A Call to Reform: Dismantling the Myth of the Hurry-Up-No-Huddle Offense

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been plenty of discussion both on and off of this site about the Hurry-Up, No-Huddle (HUNH) offense as well as the now-tabled proposed 10-second rule, which would prevent offenses from snapping the ball until ten seconds had elapsed off of the play clock.  While we have hashed this issue out at length in the comments, we haven't yet had a devoted piece that consolidated and distilled this conversation for easy consumption, so here we are.

I'm not an opponent of the HUNH offense in general. I mean, I am not a fan of it, as I find it gimmicky and high-school-esque, but I am not so bold as to want it outlawed or crippled to the extent that it ceases to be a viable system.

The no huddle system has been around for a very long time. Five years ago, that system underwent a change wherein teams decided to try to go as fast as possible, and the "Hurry Up" was added to the "No Huddle" to give us the HUNH. At that same time, another key feature was added to the HUNH - the ability to prevent defensive substitutions. This doesn't seem to be a side effect of the HUNH. Rather, it is a very deliberate feature. Accordingly, I have taken to adding "No Substitutions" to the coin the term HUNHNS.

To be clear, it is only the "NS" portion that I take issue with. I don't care if you huddle. Sure, I think your team looks silly getting into their stance only to pop up and turn to the sideline where color-coded posterboards full of celebrities and comic book characters reveal the secrets of the universe like some assortment of bizarre, neon-sign tea leaves. Yes, I will think it silly, but that's your right as a football team.

Preventing defensive substitutions? I don't believe that is your right. In this piece I intend to show that this practice was never intended and has no place in college football.

Ingenuity and Innovation?

The HUNH was truly born five years ago. What happened in 2008 to facilitate this new system? The 2008 play clock rule changes.  Before 2008, there was a 25-second play clock which did not start until the referee set the ball and signaled it ready for play. Since 2008, college football has used a 40-second play clock, which starts as soon as the previous play is whistled dead.

This rule was meant to normalize the amount of time that passed between plays, and was generally seen as a common-sense rule that was long overdue (even by this very site). But an unforeseen byproduct of this rule arose, and teams soon learned that, without the requirement for the referee to declare the ball ready, there was an opportunity to rush to the line and receive plays while in formation, thus preventing defensive substitutions.

In my opinion, this is not evolution or  ingenuity. Teams didn't just decide to start limiting defensive substitutions because someone had a "eureka" moment that it would be helpful.  These teams are very clearly taking advantage of a clock rule which in no way was meant to facilitate this behavior.

Is this all supposition on my part? Perhaps the timing is coincidental, and the explosion in the number of teams running the HUNH has nothing to do with the 2008 rule change? After all, teams were running the no-huddle in 2007. Did the 2008 really facilitate blocking opponent substitution?

To answer these questions, I picked a single game from 2007 to analyze. I recognize the sample size is small, but the info I need is not otherwise readily available, and I don't have the resources to do exhaustive studies of multiple games. The game I selected to study was the 2007 game between #2 Kansas and #4 Missouri. Missouri was selected because they ran a no-huddle system and had the second most total plays for the season.  Since I was focusing on Missouri's output, I focused only on Missouri's offensive plays.

The main thing that I sought to figure out was whether defensive substitutions were facilitated by the referee having to declare the ball ready for play pre-2008. What I found was surprising. The video that I had (linked above) was incomplete (a rerun that was edited for time), but conclusive in my mind. Using a combination of the running game clock or my own stop watch, I timed the interval between when each play was whistled dead until it was whistled ready for play. The results varied from 15 to 22 seconds (a huge variance that underscores the need for the 2008 rule change). The most common time between whistles was 17 seconds, and the average time was 17.67 seconds.

Am I the only one surprised that this much time existed between whistles?  In hindsight, this shouldn't have been a shocking finding at all.  It's obvious that the move from a 25 second play clock to a 40 second play clock was a deliberate one.  Not only did it normalize the elapsed time between plays, but the standardized amount was practically the same as the pre-2008 average.  To me, this indicates that the rule's intent was trim down and stabilize the inter-play transition time to fifteen seconds.  And for the most part, that is exactly what has happened.

Misplaced Emphasis on "Pace of Play"

One of the most misleading parts of this debate is regarding pace of play. Around the country, HUNHNS coaches and media pundits alike panned the proposed 10-second rule for its expected detrimental effect on the speed of the game. This critique is patently false. In this ESPN promo for the 2011 BCS National Championship, the Worldwide Leader in Sports extols the Ducks for their speed, and flashes graphics on the screen ("14 seconds between plays", "8 plays in 1 minute & 15 seconds") to drive home how fast the offense is moving. Now, if you had no previous knowledge of the sport other than recent commentary, the 14 seconds between plays which is being held up as amazing in this video would have to be considered downright glacial.

Nobody moves fast enough for the proposed rule to have a material impact on pace of play. Even Oregon, in the blazing touchdown drive mentioned in the video above averaged nearly 9.5 seconds per play. Some of that was in-play time, but you also have to consider that the clock stops each first down (there were four first downs gained in those eight plays), so the time per play is probably pretty close (I can't find video of the game or drive to get an exact measurement). At any rate, even if you shave off a couple seconds to be conservative, you are still talking about slowing down the fastest team in the country by literally 2 to 3 seconds between plays.

A 10 second rule would not materially affect pace of play.  So, if pace of play would be almost entirely unaffected, why would so many coaches rush to oppose this rule? It is obvious that they are defending an advantage, but since no one is consistently snapping the ball in less than 10 seconds, what advantage are they seeking to protect?

I think that the case study above (limited as it may be) pretty conclusively shows that pre-2008, the natural lull between snaps provided ample opportunity for defenses to substitute. Post-2008, this lull between plays has largely remained intact, though the opportunity for substitution has been systematically eliminated by HUNHNS teams. By simply standing over the ball, their pace of play can remain completely unchanged and still have a profound effect on opposing substitutions.

The Very Real Dangers of Fatigue

A favorite refrain in the last couple of weeks has been, "Where is the proof?"

Though it i was done in another sport, this study, which was published in the Research in Sports Medicine journal, successfully showed a positive correlation between in-game fatigue and concussions among hockey players in the NHL. With that in mind, let's consider the effects of the HUNHNS system.

In the ESPN-produced Oregon hype video above, you have the following comments about the HUNHNS' effect on opposing defenses:

"It's supposed to create a lot of tired guys on the other side of the ball, especially late in games." - Oregon Wide Receiver Jeff Maehl

"When that happens, fundamentals go out the window." - Oregon Running Back LaMichael James

Ok, so the HUNHNS is trying to wear down the opponent, so what? What team isn't trying to do that? These are perfectly valid questions. Every team tries to wear down their opponent. Every system seeks to have an advantage late in the game. But only one system is able to readily determine whether or not a fatigued player can come out of the game. Only one system prevents regular substitutions to avoid that player from becoming dangerously fatigued to begin with.

We know from simply being fans of college football and watching the game that teams are stopping substitutions.  We have shown that this strategy of preventing substitutions was a technical impossibility merely five years ago.  With the knowledge that this strategy is nothing more than abuse of a clock rule change; when studies like the one above exist, how can this strategy be allowed to persist?

My sincere (and embarrassingly optimistic) hope for this piece is for it to gain serious traction and be seen by people that matter (whether in the media or coaching ranks).  In my opinion, these are important facets of the discussion which have been neglected entirely thus far.  We will never have an honest discussion otherwise.

If you don't like the 10 second proposal as it was written, that is fine.  We can revisit the finer points.  I recognize this is a very complicated subject, but the final solution is simple: take the NS out. Keep your HUNH, and run it to your heart's content. Using a clock rule change in unintended ways to prevent substitutions isn't clever, it isn't ingenuity, and it isn't the next logical step in the natural evolution of this great game.  It's abuse of a loophole. A loophole that is in need of closing.

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