No-huddle no longer just a need for speed
Former track star Renaldo Nehemiah, of all people, planted the seed for what has become the every-down, no-huddle offense.
The former world record holder in the high hurdles was giving the NFL a shot as a receiver in the early 1980s, and in his rookie season of 1982 he'd run a deep route during practice with the San Francisco 49ers.
When he finished jogging back to his offensive teammates, he still was breathing hard. Sam Wyche, an offensive assistant with the 49ers at the time, needled Nehemiah about being winded.
"He said, 'Coach, the reason I'm breathing hard is I ran 60 yards, but if you give me about four more seconds I'll be breathing through my nose again,'" Wyche said in a telephone interview this week. "I'm (thinking), 'You just taught me a life lesson. That's what conditioning is, it's recovery time.'"
Wyche put the lesson to use the next season when he took over as head coach for the undermanned University of Indiana. He didn't have the offensive talent to compete with most of the Big Ten Conference, so he decided to occasionally use the no-huddle as his regular offense.
The hope was to play at a pace his team was conditioned to handle but its opponents weren't. Over the course of a game, fatigue might even the playing field. Indiana went 3-8 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten.
"It did work," Wyche said. "We didn't win many, but we came close and we won three. We might not have won three (without it)."
Wyche didn't know it at the time, but he was on his way to changing the NFL, even if it would take more than two decades to fully take root.
He used the no-huddle occasionally the next season after former Cincinnati Bengals owner Paul Brown, one of football's great innovators himself, hired him as coach. Wyche went to the no-huddle more and more until it was the team's staple offense when it went to the Super Bowl in the 1988 season.
A few football generations later, the no-huddle is commonplace in the NFL.
Most teams have it in their systems and use it at least occasionally for a jump-start or change of pace. And several use it as their primary offense, including the Green Bay Packers who will deploy it Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium, where Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly first made the no-huddle famous in the early 1990s.
And just like Kelly's Bills teams, which went to four straight Super Bowls from the 1990 through the 1993 seasons, the Packers think it gives them an edge, even if fatiguing the defense no longer ranks No. 1.
"The origin of the no-huddle is to go fast and get the defense to give you only a couple things, keeps them under control a little bit," said Alex Van Pelt, the Packers' quarterbacks coach and Kelly's backup with the Bills in 1995 and '96. "That hasn't changed."
The history of the football huddle is vague, and the details of the debate aren't worth diving into here. It might date as far back as the 1890s, when the team from Gallaudet, a college for deaf students in Washington, D.C., used it against other deaf schools so they couldn't see their play calls via sign language.
By the 1920s the huddle was becoming more common, and not long after that it was a built-in part of the game. Looking back, in once sense it's surprising that nobody in the NFL before Wyche tried running a no-huddle as a regular offense, rather than just in late-game, catch-up mode. But considering the pushback Wyche took by radically changing the pace of the game, maybe it's not a surprise.
In his first season with the Bengals, Wyche used the no-huddle only occasionally, in part because he was slowly working in
rookie quarterback Boomer Esiason, who was splitting time with Ken Anderson. He used it incrementally more until by 1988, when the Bengals went to the Super Bowl and led the NFL in scoring while running primarily the no-huddle.
By that point, the Bengals were able to access almost their entire playbook in the no-huddle. Wyche used hand signals to make personnel changes and call plays, but Esiason called formations based on the game plan for that week.
Esiason then relayed the calls to his teammates, via voice if they could hear while lined up, or in a sugar huddle, which today more often is called the muddle huddle, about 1½ yards behind the line of scrimmage, if the crowd was loud.
Esiason also could change the play at the line, usually with one word to keep the pace fast. Most plays had an automatic audible from run to pass or vice versa, and he could switch to that play by saying "China."
Just as with teams that run the no-huddle today, Wyche also had several words that meant the same play, so the defense couldn't pick up on a call. For instance, since drawing was similar to painting, a draw play was called "paint" and "Picasso." To switch a run from one side to the other, Esiason would say "Omaha," "Orange" or "Okie," for opposite.
"I had to sell it to the assistant coaches; they'd never done (the no-huddle) before, none of us had," Wyche said. "We had some good discussions. But once we gave it to the players, they fell in love with it. We let them give us the (play) names so they could memorize them easier. Made it pretty easy to install."
Because it was new, it also was controversial. In the playoffs in the '88 season, the Seattle Seahawks' defense feigned injuries on third downs to slow the Bengals and allow time for substitutions. Bills coach Marv Levy threatened publicly to do the same in the AFC championship game because he said the Bengals were breaking the rules by having more than 11 players on the field between plays. The league had said it wasn't illegal as long as they didn't huddle.
But the NFL was concerned about the game becoming a mockery with the fake injuries. So about two hours before kickoff, an NFL executive told Wyche he'd be penalized 15 yards every time he ran the no-huddle. Wyche threatened to tell the media after the game that the NFL had upset the competitive balance of the game. The executive left the room, returned in less than half a minute and gave him the OK.
"We went through everything, from the umpire picking up the ball and holding it behind his back until the defense said they were ready, which is totally illegal," Wyche said. "The offense dictates the tempo of the game. Not the umpire, not television, not the defense, not the other coach cryin'. Nothing. It's the offense."
Perhaps it's no coincidence that the same coach who complained about the no-huddle before losing to the Bengals in the '88 season's AFC championship game became the next no-huddle adherent, only two seasons later.
Levy decided to change after losing in the playoffs to Cleveland the next year. All season Kelly often had been at his best in the two-minute offense, and in that game Levy went to it for most of the fourth quarter because his team trailed by 10 points. Kelly again moved the ball effectively even though the Bills lost.
"We were walking off the field and (offensive coordinator) Ted Marchibroda says to me, 'Marv, how about making that our offense next year?" Levy said in a phone interview this week. "And I said, 'That's exactly what I was thinking.'"
The Bills called the offense the K-Gun, and many football fans have assumed that was for Kelly's last name. But it actually was named for the personnel grouping of three receivers, a tight end and running back that the Bills always deployed for the no-huddle. The "K" was for Keith McKellar, the receiving-oriented tight end who was key to making the offense work because he was fast and athletic.
Levy's version also was different than Wyche's. He simplified the Bills' playbook dramatically and estimates that aside from goal-line and short-yardage plays, his game plan each week consisted of about eight running plays, 10 pass plays and a trick play or two.
"(Simplicity) was one of the things I loved about it," Levy said. "Just a few plays the quarterback could handle out on the field. We got a fantastic number of reps in practice of every play. Our players had great feel and knowledge and confidence in what they were doing. Our practices were shortened by about 25 percent as a result of it because we went at such a fast pace."
The Bills also changed the way they trained. Don Beebe, the former Packers receiver who played for the Bills from 1989 through '94, remembers all the offensive players, linemen included, doing sprint intervals on treadmills in the offseason to get in shape for the fast-paced offense. By the time offseason practices started, the interval rest periods were down to 10 seconds.
Kelly often changed receivers' routes at the line of scrimmage and had the authority to audible into new plays, but he tried to avoid it just to keep the pace of the game fast.
"The greatest advantage of the no-huddle offense was the conditioning aspect of it," Beebe said. "… Jim (Kelly) didn't get rushed (as a passer). It helped tremendously in the running game, because the D-line would just stand there, they weren't even moving at times. Especially late in the game they couldn't pin their ears back and come after the quarterback or stop a running game because they were just tired."
The no-huddle's pace is less of a problem for NFL defenses today. At least five teams — the Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers — use it as their primary offense. Eagles coach Chip Kelly emphasizes tempo more than the rest, and when his team is going its fastest, it's taking only 14 to 16 seconds from the end of one play to the snap of the next.
Defenses have had time to adapt even to that pace, though. The Colts with Peyton Manning started using the no-huddle regularly in the early 2000s, and today almost every team has a no-huddle package. Defensive coordinators spend plenty of time preparing for it in the offseason, and practicing and game planning against it during the season.
However, other advantages still hold up today. It's a way to get favorable matchups in personnel, and down-and-distance, because it limits a defense's ability to substitute — officials only hold up the game for defensive subs if the offense substitutes first.
The no-huddle also forces coordinators to call their defense quickly, and the need for fast communication limits the defensive playbook. When running the K-Gun in the '90s, Kelly generally had to face only a couple coverages. Though defenses now are much better at using more of their scheme against the no-huddle, they're still stressed to go fast and make changes after lining up.
Van Pelt points to the Packers' win over Chicago on Nov. 9, when the Bears blew a defensive audible that let Jordy Nelson run free on a 73-yard touchdown pass.
"Not everybody got (the Bears' new call) and we hit Jordy for a big one up the sideline," Van Pelt said. "Things like that can happen (against no-huddle)."
In fact, the no-huddle today often is more about the cat-and-mouse game at the line of scrimmage, though tempo still matters at times. Now the most common sight is a quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Manning standing at the line playing cat and mouse with defenses throughout the 40-second play clock.
Defensive coordinators more than ever are directing their players to disguise their coverages and blitzes, and schooling them to change alignments as late as possible in the play clock. It's up to the quarterback and the no-huddle scheme to adjust, even in the final seconds.
"In the early '90s we just ran 'em into the ground," said Beebe, who runs the no-huddle as a coordinator for a high school in Illinois. "Now it's more sophisticated. Everything evolves."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.