Why "The Saban Rule" Should Bother You, Even if Your Team Doesn't Run the Hurry-up

Dave Martin

Yesterday, the NCAA rules committee tabled discussion on the "Saban Rule", a proposed change to slow down the pace of college football. We're glad this failed, and with reason.

Nick Saban and Bret Bielema's proposed rule to force teams to wait ten seconds to snap the football after the ball is set has been tabled. No, we don't at all find it coincidental that two coaches who run plodding, pro-style offenses proposed this rule, and yes we're pretty damn bothered that did so under the guise of a concern for player safety, essentially co-opting a legitimate discussion on the state of football today for the sake of their personal strategic advantages.

But some folks remain unconvinced that this development - or series of developments - is a big deal. I think they're missing some key points.

If you're a college football fan, it should bother you that two coaches can show up seemingly unannounced in a room with the NCAA rules committee and be heard, heavily influencing the proposal of a critical new rule. Coaches are not lobbyists, should not act like lobbyists, and no NCAA committee should entertain that type of behavior.

But that doesn't bother you... Ok, this article is for you. People who have spoken out in favor of the rule (or, more commonly, have expressed nonchalance) seem to be in a few camps. While real, the "player safety" camp has got to be pretty damn small. I haven't seen an article, hardly so much as a Tweet, vouching for this rule as something that will legitimately protect players. It's just too obvious that the evidence isn't there, the logic behind it is weak, and the motives of the coaches behind it are too transparent. So if this rule passes, it's not because anyone truly believes it will improve player safety. Let's move on.

The most common argument that I've heard in favor (or again, expressing indifference) of the new rule is that most teams, even hurry-up-based teams, don't often snap the ball soon enough for the rule to matter. This is the "it won't make a difference anyway" camp.

Numbers I've seen passed around say that most hurry-up teams only snap the ball before the 29 second mark 4-6 times per game. So only affecting 4-6 plays per game isn't that bad, right? On the contrary; I think it's quite bad, and I also think that the logic behind this argument is flawed for a number of reasons.

First, let's say that, on an average hurry-up drive, a QB snaps the ball with 28 seconds left on the clock. The defense has had a little bit of time to line up, but are still wary about substituting, or altering their alignment or play-calls too much. They know that the QB could hurry up at any time, leaving them unprepared. The mandated 11 second window removes that bit of uncertainty. Now the defense, which is already allowed to shift, fake blitz, and generally move all over the field pre-snap, can carefully substitute and gather instructions from the sideline, with no danger of being caught off guard by the offense - and, even in hurry-up situations, how often do you find defenses just completely lost as to what's going on? Not often, because the game doesn't move at the blistering pace that the advocates of "basketball on grass" would have you believe to begin with.

The defense already has built-in protection from the no-huddle, in the way that officials can delay and slow down the spotting of the ball. A lot of things have to work in concert for a no-huddle drive to be as seamless as a Gus Malzahn, a Hugh Freeze, or a Kevin Sumlin would like, and the officials can mess up a lot of those things. Whether it's stopping to measure a pretty damn obvious spot, or just loafing around spotting the ball, then standing over it for seemingly no reason. This dead time unequivocally favors the defense, and you'll see officials' procedure change from game to game, and even situationally within games. A slow official, when paired with the proposed rule, will give defenses a practical eternity to line up.

Since the proposed rule cites player safety, let's talk about player safety! A lot of good points have been made about how this rule could affect comeback efforts. What hasn't been mentioned is what might happen when an offense is trying their best to hurry things up; they're much more likely to snap the ball with exactly 29 seconds remaining, and much less likely to use hard counts and such to keep the defense on their toes. With that tendency, is it not then easier for defenses to jump snaps? We can hardly call it a player safety rule if it ends up in more defenders having unblocked paths to quarterbacks and ballcarriers.

An important aspect to any rule is enforceability. Watch any game with slow-moving offenses, or with quarterbacks who make a lot of adjustments at the line. There is a logistical issue with officials calling delay of game penalties: they have to look at the play clock, see it read zero, and then determine that the ball has not yet been snapped. The result is that sometimes, snaps get off well after the play clock hits zero, and other times, the whistle seems almost too punctual. The last thing officials need is another instance where they're trying to watch two things at once on every play. With officials' eyes being increasingly taxed pre-play, are players more likely to get away with false starts, encroachments/offsides (another player safety issue!), and procedure penalties?

In the end, it's hard to view the proposed rule as anything but evidence of some coaches' reluctance to adapt, which is why all of this is so bothersome. Football rule changes should be based on sound, consistent, evidence-based arguments. We don't have that in this case for either side, which is reason enough for the rules to not change at all.

Don't get me wrong - if coaches can actually demonstrate through sound empirical research that the no-huddle is a significant detriment to player safety, then let's implement rules to scrap it. Do the research, crunch the numbers, and prove your argument. Don't just make it and then expect the rest of us to take your word for it.

The no-huddle offense has become effective because coaches have devised a way to run a complex offensive playbook using easy-to-read, hard-to-decipher visual cues. There isn't any reason that this innovation should be exclusively beneficial to offenses. In fact, using them for defense makes sense if you're actually worried about being able to substitute. If you're calling defensive plays audibly, then of course you can't freely substitute without worrying that the new man in the lineup might have missed the call. If the defensive call is held up on a sign from the sidelines, then all defenders can see the call at all times. In other words, defensive coaches: get with the times, break out your poster boards, slap some pictures of Beyonce, Daffy Duck, and Starbucks logos on them, and get out of the damn committee meetings.

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