Enough Already, Coach!

Dave Kensler FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

Bret Bielema is a very good football coach. At the University of Wisconsin, he won 17 of his first 18 games, among many other accomplishments. Now, he appears to have Arkansas headed on a similar path to success.

Bielema is not very good, however, at arguing against hurry-up offenses. He advocates a 10-second “waiting period” rule on each play before the ball can be snapped. All in the name of injury prevention.

College football fans may recall Bielema’s previous comments on this issue. Recently, he used the early retirement of an NFL player, Chris Borland, whom he coached at Wisconsin, as a platform to launch his one-man (maybe two, if you count Nick Saban) crusade on the matter.

In an interview with Matt Hayes of Sporting News, Bielema spoke primarily to a “numbers game” as the reasoning behind his position on up-tempo offense. “Players in the no-huddle, hurry-up offense play the equivalent of five more games than those that don’t,” he told Hayes. “We have an obligation to do what’s right and I can’t understand how some guys can’t see that.”

What is “right,” according to Bielema, is that the more plays a team runs, the greater the risk of injury.

Chip Kelly added more tempo to Oregon's offense by using signs to "call the plays."

Chip Kelly added more tempo to Oregon’s offense by using signs to “call the plays.”

I suppose I would have more respect for Bielema’s argument if he were on a campaign for improving overall safety of play rather than isolating one style (that he does not adhere to) as the culprit.

For example, what about the high speed collisions on kickoffs and punts? Let’s not pretend, either, that Bielema’s core strategy of  ”I will ram the ball down your throat” is hardly a shining example of “safety.”

I did a quick check of the Arkansas roster. Like most college football teams, they have teenage boys (how often we forget that reality in college football) who weigh well over 300 lbs. Is that healthy and safe?

Once again though, Bielema’s comments come across as sour grapes from a coach who has a different style of play (smash mouth, control the line of scrimmage) and is looking for a way to neutralize the disadvantages his program faces against up-tempo, spread offenses.

I find it ironic that the two basic tenets of the offense that Chip Kelly installed and Mark Helfrich upgraded are both reasonable arguments against Bielema’s narrow focus on just the number of plays a team runs.

First, I recall Chip Kelly saying something to the effect of, “Our offense is designed to get the ball in the hands of fast players in OPEN SPACE (my emphasis).”

So while the Ducks may run more overall plays, as their numerous touchdown drives in under two minutes suggests, the players may be getting hit less than they might during a grinding ten-plus play drive down the field.

Mark Helfrich with Marcus Mariota at quarterback and Scott Frost as Offensive Coordinator continued Oregon's hurry-up offense.

Mark Helfrich with Marcus Mariota at quarterback and Scott Frost as offensive coordinator continued Oregon’s hurry-up offense.

Second, Oregon has adopted what can best be compared to hockey “line changes” in terms of rotating players on both sides of the ball (quarterback being an obvious exception).

A team that primarily keeps its starters on the field for the entire game may subject those starters to more hits and greater fatigue. Thus, by any reasonable thought process, those players are at an increased risk of injury. Oregon, on the other hand, plays its entire two-deep almost from the start of the game.

Certainly some will argue that Bielema should just get his players in better overall physical condition in order to defend against an increasing number of hurry-up offenses.

But if Bielema is as good a football coach as I believe he is, then the real solution to his concerns is right in front of him. He must make sure his offense slowly and methodically marches down the field, possession after possession. As a result, two things will happen: he will keep the other team’s offense off the field, and his defense will get plenty of rest, thereby decreasing the risk of injury.

Regardless of Bielema’s position on this issue, I think all Duck fans can hope the NCAA stays clear of legislating the offensive style (or pace) of play.

 Top photo by Kevin Cline

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