Are Up Tempo Offenses Unsafe?

An interesting discussion has begin to emerge in college football and it has to do with the pace of the game and safety.

Last October, Nick Saban of Alabama began talking about hurry up and no-huddle offenses from the standpoint of is this what we want football to become. Was the sport meant to be played continuously and without the breaks between each play, as it has been played for most of the years it has been in existence.

This week at SEC media days, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema began to echo those sentiments and Saban extrapolated on his comments from last fall with these words:

“Do we want or is football intended to be a continuous game? The second question is ‘Because of the pace of the game, the accumulative effect of playing more plays…I think people misinterpret the fact that when you say player safety, is it about the pace of the game is faster? What I’m talking about is somebody needs to answer the question… in the NFL, they play 64 plays a game. We play over 80 plays a game in college, and fast-paced teams play more than that.’ So a player is playing 25 or 30 more plays a game, so the accumulative effect of that over a season…. Is there something that has any effect on players’ safety. I don’t know the answer. I’m asking.”

It is an interesting question. I can only share my opinion and that is that I do not like watching hurry up offenses for very long. As a consumer of the game, it wears me out to watch a new snap every 15 seconds. It truly is becoming basketball on grass and I am just not a fan of it. Some people may like it more than the old game for the exact reason I do not like it; there is more action.

If you want to read a back and forth on this topic, with Bielema and Saban on one side and Auburn’s Gus Malzah and Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze on the other, here is a link for you.

As it relates to player safety, I can’t give you any scientific evidence but can say that I wouldn’t think Beilema or Saban is crazy, as tired players are likely at a greater risk for injury than fresher players. Then again, this is football. The sport has long been about the battle in the trenches and one team trying to exert its dominance over the other and wear the other team out.

How many times in the Ferentz era, or while watching Wisconsin’s brand of football, have you thought ‘the offensive line has the defense on the ropes.’? We’ve seen it over and over. It’s why time of possession is a stat that has been so popular all these years. Only until recently, with the advent of up tempo offenses, has that stat begun to become obsolete.

You can think through some games in the Kirk Ferentz era and remember an Iowa defense that was dog tired; at Northwestern in 2010 comes to mind and the Wildcats ran 82 plays in that game, including 50 in the first half. It didn’t help that Iowa was horrible on third down offensively that day, which is the worst enemy of a defense when facing an uptempo offense; you have to move the chains.

Last year, Indiana ran 79 plays on Iowa to 64, Purdue 79 to 67 and Penn State ran 90 plays to Iowa’s 59. 90 plays! Then again Iowa ran 78 plays to Northwestern’s 59 last year and Iowa was beaten by double digits, so it’s mostly about execution, right?

Here are the number of plays Iowa has run compared to its opponents for the season listed:

2012: 66.1 to 68.8
2011: 66.6 to 74.0
2010: 62.0 to 68.1
2009: 65.1 to 64.9
2008: 64.2 to 66.1
2007: 67.8 to 73.3
2006: 65.7 to 69.5
2005: 64.6 to 70.4
2004: 67.7 to 68.0
2003: 65.7 to 72.3
2002: 66.7 to 73.2
2001: 67.4 to 67.7
2000: 67.3 to 75.2

I couldn’t find 1999 data, otherwise we’d have the entire Ferentz era here. What do the stats tell you? It’s hard to draw a lot just from the raw numbers, but we can see that Iowa’s number of plays per year is going to be in a pretty defined range. We can’t say that Iowa’s opponents are steadily running more plays each and every year and we can’t say that great Iowa defenses have allowed fewer plays per game. The 2002 and 2003 groups were two of the best defenses in Iowa history and they allowed over 72 plays per game, each.

I still think Saban and Bielema could be on to something, or they are just ‘promoting their position’ as some folks like to say in commodities. They play old man football, as does Iowa. It’s harder to prepare for uptempo offenses and it definitely requires greater stamina, even though Kirk Ferentz has said that one downside to running a no-huddle offense is that you can go three and out real quick, too.

At least half of Iowa’s opponents will run some tupe of uptempo, spread style of offense this coming year. It will be interesting to see what the stats look like towards the end of this year as we’ve outlined above.

Iowa went all no-huddle in their final spring practice that was open to the public and it sounds as though they are committed to running some of it this year. Just how much and how often remains to be seen. More high school offensive players are entering the college game with the no-huddle, uptempo being their norm.

I don’t think any rules changes will be forthcoming related to tempo. Once upon a time it might have been thought ungentlemanly to not allow the defense time to make a proper substitution, but those days are long gone and this fad is here to stay for a while. If Chip Kelly has success installing it in the NFL, it won’t go away fro a long, long time.

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