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Maybe It’s Time To Give ‘D’ a Chance

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.

Instead of turning the debate over pace of play in college football into a player-safety melodrama based on hypothetical worst-case scenarios, maybe it’s time to have an honest discussion about whether cutting defenses some slack is good for the game.

Rhule was one of the 25 FBS coaches, out of 128 total surveyed by ESPN, who said they were in favor of the proposal, which still must be approved by the NCAA playing rules oversight panel that meets March 6. According to the survey released Wednesday, 93 FBS coaches (73 percent) are opposed to the proposal, nine are undecided and one coach declined to participate.

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 ’08. Before then, officials would take 12 to 15 seconds to spot the ball and declare it ready for play, allowing time for both teams to sub before the 25-second play clock started.

Coaches complained that from crew to crew and conference to conference, officials were inconsistent about the time it was taking to spot the ball. The 40-second clock solved that problem, with an unintended consequence.

“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.”

But that’s not the reason for the proposal. This is a non-change year for NCAA rules, so alterations to the rule book can be made only to address a safety issue. However, there is no data showing hurry-up offenses put players at risk.

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.