Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.
George Will’s oft-quoted critique of football is that it replicates two of the worst elements of American life, “violence punctuated by committee meetings.” But the latter is becoming less prevalent these days.
The huddle isn’t an endangered species yet, but it seems inevitable that we are moving toward an NFL that will someday run predominately no-huddle or hurry-up offenses. According to Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal, 14 percent of NFL plays were run without a huddle in Week 1, an increase of 56 percent from last season and 100 percent from five seasons ago. This is a logical progression in the evolution of the strategy and tactics of the game, and it’s already starting to change football in profound ways.
This development is just the latest response in the protracted, back-and-forth struggle for supremacy between offenses and defenses that has been going on for as long as the game has existed. Back in the day, when offenses lived on a diet of vanilla and stayed with regular personnel (two backs, one tight end, two wide receivers), defenses didn’t have much to worry about — or much to go on — other than down, distance and field position. A team’s tendencies were mostly hard-wired; some ran mostly to the right, some to the left, some passed more, some less. Things started to change when Hank Stram began showing more multiple looks with his offense in the old AFL, all of it designed to cause the defense an instant of hesitation. By the end of the ’70s, when Bill Walsh was installing the West Coast Offense in San Francisco, the way offenses attacked a defense expanded, and did it with the same base personnel so as not to give the defense any clues to what they were doing. Advantage: offense.
By the mid-’80s, when other offenses went multiple, they also began to create tendencies that defenses could seize on to make their own adjustments. Buddy Ryan invented the 46 defense with the Bears in the ’80s, and it featured a defensive pre-snap read that allowed a defense to either blitz or play a basic zone, depending on the formation and personnel the offense showed. (Another of Ryan’s contemporaries, Bud Carson, was equally aggressive. In the mid-’70s, coordinating the great Steelers defenses, Carson began employing sophisticated counter-responses to offensive pre-snap shifts, rather than simply defaulting to a base defense whenever the offense motioned out of its original look.) In both cases, Ryan and Carson worked to dictate their defensive attacks in spite of the looks they saw, rather than sitting passively back to let the offense dictate. Advantage: defense.
But the offenses responded with more differing personnel groups, and more shifts and motions, all designed to give defenses even more to do in the seconds prior to the snap. The Rams and their Greatest Show on Turf in 1999 was all the more difficult to deal with because, in addition to their arsenal of speedsters, they showed defenses an array of different offensive looks and personnel units. That trend toward different packages has continued today; coaches like Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton often go through 15 different personnel groupings and as many formations in their opening 20-play progression. (Payton may still be doing this with his son’s high school team he’s coaching this year.) This is to create the constant matchup problems that force a defense to adjust: Advantage: offense.
Defenses, in turn, have become as multiple in personnel and packages as the offense and can create specific pressures based on all the criteria above. The Jets, of course coached by Buddy’s son Rex Ryan, now have almost as many different pressures as offenses have formations: Advantage: defense.
The next step, on the part of the offense, has been perfectly logical. By taking the huddle out of the equation and going right back to the line, the offense asserts its basic advantage and gives the defense less time to adjust. Most of the teams running a lot of no-huddle have superb quarterbacks. This is by necessity: quarterbacks are being relied upon to call plays based on what they see rather than on what coaches might anticipate. The ones who can do it best can be, when they get into a rhythm and have the right weapons, nearly impossible to stop.
Baltimore is the most recent team to adopt this philosophy and based on the Ravens’ Week 1 performance against Cincinnati it was a good decision. John Harbaugh said, “When we huddle now, it just seems like the game slows down too much.”
Of course, there are downsides. The Ravens have just started featuring the no-huddle, and they found it much harder to implement on the road last week in Philadelphia (where they used it just six times) than they had at home against Cincinnati (where they used it 22 times).
It’s not just newbies. No one is better at the no-huddle than Peyton Manning. At his best, Manning made the myriad permutations of the no-huddle seem simple. He is going to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in no small part because he can count. It was true with the Colts, and remains so with the Broncos: The three-wideout personnel and formations may not change, but Manning will simply count the box and respond. If there are six people in the box he will run, and if there are seven people in the box he will throw. He finds the right match-ups.
But Monday night in Atlanta, the Falcons threw everything they had at Manning, disguising their looks with their Walking Amoeba defense crowding the line of scrimmage, daring him to throw — and when they intercepted Manning three times in the first quarter, they helped make Denver play catch-up, and with that the Broncos became much more predictable. Part of the reason for Atlanta’s success was head coach Mike Smith’s familiarity with Manning. As the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville for five years, he became all too intimately acquainted with Manning’s abilities, and has learned through hard trial and error to adjust. Advantage, for a weekend at least, defense.
While the vicious cycle of action and response will continue, the game has been, is now and will always be about numbers and angles. First, create more people at the point-of-attack than your opponent: More tacklers than they have blockers, more blockers than they have tacklers.
If you cannot create a numbers advantage, create an advantage in the angles your players have to execute their jobs. If you can shift your tight end in a way that gives him a better angle on a down block on a defensive end, or motion a WR into position to keep a trail defender from jamming him at the line of scrimmage it can be a huge advantage.
Of course, defenses also can create these number or angle advantages with shifting linebackers and safeties in different locations. Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are perfect examples of players allowed to freelance within a larger defensive framework, creating difficulties for offenses to know where the hell they are and what are they doing.
But offenses will keep moving in this direction. More often than not, they set the tempo, they put the defense in a reactive mode, and when they’re moving the ball, they wear defenses out through sheer quantity. NFL offenses have averaged 62-64 plays a game for the last 20 years. Even with the advent of the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the world, that number hasn’t changed much.
The colleges have always averaged a bit more, between 68-69 plays a game. Currently, the spread offense in college — usually in tandem with a no-huddle — is averaging between 75-79 plays a game.
As this style continues to permeate the college ranks, more quarterbacks will come into the pros having been developed in this system. (Of the five starting rookie quarterbacks this season, all but Andrew Luck ran spread offenses in college.) Indeed, running no-huddle for a rookie reduces the amount of offense he has to learn and gives him more of a chance of functioning in a new world of changing defenses and faster players.