In 1892, Harvard unveiled one of the most celebrated, and shortest-lived, plays in the history of football in a game against arch-rival Yale. The following season, Penn employed the same flying wedge to become the first team to score on the Bulldogs in four seasons. Shortly thereafter, Yale’s coach Walter Camp, who also happened to oversee the intercollegiate rules committee, cited safety in outlawing the inverted-v juggernaut.
Did the brilliant blocking strategy endanger players on the field or Yale in the standings?
The school’s rivals had their doubts. More than a decade later, Harvard head coach Bill Reid denounced the rulemaking body as “merely a tool of Camp’s” that “ought to be abolished at once.” Western teams especially resented the small clique of powerful coaches dictating the rules under which they played.
Twelve decades after the abolition of the flying wedge, and 108 years after Reid broke Camp’s stranglehold on gridiron legislation, history repeats itself. Western coaches denounce the arrogance of celebrity coaches in crafting football rules to their teams’ advantage. Once again, the most successful coach in college football comes under fire from his peers for allegedly attempting to manipulate the rules to make it harder to beat his hard-to-beat team.
University of Alabama coach Nick Saban, a vocal critic of the blur offense, took the unusual step of lobbying college football’s rules committee to repeal a basic tenet of the game from two-hand touch to the NFL: When the offense is ready, everybody is ready.
The NCAA’s rules committee overturned that football cliché by imposing a ten-second wait upon offenses before they snap the ball earlier this week. The rule wouldn’t apply in the final two minutes of each half. The proposal, pushed at the Indianapolis meeting by Saban and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, pits the defensive-minded SEC coaches against offensive-oriented PAC-12
coaches and other aficionados of the “blur.”
“When you snap the ball has always been a fundamental edge for the offense,” University of Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez tweeted on Wednesday. “[W]hat’s next–3 downs like Canada? #LetsGetBoring.”
Though teams such as the Oregon Ducks have in the past been able to run a play every fifteen seconds, the number of times even fast-paced offenses snap the ball within ten seconds of the official setting the play clock are extremely rare. Proponents of the new rule cite this fact to show that its impact on actual games will be marginal to nonexistent.
Just as the detractors of the alteration see alternative agendas in its advancement, they argue that changing the rule actually breaks a rule. Proponents of the eleven-second delay between the referee setting the ball and center snapping it cite player safety as the justification for the rule change. They have to. It’s an off year on the committee, when rules restrict rule tinkering to safety concerns alone.
“This rules change is being made to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute,” claims Air Force head coach, and current rules committee chairman, Troy Calhoun. “As the average number of plays per game has increased, this issue has been discussed with greater frequency by the committee in recent years and we felt like it was time to act in the interests of protecting our student-athletes.”
But as the rules committee approaches its fiftieth anniversary of permanently allowing two-platoon football, its current notion that providing opportunities for defenses to substitute involves safety strikes some as a rationalization rather than a reason. Time outs, halftime, and other stoppages grant opportunities to substitute players. And doesn’t a faster game force fat bodies to downsize in hopes of keeping up the pace? That “grass basketball” appears to play as a healthier sport than gridiron sumo wrestling.
The snap delay until the play clock reaches 29, Rodriguez, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, and Washington’s Mike Leach argue, kills coaching creativity and doesn’t appear to have much to do with player safety.
Although the no-huddle hurry-up gained popularity with the success of the Oregon Ducks under Chip Kelly, the strategy is hardly new. For decades after downs from scrimmage replaced the rugby scrummage, quarterbacks relied on voice and hand signals rather than the huddle to convey the play to the offense. This cardiovascular football–more track meet than wrestling match–valued stamina as much as strength. It wasn’t until 1896 when legendary University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg unveiled the huddle in an unusual indoor game against the University of Michigan to overcome the crowd noise. Stagg discovered that holding brief team meetings in between plays slowed down his squad, so when the coach of the original Monsters of the Midway ditched the huddle after that contest against Michigan it remained a nonentity in football for another fifteen years.
Like Stagg, the University of Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez loves fast-paced football and hates the proposed brake on up-tempo offenses. “So I hear the football rules committee wants to slow the game down and make you wait ten seconds to snap–and penalty is delay of game!” an astonished Rodriguez tweeted. “None of the coaches I’ve talked to knew about the new rule proposal regarding waiting ten seconds to snap the ball–wondering #HiddenAgenda?”
Nick Saban, like Walter Camp, rarely sees his rivals defeat him on the football field. For the proponents of the hurry-up to vanquish him in the rules committee, as Reid defeated Camp, they must sway an oversight panel, which rarely overturns the decisions of the rules committee, before their March 6 announcement.
If appealing to the prohibition on new rules irrelevant to safety doesn’t convince the panel to overturn the ten-second delay, then the logic of Mike Gundy might prove persuasive. “The 10-second rule is like asking basketball to take away the shot clock–Boring! It’s like asking a blitzing linebacker to raise his hand,” Oklahoma State’s coach tweeted. “Why change our sport at the peak of its popularity”?
Daniel J. Flynn, author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.