The no-huddle offense has become the rage, but where did it begin? All roads lead to Sam Wyche, the mad genius who introduced the offense to the NFL almost 30 years ago with the Cincinnati Bengals. Wyche is retired and living in Pickens, S.C. with his wife, Jane, and three dogs. He’s been a volunteer coach for most of the past decade at Pickens High, teaching the no-huddle to the Blue Flame.
Today’s generation has been far more open to it than old NFL, where the no-huddle was initially derided as a “Popcorn offense.” Wyche said the league even tried to ban the offense right before the 1988 AFC Championship Game.
In our 10 Questions segment, Wyche discusses the past and future of the no-huddle, the state of the league, its quarterbacks and America’s standing in the world.
Q: When you see how popular the no-huddle has become, do you feel like a proud father?
Wyche: “It makes me remember the old days when it wasn’t very popular. I really first tried it out at Indiana. We were not a real strong team and had to come up with some new ideas, and that was one of them. When we got to the NFL we ran into strong opposition from officials. Every week they had a different ruling and different interpretation. At the league meetings, I had a very good coach and a coach I admire very much say, ‘This is popcorn football and not in the spirit of the game. We should outlaw it.’”
Q: The advantages of the no-huddle are obvious now. Why didn’t somebody come up with the concept before you?
Wyche: “Most coaches coach what they were coached and repeat what their coaches and position coaches taught them in high school and college. It gets very uncomfortable to get into uncharted waters and try something. You know there’s an owner in the NFL or an athletic director in college, and if things don’t work out they’ll want to know why they hired you to do this, and you’re doing something else.
“Once it caught on and defenses had to defend it, they could see the advantages of it. Defensive coaches would say, ‘Hey, I can’t get my signals in. There’s no way we can blitz. I can’t get my subs in.
“All that was positive for the offense and negative for the defense. As a result, more scoring takes place and more plays are run. Every year at the league meetings, and I was there 12 years, that was the No. 1 subject. How do we create more scoring? We sell more tickets to high-scoring games. We didn’t want it to become like soccer.”
Q: Cincinnati had the No. 1 offense when it won the AFC in 1988. What tactics did defenses use to try to slow you down? Seattle had a half-dozen players go down with alleged knee injuries in the AFC playoff game.
Wyche: “The only way to slow it down was to get up slowly off the pile. Make a tackle and if you can, grab the football and take it to the official. And take your time doing it. But the game is designed for the offenses to dictate the tempo. Not the umpire, not TV promos, not the defense. The offense. I don’t know where in the rulebook it says you have to go back eight yards behind the ball and clock 20 seconds and allow the defense to make substitutions. We said, ‘The heck with this 8-yard business.’
“In the Seattle game, NBC had a close-up of a coach on the sideline. He’d point his finger like he had a gun in his hand and pull the trigger and (Seattle tackle) Joe Nash would go flying to the ground. He’d get up off the pile, look the sideline, and if he got shot he’d go down.
“I said to the side judge, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Don’t you see what they’re doing?’ He said, ‘I’m not a doctor. If a guy is hurt, he’s hurt.’ I said, ‘Just keep watching, because you’re going to get your degree real quick.’”
Q: In the 1988 AFC Championship Game in Buffalo, did the NFL really plan to penalize you for using the no-huddle offense you’d run all season?
Wyche: “Two hours before the game, Pete Rozelle sent a representative to say we’d be penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct every time we used it. The commissioner said it was too high-profile of a game, and Marv Levy said he’d fake injuries the same way Seattle had if we ran the no-huddle. (Rozelle) said he didn’t want the game to become a farce. And it would be my fault, not Marv Levy’s?
“I told the league rep to get Pete on the phone. I wanted him to understand that the first thing we’d discuss in the postgame was that we lost because of penalties. And that there was a lot of money and gamblers out there who would not be happy with him. He sent word back within 20 or 30 seconds that they would not penalize us.
“At the league meetings in March the following year, Rozelle tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘We didn’t give you just two hours' notice. We told Paul Brown the day before we were going to penalize you.’ Shortly thereafter, Pete Rozelle resigned. I don’t know if that played a role, but it was one of his last orders. And it wasn’t a good one.”
Q: That win got you to the Super Bowl XXIII, where you lost to San Francisco 20-16. The game is remembered for Stanley Wilson relapsing into his drug habit the night before, and for Joe Montana’s winning pass. Does the memory still hurt?
Wyche: “I don’t think about it every day, that’s for sure. I have a lot more going on my life. But it was a heartbreaking game, a great game. Thank goodness it was won on a good play and not a mistake by a defensive player. It was a perfectly thrown ball from Joe Montana to John Taylor with 34 seconds left.
“That’s behind us now. They won the game. I wish we’d had Stanley Wilson. If you remember, the field hadn’t been watered correctly or had been watered too much. Stanley Wilson was one of those Barry Sanders-type runners who kept his feet low to the ground and dart left and right. He’d have had people falling down. Whereas our other two runners, James Brooks and Ickey Woods were long striders.
“It kind of nullified their quickness and speed because of their style. It would not have nullified Stanley. I think he’d have had a big day rushing the ball, but we’ll never know.”
Q: Defenses eventually catch up to whatever offenses devise. Where to you think the no-huddle will be in 10 years?
Wyche: “I think it will spawn other ideas that won’t actually be part of the no-huddle. They can be run coming out of a huddle. For instance, the rules say you have to have seven men on the line. There’s no reason to have seven standing right next to each other. You could actually have two lines – four guys over here, three over there, receivers on both sides, running backs on both sides. The quarterback gets the ball from one of the two lines and has options to run behind either offensive line.
“The field is almost 53 yards wide. You’d be 20 yards apart and create a lot of open space for screen-type plays and quick throws. So I see the game evolving no so much from the no-huddle, but because of the no-huddle and the lack of time to find out what everybody is doing. Suddenly you’re coming up with strange formations, motions, shifts. All those things could be down the road.”
Q: If you were NFL commissioner, what would your first order of business be?
Wyche: “I’d try to adjust the way players are being fined for hitting, and what is a judgment call by officials on unnecessary roughness. All injuries are freak injuries. Nobody says, ‘I’m going to go out and break my arm on this play.’ Most injuries happen when players are playing at different speeds. I used to tell my assistants to never say it’s the last of practice. Some guys start unwrapping. Others make strong finishes, and that’s where players get hurt.
“So I’d give an unnecessary roughness a warning ticket first. Once you get a warning, the next time it will be called a penalty. The player will be on double-secret probation, so to speak. Then you get players playing more like they have all their lives through high school and college and most of their pro careers. They’ve been taught to go full speed, to deliver a blow, how to take a blow and how to fall.”
Q: A team hires you as coach tomorrow. Which quarterback would take if you could choose any of them?
Wyche: “It’d be the names you think of first. If I could go back and re-wind Father Time a little bit, I’d take Peyton Manning. You get more with Peyton. You get a player with the mentality of a coach and you get an accurate passer. Quarterbacks have to be accurate and smart. All other qualities are bonuses. Peyton is that. Drew Brees. Tom Brady is that.
“Young players these days also have mobility. That’s a plus. But if you’re not accurate and smart, mobility won’t help them. Put them at running back.”
Q: When you were in Cincinnati you seemed to take joy in stoking the rivalry with Cleveland. People still remember how you tried to quell a snow-ball throwing Bengals crowd by getting on the P.A. microphone and saying, “You don’t live in Cleveland!” Was most of that just show-biz, and how do Browns fans treat you now?
Wyche: “Really, it’s very good. Other than places where I was head coach, today I still get more cards from the Cleveland area asking me to please sign this and send it back. I used to have a routine where I’d jog around the field before the game. That’s how I’d get the butterflies out and get the adrenaline going. In Cleveland, it was always fun when I got to go by the Dawg Pound. I’d jump up on the wall and sit there and sometimes go up into the stands and talk to fans. There was no animosity.
“It was a different rivalry, no question about that. We wanted to beat them as badly as they wanted to beat us. The history of Paul Brown and Art Modell played a part of that, probably. A lot of fans were pulling for Paul Brown, but also pulling for their team. That was an important week because Paul Brown was at practice. When Paul Brown showed up at practice, you knew it was big to him.”
Q: You served on the Pickens County Council and considered running for Congress. What do you think of the state of politics and the dissatisfaction people have with Washington?
Wyche: “I’m having the same dissatisfaction. The main problem is a lack of trust in our entire country. We don’t trust each other like we once did. And we sure don’t trust our politicians because they keep proving when we discover how they’re spending money and what they’re doing that we can’t trust them. There’s no reason to trust them.
“Obamacare has been one lie after another. I have a Republican tag by my name, but I’m moderate, right down the middle. I wish we had a fair, cooperative group of people. Term limits would help. They would work together rather than work to build up their party to look better. They’d work together to make the country better and stronger and more admired than we are today. We’re not admired like we once were.”