Are Hurry-Up Offenses Really Dangerous?

USA TODAY Sports

Should college football force teams to slow down in order to protect players?

The middle of Ole Miss preview week seems to be as good a time as any to look at the big controversy surrounding the hurry-up offense.

On the one side, coaches like Nick Saban and Bret Bielema have expressed the idea that uptempo offenses are dangerous for players. Bielema's impassioned speech at SEC Media Days last week is probably the canonical case against fast offenses at this point:

All I know is this: there are times when an offensive player and a defensive player are on the field for an extended amount of time without a break. You cannot tell me that a player after play five is the same player that he is after play 15. If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault. I can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I'm on offense or defense.

On the other side, of course, are the guys who run those fast offenses. Freeze and Gus Malzahn, a published author on the topic, don't believe in any danger from their favored method of play:

"I've been running this type of offense since 1997 and hadn't seen any effects as far as player safety and all that," Malzahn said. "I really believe in what we do."

Another easy rebuttal is that coaches who know they're going to face fast-paced teams should condition their players with that knowledge to help them stay fresher for longer out there on the field.

Dave Bartoo, the football analyst who created cfbmatrix.com, published some interesting research on the topic just this week. He looked at the 2012 season and found that slow-paced teams, despite playing more than 10 fewer plays per game, actually lost more starts to injury on average than fast-paced teams did. The next step is to look at when the injuries occurred that caused those missed starts for the slower teams and whether they came in games against faster teams, but for now, the preliminary results tend to disagree with the idea that a fast pace is inherently dangerous.

I decided to do a quick sanity check myself, this time on Bielema's comment about how good a player is after five plays versus 15. I looked at Auburn's 2010 season, one of the crowning achievements of the hurry-up offense. I chose 10 plays as a threshold for long drives because 15-play affairs are so rare, but that still clears the bar of qualifying as a long drive.

Those Tigers had 150 drives that were not in overtime or constrained by the end of a half. Only 18 of them stretched into the double digits of plays run. In ten of the 14 games that season, AU had one or no drives of at least ten plays. I don't think you can draw a line where, at X plays run, a drive is long and fatigue-inducing while at (X - 1) plays its not, but ten is probably above that threshold. Drives of that length just aren't that common.

Those data points don't necessarily absolve the hurry-up entirely. Increasingly, not just concussions but subconcussive hits are a concern for football players. Even when a player doesn't hit the threshold of being concussed, his brain tends to get jostled around inside his skull as a routine consequence of play. This is especially true for linemen, but it can happen on any kind of hit.

A neurology professor told Sports Illustrated this recently:

"I think it is a very legitimate concern to the extent that there truly is an added fatigue factor," said Dr. Randall Benson, a professor of neurology at Wayne State University who testified before Congress about traumatic brain injuries in football. "When guys are fatigued they tend to use poorer technique, which can lead to having one's head in the wrong place, putting them at risk for concussions and subconcussive hits."

Of course, that line of reasoning doesn't just argue against hurry-up offenses. Follow it to its logical conclusion and we go back to the days before freshman eligibility because less experienced players use poorer technique. It also argues against I-A vs. I-AA games, because those lower division players are less skilled on the whole and therefore more likely to use poorer technique. It also implies that coaches should have to receive training on teaching proper technique, because certainly they don't all teach it well, and that coaches who fail to ensure that their players use good technique should be removed from the game entirely.

Putting the fatigue and technique issue aside, more plays simply means more hits are going to take place. When more hits are taking place, there will be more subconcussive hits taking place. There's no way around it. Finding ways to slow down offenses will reduce the number of those hits taking place.

Reducing the number of plays per game is not the only way to cut down on the number of high magnitude hits, though. So will limiting the amount of hitting allowed in practice, something the Ivy League has already done. So will having players be smaller, which is a natural consequence of the higher conditioning requirements that uptempo schemes require. Biomedical engineering professor Eric Nauman said in that same SI article:

"From an overall health perspective, that's probably a lot safer long-term than having some of these enormous 370-, 380-pound nose tackles. They probably do have healthy cardiac functions, but as soon as they stop playing their knees are done, they have all sorts of health issues later on. I'm not sure people should be trying to get that big. Hurry-up offenses could at least curtail that a little bit."

Swelling humans up to elephantine proportions is just not good for the body. Plus, force equals mass times acceleration. Reduce the mass, and the force of the hits goes down as well.

I don't think the issue of how much hurry-up offenses affect health is as quite as black-and-white as either faction of coaches is making it out to be. Fast attacks don't automatically make the game less safe in the way that opponents say it does, or at least any more unsafe than other factors already do, but uptempo schemes aren't totally in the clear as the proponents say either.

When it comes to player safety, football is in a great stage of uncertainty right now. Hopefully it won't be too many more years before we get some solid conclusions on how to make the game safer, but research into the hideously complex organ that the brain is usually takes a long time. If the hurry-up is to be done away with in order to make players safer, then a lot of other things need to happen as well like limiting hitting in practice and making sure that all coaches teach the game properly.

For now, the hurry-up is not against the rules and the evidence to convict it of malpractice beyond a shadow of a doubt is just not there, so it will play on.

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