No-Huddle 101

[Have you ever had a project that looked like a cakewalk at first, but once you got into it the damn thing started to develop problems at every turn and you ended up having to wrestle with every last detail, and by the time you’re done with it you’ve got a cold and you’re nursing a twisted ankle and you aren’t sure you even want to hear the words “no huddle” ever again?  Well, that was this article, which should have been done by Tuesday at the latest, but it had other plans. -Ed.]

Last Sunday, the Seahawks turned in their first truly non-embarrassing offensive performance of the season. The team only managed 53 yards on the ground, but those yards came on just 15 carries for a respectable average of 3.5 yards per carry, and while Jackson’s 319 passing yards (a career best) were gained against a below-average Falcons defense, it should also be noted that Jackson’s previous 23 career starts include two against the Detroit Lions, so it’s not like this was the first questionable defense he had ever played against.  In short, the Seahawks are not in any danger of being mistaken for the 1998 Vikings or 1981 Chargers, but they are beginning to play like a real live pro offense.

There are a couple of reasons for Seattle’s recent uptick in offensive production.  For one, when Sidney Rice returned from injury in week three he immediately began doing what no free agent wide receiver has ever done for Seattle: play up to the level of his big-money contract.  Defenses have had to pay extra attention to stopping him, which in turn has opened up more favorable coverage matchups for the Seahawks’ other receivers.  For another, the retooled offensive line started off the year handicapped by a severe lack of conditioning and training camp reps, but in the last two weeks they’ve started playing less like a bunch of overweight office workers in a weekend sandlot game and more like a cohesive, physically fit NFL o-line1.

But for my money, one of the biggest reasons for the offense’s newfound competency is one that several reporters and bloggers have mentioned, but few (if any) have bothered to explain: the no-huddle offense.  Which is a shame, really, because when people start throwing around terms like “no-huddle” that easily, it gives fans the impression that their team is doing something relatively simple and unremarkable.  Well, it isn’t — if anything, the sustained no-huddle is one of the most difficult to run, riskiest to implement, and least understood offenses in the game.

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As a situational tactic, speeding up the tempo of the game is nothing new.  If you’ve only got a few minutes to play and you’re trying to come back from behind to tie or win the game, it’s just common sense to play faster.  In the 1950s, Detroit Lions coach Buddy Parker became interested in how much more urgently and efficiently offenses played when there wasn’t much time left on the clock.  The simplified, up-tempo attack he devised to take advantage of that phenomenon became known as the “two-minute offense,” and in the hands of QB Bobby Layne it helped take the Lions to three straight NFL Championship games, winning the first two.

After that, you’d think people would be all over this fast play thing, but no.  Instead of further experimentation, teams just started setting aside some practice time for two-minute drills and called it a day.  That’s the problem with having a sport full of copycats:  everyone tries to emulate the successful stuff, but very few bother to take the time to figure out what made any of it work in the first place2.

Hurry-up offense would have to wait until the mid-80s — that’s right, thirty more years — for Sam Wyche and the Bengals to break it out of its two-minute cage.  With the help of offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet, Wyche devised a way to turn the two-minute offense into a no-huddle attack that could be used during a game’s 56 other minutes too, eventually riding it all the way to a Super Bowl berth in 19883.  (Wyche’s speedy offense wasn’t a no-huddle one at first, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

Wyche and Coslet’s no-huddle wasn’t a consistent producer, largely due to injury and personnel issues, but at its best it was one of the most explosive offenses of the 1980s, worthy of being talked about in the same breath as Coryell’s Chargers and Walsh’s 49ers.  But unlike Coryell and Walsh’s offensive systems, which have spawned legions of successful variants still in use around the league today — really, it’s difficult to find a team that doesn’t utilize some West Coast Offense and Air Coryell concepts in its playbook — there have only been two notable instances when teams have been successful in emulating the Bengals’ no-huddle attack: the Buffalo Bills under Marv Levy and OC Ted Marchibroda in the 90s, and the Peyton Manning & Tom Moore show over in Indianapolis that’s spent the last decade making every other offense in the NFL feel inadequate.

It isn’t like those are the only teams to ever attempt a no-huddle offense, either.  Wyche was spectacularly unsuccessful when he tried implementing his offense as head coach of the Buccaneers in the early 90s.  Marchibroda’s stint with the Bills earned him two head coaching jobs, first with the Colts (1992-95) and then the Ravens (1996-98), but at both stops his no-huddle offense only worked in fits and starts.  Coslet’s results were just as uneven and disappointing as Marchibroda’s when he tried to use the no-huddle as head coach of the Jets (1990-93) and Bengals (1996-2000).  Tom Bresnahan inherited a wildly successful scoring machine when he took over as the Bills’ OC after Marchibroda left for Indy, but five years later he’d screwed it up enough to earn himself a demotion back to o-line coach.  More recently, Turk Schonert (who learned the system as a backup QB and assistant coach under Wyche) tried to install a no-huddle offense as Buffalo’s OC back in 2009, but his system failed so badly that he was fired after the first game of the regular season.

So, what is it that made the ‘80s Bengals, early ‘90s Bills, and ‘00s Colts succeed where all those other teams failed?  What makes the no-huddle work, and do the Seahawks stand a snowball’s chance in hell of making that happen?

The No-Huddle’s Key Personnel: Quarterback and Center

Obviously, you’d like to have great players at every position in your offense, but the speed of the no-huddle puts tremendous pressure on the quarterback and center to read defenses quickly and react accordingly.  The no-huddle QB doesn’t have to be a superior athlete or have a particularly strong arm, but he does need to be reasonably accurate, exceptionally intelligent, and be able to correctly identify defensive coverages in a minimal amount of time.  Bills QB Jim Kelly was an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime mix of superior athletic ability and mental acumen who likely would have had a Hall of Fame career no matter what offense he was asked to run, but both Manning and Bengals QB Boomer Esiason are prime examples of players who have used their intellectual prowess to play well beyond the limitations of their physical talents.

The importance of intellect over athleticism is true for the center as well.  Remember, time is at a premium in the no-huddle, and the QB already has enough on his plate reading the defense, relaying the next play to the team, and making sure everyone is in position in a timely manner.  If the center can’t handle reading the defense and making his line calls just as quickly and effectively, the no-huddle is sunk.  According to Jim Kelly, Bills center Kent Hull was so good that he would even chime in on the playcalls: “There were a lot of times when I would call a running play and Kent would just yell, ‘Get out of it!’ And I would get out of it4.”

Just to stress the importance of these two positions, the number one reason that so many other no-huddle offenses failed was because they didn’t have a quarterback and/or center who could do the job.  Wyche’s four year stint in Tampa Bay in particular is a textbook example of what happens when you don’t have a quarterback who is mentally capable of handling the offense: four different QBs started games for the Buccaneers in that time (Vinny Testaverde, Steve DeBerg, Craig Erickson, and Trent Dilfer), and all of them failed to produce.

So when you hear people talk about how well Tarvaris Jackson has been running the no-huddle, you’ll know how highly that speaks of him.  Jackson still has plenty of faults as a QB, but a lack of intelligence is not among them.  Seriously, watching him perform against Atlanta was the first time I really started to understand why Carroll and Bevell feel he has so much potential.

The o-line’s blocking in that game also makes me feel much better about Max Unger as the team’s center.  Chris Spencer has more raw physical ability, but he failed miserably when it came to line calls.  Last week, Unger went a long way toward proving that he doesn’t have that same deficiency.

Three Successful No-Huddles, Three Different Playcall Methods

In the beginning, Wyche’s no-huddle offense actually used a huddle.  Up to twenty players would crowd around him on the sideline basketball-style, and once the play was called eleven of those players would dash out of the huddle and get a snap off before the defense could sub in players based on the offensive personnel.  After that, the rules were changed so that only eleven players were allowed in a huddle, so Wyche eliminated it altogether.

But even without the huddle, the playcall still came from the sideline.  Wyche would send in the play using hand signals: one gesture for the personnel group coming in, the second for the play itself.  Esiason would then relay the play to the rest of the offense by shouting out a quick series of code words while he read the defense, then he’d get the snap off as quickly as possible.

The Bills, on the other hand, let Jim Kelly do all the heavy lifting.  Dubbed the K-Gun, because it featured Kelly in a shotgun formation, Buffalo’s no-huddle offense was called entirely by Kelly at the line of scrimmage with no interference from the sideline, making him the last NFL QB to call all his own plays.  Or at least he did when Marchibroda was the offensive coordinator; when Bresnahan took over the job, he started calling in the plays from the sideline, and the Bills’ offense began to suffer.

The no-huddle system Tom Moore runs in Indianapolis is a hybrid of both playcall methods.  On each play, Moore calls in to Manning’s helmet speaker to give him a package of three plays to choose from (two passes and a run), and Manning decides which of those to run based on the defense he sees.  The Colts’ two-part system makes their offense a little slower than the purely sideline-run and QB-run no-huddles, but it has the added benefit of giving both the offensive coordinator and cerebral QB a say in the playcall process.

Which one is best for a team to run depends largely on the ability of the quarterback.  If you’ve got Boomer Esiason, you call in the play so he can focus on what the defense is doing; if you’ve got Peyton Manning, then you let him have a say in the play selection, and if you’re lucky enough to have Jim Kelly, then you’d better stand the hell back and just let him be Jim Kelly.

With the advent of helmet speakers, it’s hard to tell how much of the Seahawks’ no-huddle is called by Bevell and how much, if any, is called by Jackson, but given the speed at which they move I’d say that the odds are good that Jackson is calling the play at least some of the time.  Assuming that’s the case, that’s yet another solid point in Jackson’s favor.

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

No, wait, that’s Animal Farm.  Sorry, let me try that again.

Simple Good, Complex Bad

Ah, that’s better.  If you’re going to make your offense move fluidly at no-huddle speeds, then you’ve got to start by streamlining your offense in some significant way.  Wyche’s Bengals did that by handling the decision-making on the sideline while his offense was busy running the plays.  In Buffalo, Marchibroda sped up the process by paring down the offense each week until he was left with 20 or fewer plays for Kelly to call5.  The Colts, as mentioned before, sped things up by giving Manning a limited number of choices to make on a play-by-play basis.

But whatever the specific methodology may be, the watchword of the no-huddle is simplicity.  When you start to establish something offensively, a coach’s first instinct always seems to be to add more bells and whistles to the system, but for a no-huddle offense that’s the kiss of death.  When Bresnahan started calling plays from the sideline as the Bills’ OC, he did so because he wanted to expand the number of plays and personnel groupings the offense could use.  However, all he succeeded in doing was increasing the number of things that could go wrong, and the K-Gun began to lose its potency.  Complexity also doomed Schonert when he tried to bring the no-huddle back to Buffalo in 2009; the word at the time was that he was fired because he refused to simplify his no-huddle system enough to make it effective.

In other words, less is more, and that’s a hard lesson to learn for an NFL coaching staff and their three-inch playbooks.  Here’s hoping that Bevell can avoid making the same mistake.

The No-Huddle Is Hard on Defenses — Yours and Theirs

The biggest benefit of the no-huddle’s pace is the pressure it puts on the opposing defense.  It’s always been more physically taxing to play defense because the players as a group have to cover more ground in order to swarm to the ball and make tackles.  Ramp up the tempo of the game, and you end up forcing your opponent to leave those tired, gassed defenders out on the field because you don’t have enough time to sub in fresh ones.

Incidentally, on third downs Wyche’s no-huddle used to let defenses start to sub in players, then snap the ball to rack up easy penalty yardage.  That rule-skirting was eventually curtailed by a rule change that made it so that if an offense made a substitution they had to give the defense enough time to substitute in players as well.  However, no-huddle offenses can get around that requirement by leaving the same offensive personnel in for the entire drive; if you don’t sub anyone in, you don’t have to let them do it, either6.  That’s why the Bills under Marchibroda ran the offense using “11” personnel almost exclusively, and it’s yet another reason why Bresnahan’s decision to expand the number of personnel groupings the Bills used was an incredibly bad choice.

But that up-tempo attack also has a major built-in drawback.  Speeding up the offense means they spend less time in possession of the ball, which in turn forces your defense to spend more time on the field, leaving them vulnerable to getting tired out by sheer volume of playtime.  Of course, this can be mitigated by not using the no-huddle on every down; once your team is playing with a lead, there’s no reason why you can’t then switch to a slower, clock-chewing, ball-possession style of offense.  However, your defense is still in danger of getting gassed while you’re busy building that lead in the first place, which can lead to wild shoot-outs where both teams trade touchdowns all the way to the end because both defenses are too tired to play effectively.

Thankfully, most of Seattle’s defenders are also fairly young, and if there’s one area in which younger players tend to excel over veterans it’s in their physical stamina.  The longer the Seahawks’ defense can stay on the field without losing their effectiveness, the more time the team has to use the no-huddle without shooting itself in the foot.

*        *        *

I don’t really have a pat conclusion to wrap this thing up with, mainly because I don’t think we’ve seen the Seahawks run their version of the no-huddle long enough to make anything more than broad generalizations about it.  But hopefully somewhere in the above mess I’ve managed to explain enough about the no-huddle that it’s no longer just a random football buzzword.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go find a picture of Sam Wyche to burn in effigy.  (Because clearly this article being difficult to write was his fault, you see.)

1 If you’ve ever wondered just how important training camp is at the pro level, the anemic, uneven football we’ve all been putting up with through the preseason and the first few weeks of the regular season this year should answer your question nicely.

2 For a more recent example, look at the Wildcat trend the Dolphins started back in 2008.  Immediately, offensive coordinators around the league rushed to their whiteboards to devise their own Wildcat-style changeup looks, and nearly every last one of them failed miserably in the attempt.  What only Miami (and maybe a handful of others like Baltimore) seemed to understand was that the Wildcat is just a modified single wing that relies heavily on a hybrid runner/passer and misdirection via option reads and man-in-motion shifts.  On traditional NFL run plays, the defense can safely ignore the QB — once the handoff has been made, he’s basically a spectator.  The Wildcat removes that surety by making the defense keep their eyes on two running threats at the same time, and that split-second of hesitation is all the advantage the offense needs.

But instead of that, we got an endless stream of running backs and woefully inaccurate backup QBs doing an incredibly poor impression of a real passer before slowly shuffling into the middle of the line for no gain.  No misdirection, no real passing threat, and even worse the QB is still inexplicably on the field even if he can’t run, block, or catch; he’s still dead weight, he just gets to be useless somewhere else on the field.

3 The Bengals’ no-huddle also had plenty of help from defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s inventive zone-blitz schemes, but that’s a topic for another day.

4 Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden, page 240.  If you’re looking for an easily readable overview of various offensive and defensive schemes (including a brief chapter on the no-huddle offense), you could do worse than Layden’s book.  I should warn you that it does have some glaring errors, though.  For example, the “flanker drive” diagram at the beginning of the West Coast Offense chapter only has ten players in it and it misidentifies the slot receiver as the flanker.  You’d think someone at Sports Illustrated Books would’ve caught that, but I guess not.

5 Layden again, page 239.

6 Unfortunately, a defense’s main tactic for slowing down a rampaging no-huddle offense is to have players fake injuries in order to buy their team time to sub in fresh players.  The Giants were accused of doing that just a few weeks ago to slow down the Rams’ no-huddle, and last week the crowd at C-Link started booing when it looked like some of the Falcons’ players were faking injuries to counteract Seattle’s no-huddle.  Atlanta’s rash of defensive injuries was kind of fitting in a way, since it was the Seahawks who used the tactic against the no-huddle in the first place, but that doesn’t really make faking an injury any more palatable — this is football after all, not soccer.