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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
March 1, 2014
Whether or not a proposed rule change – one that places restrictions on an offense’s ability to snap the ball quickly – passes in the next few days, one thing seems fairly certain: College football is headed for yet another revision of its clock rules over the next season or two.
Despite polls that show most college football fans prefer the game to go as fast as possible, not to mention the wailing from HUNH devotees within the coaching ranks, it seems unlikely at this point that the current rules will be allowed to stand without at least some modification.
The core issue, though, is not necessarily one of player safety. The issue is one of competence among college officiating crews.
Many fast-tempo offensive coaches have responded to the proposed rule, which will be voted upon March 6, with indignation, not just due to disagreement over the alleged safety component of the rule, but also because they claim a rule change would give defenses an unfair advantage. They allege some coaches – among them, Alabama’s Nick Saban – simply want time to get specific defensive packages on the field for each snap. Currently, offenses essentially control the defense’s ability to substitute players; the new rules would allow defenses 10 seconds to put subs into the game and keep offenses from snapping the ball during that time.
The committee that green-lighted the rule change did so in the name of player safety – specifically, the 10-15 additional plays that HUNH teams get during games were giving 10-15 additional chances each game for players to get hurt. The committee also raised concerns about player stamina.
While the validity of those arguments is up for debate, HUNH offensive coaches conveniently are avoiding discussion over the greater issue: the way their offenses pressure officiating crews into artificially speeding up the game itself, which then leads to spotty rules enforcement. HUNH teams routinely get away with having linemen illegally downfield on passing plays.
Instead, HUNH coaches have managed to turn this into a debate of fairness. Holding the ball for up to 10 seconds, they say, allows defensive coaches to neutralize their offensive gameplan. Never mind, however, that the HUNH was itself concocted as a way to short-circuit perceived defensive advantages. Football is simply a battle between two sides, not “good” offense versus “evil” defense.
Were it possible to hold the game in a vacuum of sorts and electronically officiate it, few people would have any objection. But the game is not played in a vacuum, and it relies on officials to operate properly. And these officials are, almost without exception, a collection of part-timers who serve as insurance agents, financial advisors, restauranteurs, police officers, etc., during the week.
It doesn’t help the HUNH cause that, at multiple coaching clinics, high school coaches have reported their collegiate counterparts urging the installation of the offense because officials can’t or won’t throw flags for various fouls. The most-missed being the illegal-man-downfield penalty, but flags for formation penalties, holding violations and offensive pass interference also become erratic.
It could be the actual solution to the problem is to employ an eighth on-field official, who would be instructed to plant his feet five yards beyond the line of scrimmage and be responsible for fouls within a five-yard box. However, this rule change would come with an additional cost, as it would necessitate the hiring of around 70-100 additional officials at the FBS level alone.
Whatever happens, officials need to be instructed to keep the pace deliberate, whether the proposed rule passes or not. While the players are in good shape and train for endurance, game officials, in many cases, are not – nor is it feasible for the NCAA to require it. There simply aren’t enough qualified, interested applicants for the position, especially since compensation at the collegiate level isn’t the best.
At the NFL level, not only can the league be more choosy about the officials it hires – having several hundred fewer teams to worry about, not to mention having vastly more money on hand will do that – but the ones that are hired seem to have less patience with coaches and players trying to artificially hurry their work.
Even if HUNH coaches are successful in staying passage of the rule change March 6, the ones not in favor of a rule change would be wise to have Plan B ready just in case. It is not good for the sport for its officials to be regularly embarrassed, and even if the science behind supposed safety concerns is spotty, the tolerance for safety concerns is at an all-time low among players’ parents and courts, and will only go lower from here as time marches on.
That’s a clock even the best HUNH team can’t beat.
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