this potential change, said he would welcome “healthy debate on the rule.” He also provided the most concrete statement on the matter.
"There's absolutely zero documented evidence that is hazardous on the pace of play, only opinions," Malzahn said, courtesy of ESPN.com.
He’s right. And any logical conversation when it comes to legislation should start there. But clearly there are parties interested in at least broaching the topic before acquiring substantial information to lean on. That's significant.
Common sense would tell you—simply operating on football intuitions—that more plays would equate to more injuries. It’s not an outlandish assumption given the play-to-play violence of the sport, but it’s an assumption.
The NCAA is currently in this state as well—operating off assumption—unless it has data saved for a rainy day, slow-playing its hand. There’s no good reason for the NCAA to do this, but then again, here we are talking about delay-of-game penalties for snapping the ball too early.
What’s curious about this particular change, however, is that this very discussion had to be addressed at some point before this went public. Maybe the committee didn’t envision this kind of response, but they knew there would be vocal members on the other side who went unheard from until now.
Is this giving an undeserving group too much credit? Maybe. But the timing is noteworthy, especially without an encyclopedia-sized binder to lean on. And if such ideas are tossed around without meaningful figures, play amounts and other numbers, what precautions would be taken if such findings proved to be true?
Data is everything, and right now we’re just scratching the surface on the potential ramifications of this offensive movement.
Are tired defenders more or less likely to get hurt after a certain amount of plays? What are the impacts on the offensive and defensive linemen? Do more plays really equate to more injuries? Such findings could prove to be the deciding blow, and the numbers that come from this will play a significant role in deciding the future of tempo.
Perhaps the NCAA Football Rules Committee was simply anxious and shot from the hip. Or maybe it’s providing a small window into the legislative future when it comes to these topics.
That’s where we’re headed. And the reality of the situation is that tempo is simply an outer layer of a much grander discussion. It's a battle, not the war.
Limiting plays with a 10-second rule at various points of the game is only an appetizer. The reality of the situation is that we're gearing up for a grander evaluation of the sport in general.