I’m all for athlete safety. If a league can change some aspect of its sport in a way that would have a minimal effect on the game itself but make a potentially large impact on injury rates, it should be considered. Major League Baseball’s recent decision to cut down on home plate collisions is a good example of a change that will better protect catchers and base runners.
On the other hand, it seems ridiculous to propose rules changes to a sport in the name of player safety when there is little basis for claiming that the changes would help those players. Yet the NCAA football rules committee appears to be trying that approach now.
Also read: Should MLB ban home plate collisions?
The proposal to slow down offenses
Two weeks ago, the committee approved a proposal that would allow defensive players to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock. Offenses that snapped the ball before 29 seconds on the clock would receive a 5-yard delay of game penalty.
The current college football offseason was not one designated for rules changes unless they addressed player safety. When Alabama coach Nick Saban and Arkansas’s Bret Bielema publicly supported the proposal, they cited player safety concerns.
As you might expect, coaches of teams that run up-tempo, no-huddle offenses, like Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, fiercely oppose the change. Coaches that run more traditional offenses, like Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier and Georgia’s Mark Richt, have voiced their concerns with the change as well.
The lack of injury data
As many of these coaches have correctly observed, there is no data to suggest that defensive players are increasingly getting hurt.
Major League Baseball can at least point to injury data as a basis for the home plate collision rule. A recent study in the Journal of Sports Medicine showed that these plays at home plate have a 4.3 times higher rate of injuries than other plays in baseball.
No such study exists in college football.
Before we adopt a radical change like this one, we need statistics regarding injuries of defensive players in games against these offenses. And by injuries, I don’t count linemen writhing on the ground in agony only to walk off seconds later pain-free – after his team has made its substitutions.
We typically define an injury as one in which the player requires evaluation by the medical staff and subsequently misses at least one day following the injury. According to a 2007 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, college football has a game injury rate of 40.23 per 1000 athlete-exposures. Essentially, for every 1000 players who compete in one college game, 40 suffer an injury.
Could injuries increase if more teams used these offenses?
It makes complete sense to expect that using an up-tempo offense would increase injury rates. If offenses don’t take time to substitute or huddle, they will run more plays over the course of a game. The more plays run in a single game, the more opportunities exist for players to get hurt.
The key point that the supporters of the tempo rule fail to recognize, however, is that the risk of injury from no-huddle offenses doesn’t fall solely on defensive players. Presumably more players on both sides of the ball would get hurt.
If an offense runs 20 more plays per game, that is 20 more chances for a running back to plant his foot to change direction and tear his ACL. That is 20 more times a wide receiver could cross the middle of the field and get laid out by a free safety, causing a head injury.
Also read: The ACL epidemic in NFL training camps
Plus, I’m not sure I understand why it is so critical for defenses to substitute players. As Richt argues in an article in the Athens Banner-Herald, “I feel like if you can train offensive players to play five or six plays in a row, you can train defensive players to play that many plays in a row, too.”
Alternatives to decrease injuries
If coaches are worried about the increasing number of plays in which their defensive players are on the field, they could try another option. Leave them in for one series and then use a second group of players on the next defensive series. But that won’t happen.
If the total number of plays – and thus injuries – is the real concern, you could make changes that would be even more protective. Try shortening the games. Or eliminate one or two games per season. To my knowledge, those changes have never been proposed, and I doubt they will be.
This rule aims more at eliminating the competitive advantage for these high-speed offenses. If college football wants to slow down high-speed offenses for fairness reasons, so be it. Until we can show that defensive players are at real risk when playing against them, the NCAA shouldn’t propose the change in the name of player safety.
Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the February 27, 2014 issue of The Post and Courier.