The “Slow it Down” Saban Rule

Nick Saban used to be known for coaching Alabama to championships. Now he is known for crying to the NCAA rules committee about the pace of play becoming too fast for football. He argues safety, and I call B.S. His new colleague Brett Bielema, who used to be known for coaching to Wisconsin Badgers, but now coaches Arkansas (which didn’t win a conference game last year), is also jumping on the “slow it down rule” in the name of player safety. Is this really about player safety or competitive advantage for the bigger slower teams? The crux of the argument: allowing offenses to snap the ball as soon as the ball is whistled ready for play by the officials prevents the defense from substituting players who may be injured or otherwise not ready for play and thus be put in a dangerous situation. Therefore, allowing a ten second window, during which the game clock will run as well as the play clock, will give defenses time to take guys off of the field.

The reality: Saban and company are looking for ways to force opponents into playing their style of football.

The Safety Claim

Any player who is injured can simply lay down on the field and the referees will stop the game. The injured player’s team can put in a substitute during the stoppage of play and the injured player must leave the field for at least one play. So there’s no need for an additional rule to provide time to substitute for the injured/bruised/sprained/stunned/fatigued/out of shape players on defense. Brett Bielema then argues that the problem is that players do not voluntarily take themselves out of the game even when they are injured when coaches can clearly see that they are hurt. Well Brett, you have options. You have six timeouts per game. Just because you would rather not burn a timeout to sub an injured player is not cause to create a new rule. If you really cared about player safety, you would burn the timeout and remove the player.

Bielema also says its very dangerous in certain situations because some of his players have had sickle cell disease. If a sickle cell player shows signs of exhaustion suggesting he has been overworked to the point of collapse or fainting, Bielema has no method to stop the game if the player does not lay down assuming no timeouts are left. Fair enough, except for one thing: you can’t make people save their own lives. What is a person with sickle cell doing playing football in the first place? It is dangerous for a person with sickle cell to do anything that requires extensive physical exertion, i.e. run a marathon, run track, or play basketball or tennis. The rules of football should not be changed to deal with participants who have sickle cell disease. There are plenty of methods to stop the game in the even of an injury to a player, but to require the game to be slowed down will not make it safer for participants with sickle cell. The risk of death for them will not go away with a ten second run off. Bielema is trying to use the recent death of Ted Agu, football player at Cal, as proof of the danger. Besides from being totally disgusting for trying to use Agu’s death as proof, it doesn’t even follow! Agu died after a workout that he would have participated in regardless of any rules changes to football!

Bielema also tried to play it off in a recent interview that he hasn’t counseled with Nick Saban in pushing this rule to the NCAA. He got really tongue tied on some simple questions:

“Q: Other than Nick Saban, who are some of the other guys who have come to your corner? A: “I didn’t talk to coach Saban. I didn’t talk to [wait what am I saying? quick change the subject]… This is a philosophy I’ve had since the day I started in this business. Again, it’s not a philosophy[Phwew! That was hard! I hope that made sense]. My style on offense is hurry-up or no-huddle, whatever you want to call it [There! Now I told them that I am a hurry up coach, so now they’ll believe me that I am not looking to slow down my opponents! Hah, I’m so smart!], my philosophy has always been in the best interest of our players. As a rules committee, they’re supposed to protect that. And I don’t think there’s anybody that would get off that topic[Oops, Freudian slip. I hope they didn’t notice I just said “get off topic”].”

“Q: What did Nick have to say when he addressed the room? A: “As a rules committee, we don’t ever discuss anything that’s ever said in that environment.”  [LOL! Serious bromance brewing between Bielema and Bama’s coach. Bielema says he won’t discuss what is said in the rules committee meetings, but he forgot that he already discussed it earlier in the interview when talking about proposals to the rule. See below.]

“Q: What’s your reaction to the pace of play proposal:

A:“You know what, the last time I talked to (Air Force coach) Troy (Calhoun) was when we were in that meeting [the rules committee meeting]. Obviously, I wasn’t in the room when the room was voting. So all I know is what was said during that discussion, all that goes into it. The ironic part of it, there was a proposal for 15 seconds, 12 seconds and 10 seconds, and I was the one who told them they should move it to 10.

Aha! So you will talk about the proposals which you apparently discussed with Troy Calhoun, but not anything you talked about with Saban. See that’s the tricky thing about lying, you have to remember what you said earlier, and Beielema can’t remember that far back.

Read the whole interview here:

Saban’s Achilles

Nick Saban cries that its all about player safety. The reality is that the teams that have kept Nick Saban up at night are up tempo teams.

2013: 2 losses, one to Auburn (hurry up) and Oklahoma (hurry up). It should be noted that the only other team that almost beat Alabama was Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel hurry up).

2012: Loss to Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel hurry up).

2011: Alabama loses its division, does not play in the SEC championship, but gets to play in BCS championship. Only loss to LSU 6-9 in the most boring football game ever played. Critics would say amazing defense, reality is it was unimaginative, sputtering offense. No threats from no huddle teams this season.

2010: Loss to South Carolina, LSU, and Auburn. Got a scare from Arkansas. Arkansas and South Carolina experimented with no huddle. Auburn’s offensive coordinator was none other than Gus Malzahn, a master of speedy offense. The Auburn game really stings for Saban because they were up big at the half before McElroy got hurt and Auburn ended up winning 28-27. It also cost Alabama a trip to a BCS game.

2009: Perfect season. Malzahn’s offense at Auburn gave them a scare, pesky no huddle.

2008: Florida upended Alabama’s title hopes. They ran some no huddle and it always helps to have Tebow. The no huddle wasn’t 100% about pace as more recent no huddle attacks, but it kept Saban from substituting. Oh, and then the loss to Utah. How embarrassing. Losing to a team that’s not part of the big conferences on national T.V. in the Sugar Bowl. They lost bad. And Utah ran no huddle, probably because they saw what it did to Alabama in the SEC championship. With four minutes left to play in the first quarter, Utah was up 21-0 over Alabama.

2007: Saban’s first year at Alabama. He lost to Louisiana Monroe. The problems here weren’t with the no huddle. It was a team rebounding from the rocky days with Shula coaching. I’m not sure the no huddle was in anyone’s playbook this year.

Do we not see the pattern at this point? The games that really sting are Saban’s losses to no huddle teams. It is his Achilles heel and he hasn’t really figured out how to deal with it yet. He is still an outstanding coach and his teams will continue to be highly ranked. But with more people adopting spread no huddle attacks, he’s going to have to find a way to stop them.

For some more interesting history on the no huddle, check out this article about Sam Wyche.

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