Fat Camp: Thoughts on the no-huddle and balanced offense

A new way of playing offense has come to Denver, one that’s new to us, anyway.  When they went without a huddle Sunday night, the Broncos became unstoppable.

When you combine the brilliance of Peyton Manning with the altitude of Denver, you’re cooking with gas when you can sustain no-huddle drives.  I’m not in complete agreement with Doug’s article from Monday, and I want to give you a slightly different take.  First, I want to clarify the no-huddle, and second, I want to touch on some strategic offensive thinking.

I want everybody to understand the no-huddle better than it’s presented to them by the average talking head on TV.  There’s a significant amount of misunderstanding about the no-huddle, so let’s start with three key points, to level-set the discussion:

1.  The no-huddle offense is not the same thing as the hurry-up offense.  Going without a huddle allows an offense to snap the ball quickly, but it doesn’t require it to do so.  When an offense plays hurry-up, it will usually go without a huddle, but going without a huddle gives the QB wide latitude on when to snap the ball.  Peyton Manning often waits until the play clock runs down, and I’ll explain why shortly.

2.  Going no-huddle isn’t necessarily any more aggressive or passive than playing with a huddle.  It’s simply making a choice that there’s no need to have a committee meeting before each play.  There are pros and cons to that decision, which we’ll also explore.

3.  When we talk about tempo in football, what we really mean is that the offense has the advantage of choosing precisely when each play starts, within the limitations of the play and game clocks.  By controlling the tempo, and especially by varying it, the offense can gain advantages.  An example of this is Tom Brady’s propensity to quick-snap the ball when he wants to hand it off, while defenses are substituting and getting set.  He can’t do that every snap, but if he gets three or four of them per game, for 15 yards a run, that’s significant.  Playing tempo doesn’t necessarily mean going 100 mph at all times, though.  There’s much more to it than that.

The objective of football games is to win, and I’ve never seen another QB who understands that so deeply, and who does so many subtle things to promote victory as Peyton Manning.  Most of the time, he likes to use the entire play clock, and there are a couple of reasons why.  For one thing, it forces defenses to show their hand eventually, and lets him adjust his call based on what they show. 

More importantly, though, it shortens the game.  Manning is a QB who clearly thinks that fewer possessions in games leads to more victories. That's rare, both in terms of the innate football sense that it shows, and the willingness to sacrifice the opportunity to accumulate personal statistics, in the service of increasing the likelihood of victory.

The objective of football games is not to accumulate statistics, it’s to win.

Manning knows that his offense is usually more efficient at scoring points than that of the opposing team, so if each team has eight possessions, as opposed to 11 or 12, his more efficient unit is going to score more points than the opponent, while reducing the chances for randomness to occur in the game, and swing the result.

I know that some teams, the Oregon Ducks for example, view more possessions as being better, but I don’t, and neither does Manning.  He’s going to get his 28 points, and he’s not going to give you any more chances to run back a tipped pass or a kickoff for a TD than he has to.

You may have never noticed, but Peyton Manning-quarterbacked games are almost always over pretty quickly.  Manning likes to run the ball a lot, when the box count is favorable, because it makes the clock run, and because it opens up throwing lanes - by forcing LBs and DBs to start keying the run.  He truly has a head coach’s feel for total game management, and it’s never about stats or personal heroism, only about winning.

Frankly, Manning doesn’t seem to care about the entertainment value that the game holds for fans.  He’s quarterbacked a lot of boring, “workmanlike” (to use a stupid sportswriter cliché) 28-13 games, in which he went 20-for-26, for 250 yards, and three TDs, and his team ran the ball as often as he threw.  You know how people say a QB just wins?  This QB just wins, and he makes conscious decisions that lead to that result.

The main benefit of playing no-huddle is that you can effectively prevent the defense from substituting, and therefore, you can prevent them from making a lot of exotic specialty calls.  The lack of substitution becomes especially problematic for the defensive line, because they’re used to rotating throughout the game.  I’ve said this before, but for a 300-pound man, it’s unnatural to be quick, explosive, and powerful coming out of a three-point stance 70 times in a game.  For that reason, you ask them to do it 45 times, and you have their backup do it 25 times.

You can substitute D-linemen against the no-huddle, but for the most part, you have to do it by series, because it’s a long, time-consuming run to the sideline between plays.  That means that you may send in a sub on 1st-and-10 from the 20, and he’s going to get stuck on the field.  If that same guy has to play 12 snaps in a row, he’s bound to get tired, and lose effectiveness as he goes.  The defense can’t take the risk of running in a defensive lineman from the sideline to replace him when the offense is set up at the line of scrimmage, and ready to snap the ball.  Manning can just snap the ball and get a five-yard penalty while the two guys are passing on their way in and out of the game.

The downside of not huddling is that it becomes more challenging to keep everybody on the same page offensively.  In the huddle, you can say Twins Left, Zebra 787 H Angle F Stop Queen, and all 11 guys can hear that and know what it means; you’ve conveyed a lot of information – formation, motion, route assignments for five players, and protection.  At the line of scrimmage, you’re left with code words and hand signals, and at the college level, (notably at Oregon), often with illustrated placards on the sideline that a coach holds up, and the whole offense looks over at, and deciphers.

If you have a really complicated offense, you end up having to scale back significantly in the no-huddle.  If you have a simple offense, with few plays, like Peyton Manning’s Colts offense historically did, you can more easily use the whole playbook, such as it is.

I think that Cris Collinsworth nailed it on Sunday night, when he said that Peyton Manning seemed to be keying on Troy Polamalu.  When Polamalu aligned deep, Manning handed off; when he was at the line of scrimmage, he threw the ball.  One thing that can help the whole offense is if everybody knows what the main key is.  If the read is pass, based on that main key, Manning can simply hand-signal the receivers the route concept that he wants, and the center can indicate the protection.  If it’s run, a code-word, or a hand signal to the center (looking through his legs in shotgun) can communicate the blocking plan.

One thing that I know the Broncos are doing is using what we call “check with me packages.”  These are getting really big at the college level, and Manning has been the master of it for years.  The offensive coordinator will call a package of two plays, and Manning gets to choose the better of the two, based on the defensive alignment.  The 71-yard TD to Demaryius Thomas on Sunday was a clear example of check with me – Manning had the option to run right, or throw back left.  He made the right choice.

One thing that is helpful toward being effective in no-huddle is having a good third receiver, and a good second tight end.  When you can play in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), you force the defense to make a choice that is going to be wrong no matter what – do we play base, or do we play nickel? 

If you play base, I’m pretty sure I’m getting zone coverage, because your LBs can’t cover my TEs.  I’m just going to throw the ball with zone-beating concepts, and pick you apart.  I also feel pretty good about running the ball, because my TEs can block your LBs, at least passably.

If you play nickel, I’m going to look to run the ball, because your extra DB isn’t typically going to be used to playing off blocks like a LB would be.  I have a size and strength mismatch.

In 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), the defense is usually going to play nickel, and the benefit there is that on most teams, the fifth DB is a lesser player than the starting LB or DL who he replaces.  You’re forcing the defense not to play its best 11 players, and that works to the advantage of the offense.

Once you start a no-huddle possession, you can substitute a bit on offense, without letting the defense match you.  If I have Willis McGahee, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Joel Dreessen, and Jacob Tamme on the field on first down, and I run off tackle toward the Broncos sideline with McGahee, I can have Knowshon Moreno and Brandon Stokley standing ready to replace McGahee and Dreessen as soon as the whistle blows, and before the offense even gets to the line of scrimmage.

Ordinarily, somebody in the coaches' box sees the offensive substitution into the huddle, and calls out a defensive substitution to the sideline to match the personnel.  The offensive personnel change happens too fast for the defense to match it, and they can be caught in an unfavorable matchup for a play, or even a series of plays, if the offense hurries to the line.

Have you ever been in a three-point stance?  It’s not a particularly comfortable or natural thing to do.  One of my favorite things to see is Peyton Manning lining up the offense with 35 seconds left on the play clock, and then leaving everybody in their stances for 30 seconds before snapping the ball.  It takes energy, patience, and focus to stay in that three-point stance for that long, and it makes it less likely that Joe Defensive Lineman, who’s tired from playing eight straight snaps, is going to be able to devote as much energy and focus to coming off the ball as explosively as he would have if he’d been in his stance for 10 seconds rather than 30.

I thought that Doug’s article was interesting, and that it drove a lot of good commentary.  I have a slightly different take, though, as I mentioned.  I believe that Manning is every bit as conservative-natured, and risk-averse as John Fox is, and the evidence comes from the fact that he loves to milk the play clock so much. 

Both guys believe in playing a fundamentally sound game and sticking to the process, while minimizing the effects of randomness and letting the details work out favorably through repetition and proper execution.  I think that Manning’s assessment of what is and is not risky doesn’t necessarily fit with coaching norms, though, and I think there will need to be a meeting in the middle between Manning and Fox on that score.

For example, if you’ve ever seen Manning wave off a punt team on 4th-and-1 near midfield, it’s clear that he understands that going for it is mathematically the right call in that situation.  I think Manning also would view throwing the ball to a “covered” receiver differently than other QBs would, because he can throw it to the uncovered shoulder of the receiver with accuracy.  It’s a risk for Jake Locker, but it’s not much of a risk for Manning.

If you give Manning a light box count, though, he wants to run the ball, because his probability for success is high, and his probability for failure (risk) is low.  If you show blitz from the edge, like the Steelers often did, he’ll motion somebody in to block that edge guy, and mitigate some risk.  If you show two deep safeties, he usually won’t try to throw the deep ball on you; the less risky play is to throw it in front of them.

It’s easy to see that the average pass play gains 6.2 yards, and that the average run play gains 4.2 yards, and to come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is just pass the ball almost all the time.  The problem is that a lot of the success that teams have throwing the ball comes from the fact that defenses have to account for the run.  In other words, 6.2 and 4.2 aren’t individually measurable absolutes – they’re codependent, at least to some degree. 

As an extreme example, let’s say an offense decides that it’s going to throw the ball 100% of the time.  As a defense, you can completely change the way you play, and use personnel and tactics which are geared toward stopping the pass.  You can play a bunch of zone defense, and have your pass rushers just pin their ears back and go.  Or, you could rush nobody, drop ten men, and spy the QB with one player, effectively making the five offensive linemen meaningless.  That offense isn’t going to get anywhere near 6.2 yards per play, I can assure you of that.

I’m not saying that you have to run the ball 30 times and throw it 30 times, but some semblance of balance is a really important thing, in a meta- sense, because it helps you run when the defense thinks you’re going to pass, and it helps you pass when the defense thinks you’re going to run.  Even the mere possibility of doing that which is unexpected can help you do the expected thing.

I look at what the Carolina Panthers did on Sunday, and I see a complete offensive failure that was caused by inappropriate balance.  Rob Chudzinski got really cute with his scheme and play-calling, and he had Cam Newton drop back to throw 36 times, against only 13 running plays.  The Buccaneers are an undersized defense, and they like to play a lot of Cover-2, and that’s exactly the kind of team you want to run the ball on, the Panthers' 10 yards on 13 carries notwithstanding. You have to make a Cover-2 defense drop that eighth man into the box, or it'll be a struggle to throw.  Instead, Chudzinski stuck with his spread-out formations, and his insistence on throwing repeatedly, and Cam Newton threw the ball to the Bucs twice, like he tends to do.

I think Newton is pretty overrated as a passer thus far in his career, but Chudzinski could help him by using those expensive RBs to gain some yards, and to force those LBs and safeties to honor the running game, thus opening up some available passing areas.  Newton would be deadly in a run-heavy offense, like the one he played in at Auburn.  You remember that he played in a spread offense, which is a stupid and meaningless term, but it was the kind of spread offense where the Tigers ran 46 times per game, and threw 21 times per game.  No NFL team should be 2-to-1 run, but intelligently establishing the run and using play action would unquestionably help Newton.

If you think in terms of arithmetic, as Bill Clinton would say, you should always choose the approach that provides the best chance of success.  I think that most football coaches try to behave that way, but many of them don’t truly grasp the math.  I think that Peyton Manning grasps it very well, and that his contribution to on-field football decision-making will be as important as his play.  But I do expect the Broncos to generally stay pretty conservative, and not to ever start acting like the Oregon Ducks.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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