When the Green Bay Packers turned to free agency in the offseason for Scott Wells’ replacement at center, it was no coincidence they signed a player who’d spent his long NFL career playing in a no-huddle offense.
Jeff Saturday, the Indianapolis Colts’ starting center from 2000 through last season, was on the free-agent market because at age 37 he didn’t figure in a Colts franchise makeover that included the release of quarterback Peyton Manning and the selection of Andrew Luck with the first overall draft pick.
After Wells signed with St. Louis in free agency, the Packers saw Saturday as their best short-term option among several older centers available while they try to develop a young center over the next year or two. The no-huddle is taking a major role in the Packers’ offense as quarterback Aaron Rodgers hits his prime.
“I think that was the main reason they brought (Saturday) in after losing Scott,” Rodgers said after practice Sunday. “You need a (center) who could fit in the no-huddle idea, tempo, making quick decisions and quick adjustments. He’s done a great job for us.”
The Packers’ no-huddle has grown over the last few years from the rare change-of-pace to a jump-starter to what now appears to be their preferred offensive approach. Last week in their preseason game against Cleveland, the Packers’ starting offense went no-huddle for all three of its possessions.
“It’s something that’s kind of developed,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “The last two years we’ve run it every now and then. It picked up a little bit last year, and I’m sure it will pick up even more this year, just the comfort level with it.”
The Packers’ increasing use of the no-huddle reflects coach Mike McCarthy’s trust in Rodgers, who at 28 is in his eighth NFL season, including his fifth as a starter.
At this point in his career, Rodgers knows the offense as well as the coaches and has seen almost every defensive alignment and blitz combination defensive coordinators can conceive. So McCarthy is more comfortable deploying the no-huddle, in which he gives up most of the play calling to his quarterback in something of a throwback to the pre-1970s NFL.
McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements review their game plans with Rodgers in detail so the quarterback knows what plays they want to run against a given defensive look. McCarthy also can make play-call suggestions via the wireless speaker in Rodgers’ helmet, but generally gives Rodgers a long leash.
“I have a pretty good feel for what we’re trying to do,” Rodgers said.
McCarthy constantly preaches operating his offense at a fast tempo in practice and games, and he likes the no-huddle because it accelerates the pace even though it’s not as fast as the hurry-up or 2-minute offense. That quick lining up makes it more difficult for the defense to substitute based on down and distance, and if the offense finds a favorable matchup in personnel groupings, it can try to milk it for most of a possession. The quicker pace also forces the defense to call plays faster than is comfortable.
“I like the speed and the tempo,” Rodgers said, “I like becoming the aggressor where we can dictate some of the things we’re going to see on the defensive side of the ball. Obviously when teams scheme for us they’re going to have a plan if we do come out and run some no-huddle. But I feel like we can make some quick decisions, try to make them show their hand pretty quickly.”
Last year, McCarthy often used the no-huddle to get the offense going when it stagnated. Playing no-huddle for all three of the No. 1 offense’s possessions against Cleveland, though, suggests it’s the approach the offense might use more often than not this season.
“The main advantage,” backup quarterback Graham Harrell said, “is (the no-huddle) kind of keeps the defense on its heels and lets the quarterback get to the line with a lot of time on the play clock and evaluate what he thinks the defense is trying to do against him. You get to the line with plenty of time. Especially when you have a quarterback like Aaron, it gives you an advantage when he has the chance to stand up there for a while and figure out what they’re trying to do to him.”
Former Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche, with Boomer Esiason at quarterback, was believed to be the first coach to use the no-huddle as a tactic during normal game circumstances in the late 1980s. The Buffalo Bills of that era were the first team to use the no-huddle as their primary offense in what it called the K-Gun, named after former quarterback Jim Kelly.
The Colts used the no-huddle almost exclusively during the Manning era. Many NFL teams now deploy it occasionally, and the teams other than the Packers that use it most regularly are the Atlanta Falcons with quarterback Matt Ryan, the New England Patriots (Tom Brady) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger).
New Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who was the Packers’ offensive coordinator from 2007 through last year, also has been using it this summer, including on almost half his team’s offensive snaps in its preseason opener against Tampa Bay.
Manning was a master of the no-huddle and was especially effective because the Colts almost always deployed the same three receivers, tight end and running back in a possession. They rarely substituted except for goal-line or short-yardage plays, so the defense generally had little or no time to substitute from base to nickel or dime, or vice versa. If he found something that worked, Manning would go to it again and again.
When the Packers go no-huddle, they usually play at least several snaps with one personnel group, but they occasionally substitute one or two skill players in mid-possession.
When the Packers played the Colts or Falcons in recent seasons, their defense practiced all week against the scout team’s no-huddle. Now teams will have to spend even more of their practice time against the Packers’ no-huddle than last season.
“If (defenses) practice it throughout the week, they can handle it, the calls anyway,” Saturday said. “But you can’t take — you put a few long drives together with no-huddle, guys get tired, they have to make changes and substitutions. Teams get physically challenged. That’s to your advantage, but the other side is you can go three-and-out quick, and keep teams fresh. You just have to balance what’s best for your team.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.