What Do We Want Football To Be?

A proposed new rule would penalize college football teams for snapping the ball too quickly, which would hurt coaches like Gus Malzahn and benefit ones like Nick Saban. (Getty Images)

A proposed new rule would penalize college football teams for snapping the ball too quickly, which would hurt coaches like Gus Malzahn and benefit ones like Nick Saban. (Getty Images)

Complaints about college football’s up-tempo offense revolution have always sounded bitter and petty, narrow-minded coaches not wanting to accept innovation elsewhere that jeopardizes their way of thinking. But now that something may actually be done about it, a line has been crossed.

The expansive nature of college football and its lack of parity are conducive to outside-the-box thinking by necessity. Teams with lesser talent — and fewer big, athletic players — have to find ways to level the playing field. So if you can’t line up and hit someone in the mouth, you spread the field and get the better team out of its comfort zone. Part of the appeal of college football is the variety of chess games that have to be played, where a team can theoretically face Air Force’s option one week, Stanford’s methodical power running the next and USC’s pro-style balance the following week. If you want conservative football groupthink, that’s what Sundays are for. NFL coaches and executives are more than happy to oblige.

While the NCAA Football Rules Committee’s proposed rule that would prevent teams from snapping the ball in the first 10 seconds of the play clock would hardly alter the game in a significant fashion, as very few snaps actually do happen that quickly, that doesn’t mean it’s not ridiculous anyway: 1) The threat of snapping that quickly is enough, because running tempo thrives in part on confusion; 2) Auburn did do it twice in the national title game, according to Tigers beat writer Brandon Marcello; and 3) it’s all done under the transparent guise of “player safety,” a noble pursuit in general, but not when there has never been any specific evidence released that pushing the tempo leads to more injuries.

Wednesday’s announcement was basically a perfect NCAA moment: The committee actually did do something good by saying that it will likely allow for targeting personal fouls to be reversed by replay in addition to the ejections, correcting a horrendous rule last year, but it overshadowed that by doing something else that everyone not named Nick Saban and Bret Bielema — who both, unsurprisingly, support the change — justifiably seems to hate. As expected coaches, who were mostly caught by surprise, flooded the media with criticisms of the proposal immediately, hoping that it will not actually be passed by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel on March 6.

Hurry-up offenses play tricks on detail-oriented micro-managers like Saban. Alabama is trained to operate like a machine. Players like Johnny Manziel can have success against them because improvisers like him throw unpredictable wrenches into those plans. Pushing the tempo is a way to prevent teams like Alabama from dictating the pace of the game, a wholly logical strategy. Don’t like it? Start trying to emulate Stanford, which has hit Oregon in the mouth and shut the Ducks down two years in a row. It’s hardly impossible.

Football is a game of adjustments, of predicting what the opponent is going to do and staying a step ahead. Creating artificial restrictions on that cycle does nothing to help the game itself, especially if the SAFETY! part is a lie.

The problem with Saban’s “Is this what we want football to be?” question in 2012 was that it assumes that football needs to be specific in scope. Rather, the sport does not need to conform to any sort of rigorous standard any more than it already does: Seven men on the line of scrimmage, restrictions on pre-snap movement, etc. Within that framework, everything is fair game, and it’s up to forward-thinking coaches like Gus Malzahn, Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez to find new ways to move the ball in an effort to make up for any gaps on the recruiting trail.

Resistance to innovation usually comes from a stubborn inability to accept that time is moving forward, that what has made you successful might not be as successful in the future, that what you know is now under siege. But it’s better to spend less time clinging to what football was and more time preparing for where it’s going. Don’t criticize other coaches for doing their jobs; do your job and find a new way to stop them instead of trying to legislate your problems away.

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