Player safety is a topic of growing concern around football. Helmets, concussion monitoring and danger of kickoffs are regular focuses of the conversation, but not until Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema cited no-huddle offenses had a specific scheme come under fire.
“Not to get on the coattails of some of the other coaches, there is a lot of truth that the way offensive philosophies are driven now, there’s times where you can’t get a defensive substitution in for 8, 10, 12 play drives,” Bielema said. “That has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real.”
His solution to the “problem” is a 15-second substitution window following every first defense, thereby negating the entire purpose of the no-huddle offense. Thus, and pardon me Charlie Weis, there’s a decided schematic advantage to Bielema’s proposed rule change.
Bielema is member of the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, so his opinion carries particular weight.
Whether the neutralization of the no-huddle’s effectiveness is Bielema’s motivation, only the coach knows. Perhaps his concerns about player safety are genuine — as supporter and Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp points out in the same AL.com feature, the oppressive heat and humidity prevalent in SEC country take a physical toll.
Of course, physical exhaustion is the aim of the no-huddle: wear down the opposing defense and force it to make a stop in order to make substitutions. Yes, it’s taxing on the opposing defenses, but a valid player safety concern?
The debate has certainly undergone a dramatic face-lift. At one time, the question wasn’t if SEC defenses could slow spread and no-huddle attacks; it was if the offenses could work at all. Urban Meyer’s implementation of a spread at Florida yielded two national championships, and in 2009 a no-huddle wrinkle powered the Gators to the Sugar Bowl.
Each of the conference’s last two Heisman winners — Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel — are from such schemes. While there are still lingering questions about spreads working universally in the SEC, the proof that it can work is there. And apparently, it’s so effective that it’s reached a point of being dangerous.
Out here in Pac-12 Country, uptempo, spread offenses that rely on a no-huddle approach are prevalent. They’re also effective. Arizona and Arizona State were two of the nation’s highest scoring teams running such systems. Oregon has become the face of no-huddle, quick-strike offenses in college football.
While the Ducks’ goal of wearing down opposing defenses is effective, it’s never proven to be a safety concern. Pac-12 teams are not filling up their injury reports with “DNP – Played Oregon” the week after seeing the Ducks.
UO implicitly offered a challenge to its opponents: either get us off the field, improve your defensive conditioning, or dictate the tempo when you have the ball. Rather than seek rule changes to slow down the tempo, Pac-12 programs are adapting, none more so than Stanford. The Cardinal built a defense that draws favorable comparisons to those in the SEC, and one that slowed Oregon much like the Les Miles and John Chavis-led LSU defense did in 2011.
Miles didn’t leave the Dallas Palace that September day voicing concern about any health risks facing Oregon meant for his Tigers.
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier is the SEC’s elder statesman and a voice of reason. His quote from the AL.com piece sums it up succinctly:
Of course, the answer is for the other team’s offense to stay on the field and get the other fast-paced team stay on the sideline.”