The proposal to grant defenses a 10-second substitution window before every play in college football has offered a case study in botched legislative jiu jitsu that would make even the most tone-deaf politico blush. Couple Bret Bielema’s buffoonery last week with the noisy backlash from the coaching ranks, and it’s safe to say this measure will likely die on the vine.
That doesn’t mean the next one will suffer the same fate, though. As John Infante of athleticscholarships.net has pointed out, the “Saban Rule” didn’t just pop up on the orders of Alabama’s coach. The proposal suggests the powers that be in college athletics have identified tempo and substitutions as areas that may be ripe for safety reform.
Critics of the proposal have rightfully taken exception to the lack of hard evidence supporting the idea that there is a relationship between tempo and safety. Last week, however, Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix.com published a report that should at least provide a solid foundation for this ongoing conversation.
I wanted to touch on some key conclusions that I drew after reading Bartoo's analysis.
*Policymakers are talking in a kind of obsolete vernacular.
(Bonus points if you recognize the film allusion.)
As I was reading through this report, the lack of precision surrounding the issues at play really struck me. We’re essentially talking in derivatives.
Notably, the proposed rule explicitly addresses a window for substitutions, but the subsequent dialogue about the rule has been framed around the statistical measure of plays per game. That makes sense - it’s the closest thing we have to a concrete measure of pace. The problem is that the statistic itself is really a degree removed from the object of discussion. (In fact, the NCAA Football Rules Committee even suggested the proposal was designed in a fashion that would have a marginal impact on the number of plays run in a game.)
Furthermore, we seem to using the “hurry-up, no-huddle” (HUNH) concept as a broad stand-in for what we commonly think of as the spread offense. In fact, tempo doesn’t really define the spread. Spread practitioners use pace as a tactic, not a strategy in itself.
Why does this matter? We need to identify the real problems in order to design effective solutions. Talking around the issues makes that difficult.
*Fast football and the false cause fallacy
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that Bartoo’s data indicate that there is no relationship between plays and injury rates in football – or worse, that running more plays in a game leads to lower injury rates.
The more you play football, the more likely you are to be injured doing so. This is the reality of any physical activity. No matter what the numbers say, the risk of injury is baked into the football cake, so more plays in any game raises the likelihood of more injuries.
So, how do we explain Bartoo’s findings? We should be looking for confounding factors.
*Style over speed
Put it all together, and I suspect that the focus on tempo is misplaced. Bartoo’s research more likely indicates that spread offenses promote safety, regardless of tempo.
Consider that the teams that do play at a fast pace on offense do run some flavor of the spread almost exclusively. Spread teams also tend to run more plays by virtue of their fondness for throwing the ball. As such, we could think of the rate of plays per game as an indicator of offensive scheme, as opposed to a measure of pace.
The conferences with higher rates of plays per game are, therefore, oriented towards the spread. Lower rates demonstrate more of a fondness for pro-style ball. This fits well with our perceptions of the major conferences: The spread reigns supreme in the Big 12 and Pac-12, while the Big Ten and SEC still run the more traditional offensive schemes.
Intuitively, it makes sense that offensive scheme would have a major influence on injury rates. Pro-style offenses tend to emphasize overpowering opponents. Not only does this result in more downhill impact between players, it also puts a premium on size for both sides of the ball.
Conversely, the spread offense revolves around getting the ball to players in space. The objective is to run around and away from tacklers, rather than over them. The offensive concepts generally produce fewer head-on collisions between players. Furthermore, a trickle-down effect of the spread is that it hinges on speed over size on the offensive side of the ball, which dictates that defenses have to be smaller and faster, too.
Bartoo’s observations on injury rates and the size of players further support the idea that when it comes to influencing safety in football, style trumps speed of play.