By Jonathan Deal
Wednesday’s verbal exchange between Gus Malzahn and Brett Bielema presents a preview of what could be a larger debate this year and in years to come.
The stage was set coming into SEC Media Days when the issue of player safety in up-tempo offenses was raised by Beliema and Nick Saban the previous week.
Malzahn’s first chance to respond came on the biggest stage possible Wednesday. Speaking to more than 1,200 media members, the first-year Auburn coach said he thought it was a joke and went on to criticize defenses for faking injuries to slow down up-tempo offenses.
Bielema then countered by calling his offense “normal American football”, reiterating the supposed risk no-huddle offenses present to defenders.
“You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15,” he said. “….there is statistical evidence that shows that as players become more tired, they become more vulnerable to injury….that’s the facts.”
Here is another fact: Bielema’s Wisconsin team ran 926 plays in 2012 and 937 in 2011. Those numbers would have ranked second and third most, respectively, in the SEC over the past two seasons.
It wasn’t all Mazlahn’s no-huddle vs. Bielema’s normal American football in Hoover as other coaches weighed in on the debate.
Saban took a more diplomatic approach than his Arkansas counterpart. The Crimson Tide coach said the argument boils down to two basic questions:
1. Should we allow football to be a continuous game?
2. Are there any safety issues with an increased number of plays that players play in a game?
Saban said he doesn’t have the answers to these questions, so I will try to answer them the best I can.
Since the definition of a ‘continuous game’ isn’t clear, I will assume Saban meant playing without the opportunity to make personnel changes and call defensive audibles on the fly – two staples that has allowed Alabama to separate itself from other teams under Saban’s tenure.
Curiously, six of the seven losses Alabama has suffered over the past five seasons have come against teams that implement some kind of no-huddle aspect in their offense.
The second part of his question has apparently already been answered, according to Bielema, although no such medical study has been conducted that I am aware of.
If anything, defenses in the SEC have an advantage over other conferences when defending against no-huddle, hurry-up offenses. That advantage is an officiating rule in the SEC that stipulates crews allow for 12 seconds in between plays, regardless if teams are running a two-minute offense or trying to run out the clock.
With three of the four new head coaches hired this year in the SEC running no-huddle offenses, it’s obvious the hurry-up isn’t going away.
And so the debate will rage on, off the field in the Summer. That is, until coaches find away to stop it on field, in the Fall.