Published January 13, 2015
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Football is a contentious sport. The physicality brings out some very heated and raw emotions. Especially after taking difficult losses.
Perhaps that is why Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian accused some Stanford players of faking injuries following a 31-28 loss to the Cardinal last weekend.
"I think their defensive line coach was telling their guys to sit down," Sarkisian told KJR, a sports talk radio station in Seattle. "If that's how we play football at Stanford, then I guess we'll have to get ready for that next year."
Sarkisian was most likely referencing a stretch in the fourth quarter. With the Huskies trailing 31-21 and driving into Stanford territory, defensive linemen Ben Gardner remained on the ground after missing a tackle attempt. Then a few plays later, Cardinal linebacker Shayne Skov also stayed down at the end of an offensive sequence. Both players got off the field by their own strength and returned a play or two later, seemingly without any ill effects.
It is impossible to say whether Gardner or Skov were actually injured. After all, watching from the sidelines is not the same thing as experiencing the event first hand.
"We don't fake injuries. We never have and never will. I don't care what Steve Sarkisian thinks he saw," Stanford head coach David Shaw said, while adding that Sarkisian's comments were "unprofessional," during the Pac-12 coaches conference call, according to the Seattle Times.
Obviously, Shaw is going to defend his players. However, it would be naive to think that faking injuries has not at least crossed the mind of Shaw and other head coaches, with how the game has changed in recent years.
Up-tempo offenses that throw up 500, 600 and even 700 yards per game, by constantly keeping the pedal down, are a nightmare for defenses. Most football fans look down on soccer and basketball players for "flopping," but the explosion of high tempo offenses at the college level has left some defenses with very few options to slow opponents down.
In 2003, there were just seven teams in the country that averaged 80 or more plays per game. Fast forward 10 years later and that number has grown to 26, including five teams running at least 90 plays per game. There were no teams above 90 during the 2003-2004 season.
According to the most recent NCAA rules for football, which include the newer stipulations about targeting, when an injury occurs, an official must call time out and the injured player has to leave the game for at least one down.
Gardner and Skov are two of the best defenders on the Cardinal roster, so it might seem nonsensical to pull them from a game. However, losing a player for a single play in exchange for a chance to better set up your defense and stop the building momentum of an opponent's offense is a tempting offer.
It is interesting that this controversy has sparked up among a pair of Pac-12 schools. Of the 26 programs to be running at least 80 plays per game, six of them come out of the Pac-12. That doesn't include Oregon (79.5) or Washington State (76.4).
The conference also has the team producing the most plays per game in California (97). On average, the Golden Bears are getting a play off just about every 18 seconds. That is not a great deal of time for a defense to prepare itself, especially because the Golden Bears rarely even bother with a traditional huddle.
Interestingly enough, California head coach Sonny Dykes, who guided the high-octane attack at Louisiana Tech last year, had some things to say about the high-tempo revolution and the concerns of defensive coaches around the country before this season.
"I think what happens is everybody has a certain style of football that they're comfortable with," Dykes said during a Pac-12 media day. "If you're a defensive football coach, you want to dictate the style of play that occurs in football. If you're an offensive coach, you want to dictate the style of football."
Dictating tempo is one of the major forces that determine the outcome of games. If the offense can so thoroughly step on the gas, defenses need to come up with creative ways to put the breaks on. Clearly faking injuries, whether that is happening or not, isn't an imaginative strategy. It's cowardly and cheap.
"At some point, we'll get repaid for it," Sarkisian added in his interview with KJR. "I just don't think that serves a purpose in the game of football, so you'll never see us do that."
However, there is no easy fix to stop teams from using injuries to slow pace, especially when there is no way to prove that they are doing so in the first place.
Would forcing injured players to sit out for more extended periods after injuries be effective? Possibly, but finding the right amount of time is the tricky part. The most plausible and reasonable options would be that an injured player must sit out for the next series of downs or the remainder of the drive. Of course, that also seems like a harsh punishment for teams with players who actually do get hurt and just need a play or two off to ensure they are good to play again.
Regardless of what solutions make sense, this an issue that won't go away and needs to be examined. There have been rule changes regarding player safety and even a shift to a playoff format in the last year. Perhaps this is the next major issue to be tackled. It should be, because Sarkisian is right, there is no place for faking injuries.