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Speed Freaks: How Much Would Proposed Rule Slow Offenses?

Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:16am
By: Shawn Krest

The proposed speed-of-play rule change in NCAA football has coaches in a frenzy. If passed by the Oversight Committee on March 6, the rule will prohibit offenses from snapping the ball in the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock. Any football before 29 seconds remain will be met with a penalty flag.

The stated reason for the change is player safety. High-octane tempo offenses, which have become the rage in football offenses these days, make it difficult for tired defensive players to leave the field. 

Coaches of up-tempo teams like Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and UNC’s Larry Fedora have been vocal in their opposition to the rule and its rationale, saying there’s no evidence that fast pace produces more injuries. They claim that the rule is just an attmept by defensive-minded coaches, like Alabama Bond villain Nick Saban, to use their influence on the rules committee to help them counter this effective new trend in offense. 

The rule will force offenses to stand around and wait instead of piling up points at a record pace. It will wreak havoc, derailing the fast-break football everyone wants to see. 

All of which raises one obvious question: 

Will it really? 

To see just how much of an impact this potential new rule would have, we took a look at some of the fastest offenses around, to see how often they’d have been penalized, if this rule was in effect last season.

We started with a tape of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Johnny Manziel and David Cutcliffe combined, along with the rest of the Texas A&M and Duke teams, to put up 100 points in a wild game. 

Duke led by 21 points early in the third quarter. With 11:30 remaining in the third, Malcome Kennedy caught a pass for a first down. A&M rushed to the line, and Manziel received the snap with 11:21 left--nine seconds into the play clock. He threw a six-yard sideline pass to Mike Evans. No one on either team suffered a major injury. 

And that’s it. 

Duke’s up-tempo offense never snapped the ball in the first 10 seconds. Kevin Sumlin, the A&M coach who has come out against the proposal, and his elite quarterback did it once. 

Still, there are faster teams than the Aggies and Blue Devils--Clemson, for instance. Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, and the Tigers offensive fireworks show forced a rules change in the previous year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl when LSU defenders faked injuries to try to slow the Clemson pace. So we pulled up tape of their Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State, a 40-35 game that every headline writer seems to have described as a “shootout”. 

Clemson ran two plays in the first 10 seconds of the playclock in that game. Both came after play was stopped for an injury, meaning teams would have had ample time to substitute and rest anyway. Ohio State came out of halftime and tried to cross up Clemson by snapping the ball quickly on three straight plays. The Buckeyes experiment with tempo looked similar to most teams’ flirtation with the Wildcat offense a few years ago--a few short runs up the middle without any real impact. Late in the game, the Buckeyes again tried to surprise Clemson with a quick snap, which resulted in a sack. 

That brings the tally to two games, 175 total points, and seven plays that would be impacted by the new rule proposal. 

Oregon is one of the pioneers in fast pace. The Ducks played Virginia early last season, hanging 59 points on the hapless Cavs. An incomplete pass by Marcus Mariota with 2:50 remaining in the third was the only time Oregon snapped the ball in the first 10 seocnds. Virginia never did.  

How about Fedora’s Red Bull Express? Whenever possible, the UNC coach reminds listeners that his Tar Heels play “smart, fast and physical”.  In the Belk Bowl, Carolina beat Cincinnati 39-17. The Heels ran two plays in the game that would be flagged under the proposal. They tried another, immediately after getting a first-and-goal on the Cincinnati one-yard line. The play was waved off, however, because the chains were still being moved on the sidelines. Cincinnati ran one play in the first 10 seconds, as well. 

Rodriguez and his Arizona offense are the poster children for opposition to the proposal. They played Boston College in the Advocare Bowl, winning 42-19. Full video of the game wasn’t available, but CBS had a play-by-play with the game time remaining on each snap. Play clock time wasn’t shown, so it took some guesswork, but there’s at least one and as many as five Arizona snaps that would have been flagged. (The play clock begins running immediately after a play that earns a first down, but the game clock doesn’t. So four plays snapped with less than 10 game seconds elapsed may have actually had more than 10 play-clock seconds between them.)  

So the final tally, after looking at five games, featuring five of the fastest offenses in the nation, is as follows: 

That’s 1.6% (or as high as 2.1%) of all snaps, which is 2.4 per game.

The 12 plays gained a total of 62 yards, or 5.2 yards per snap. Clemson had a 22-yard pass to Martavis Bryant included, so the other 11 plays gained a total of 40 yards (3.6 yard average), including one sack, one rush for a loss, and two incompletions. 

Still, a play that can get you just over 5 yards at a clip sounds like an effective weapon, until you consider that the 4,179 snaps that took place in the final 29 seconds of the play clock gained 5.7 yards each. 

None of this means that the proposal is a good rule, nor even a sensible one. However, the idea that it will pull the fastest offenses back to the pack dramatically is a false one.