Editor's note: My column on the No-Huddle/Hurry-Up Offense can be found over at SBNation.com/NFL, but I figured that there is some Seahawk-specific context worth including here at Field Gulls. So, here the 'extended' edition of my no-huddle/hurry-up post. I'll be writing NFL-related columns weekly over at SBNation.com/NFL, so make sure to bookmark that page this season and check in.
First things first, let's just get this out of the way: the "no-huddle" is not the "hurry-up." Eschewing a huddle is an integral component of running the hurry-up offense, but in any "no huddle" offense, the tempo is dictated by the quarterback and the offensive coordinator. An offense can choose not to huddle but you may still see the quarterback run the play clock down into the teens or even into single digits as he surveys the opposition, makes checks, audibles, or simply changes things up. So, to eliminate any misconceptions, this article will address the no-huddle offense and the hurry up offense, but keep in mind they're not necessarily the same thing.
They're not new ideas either, but both the no-huddle and the hurry-up have seen a resurgence over the past few years and could be part of a major schematic theme we see associated with the 2013 season. Last year, the read-option was everyone's favorite NFL 'innovation,' but if we're judging by how this past week (Week 1) went down, 'tempo' and the 'hurry-up' are going to be major keywords. Chip Kelly's Eagles employed the hurry up, as did the Bills and Patriots, and of course, the Broncos used it extensively as Peyton Manning tied an NFL record for seven touchdown passes in a single game.
Now - I'm a Seattle Seahawks fan, so my fascination with and admiration of the no-huddle and hurry-up will likely remain mostly academic. For a brief while, Seattle did run the no-huddle back in 2011 with Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst at the helm, as Josh Kasparek broke down adroitly at the time. During that brief period where the no-huddle was a part of Seattle's strategy, it seemed more like a quick and dirty way to get back on the offensive than a core philosophy meant for long-term use. The offense had been sputtering beforehand, and started to get a little more rhythm with the change.
At the time, Seahawks Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell talked about the Hawks' success in no-huddle: "I do know it gives us rhythm. I do know our guys play fast. I do know that our guys have less to think about - I mean, it's moving so fast that their focus is really dialed in. They're running those specific plays quickly. They don't have a lot of time to think and all that kind of stuff."
Pete Carroll added: "It's about controlling the tempo. You get to call the plays you want to call, the formations you want to call, the way you want to do it and the time and all of that, the time it takes to get to the line of scrimmage and get them called. It's just about being on the attack. I think I've felt us being much more aggressive in the mode, but we're going in and we're not doing anything exclusive. We're not that far along yet."
Josh predicted then that it would be but a phase, and he was correct. We see now that Seattle rarely runs an up-tempo no huddle because Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell prefer greatly to slow the game down, reduce the number of possessions and plays the opponent gets (as a result of this deliberate manner, they too run fewer plays), and control the playclock and time of possession. "Old school football."
In the 2012 NFL season, only three teams ran fewer plays than Seattle - the Niners, Giants, and Titans, and the gap between the bottom four teams was negligible. Seattle's 60.8 plays from scrimmage per game was dwarfed by New England's 74.4 plays per game - and this was evident when the Patriots played Seattle in Week 6 last season. Tom Brady and the Pats ran 82 plays to Russell Wilson and the Hawks' 53.
Another example - this past week, in win over the Bills, the Patriots ran a league-high 89 plays. That's insane. Contrast to my Seahawks' 61 plays. Seattle's opponent, Cam Newton's Panthers, ran a league-low 50 plays. Different philosophies at work.
Either way, I can't help but like the idea of the no-huddle hurry-up.
When done right, it is devastatingly difficult to defend. It can prevent the opposing defense from substituting, which can expose matchup issues, exploit weak spots, and it can tire defenders out, put them on their heels, and strip them from the ability to go back on the offensive, so to speak. Think of a drive in a no-huddle hurry-up offense as as a 12-punch combo in boxing, a flurry of hits that pushes the opposition into their own corner and prevents them from catching their breath, regaining their balance, and mounting any counterattack. Further, done correctly, you can finish with a haymaker and knock your opponent out. This is the idea of the hurry-up and up-tempo no-huddle.
Offensive innovator Chan Gaily described his philosophy in running the no-huddle in detail in the book Offensive Football Strategies, and he identified principal five reasons for considering the no-huddle.
First, perhaps counterintuitively, Gailey believed it left offensive linemen (the biggest, fattest players on the field) fresher in the fourth quarter and on because it cut out the seven or so yards between the huddle and the line of scrimmage that each hulking beast of a man would need to travel sixty or so times a game. Gailey estimated that to be about 900 yards a game each offensive lineman could cut out during the course of a game. While the oft-cited concern with running the no-huddle/hurry-up in the NFL has revolved around finding athletic enough linemen to run the gauntlet of 75-90 plays a game, it's Gailey's belief that it actually makes it easier on his linemen. Interesting.
Second, in another possibly overlooked factor, Gailey believed that by not huddling, they could increase reps by one-third in practice. Practice-reps translate to improved execution in games, in theory. This was one of the cruxes of Chip Kelly's program at Oregon and will be the same in Philly with the Eagles. As Chris Brown broke down in his article "The New Old School", which explored Chip Kelly's offense at Oregon before he left for the NFL:
Operating under the constraint of NCAA-imposed practice time limits, Kelly's [practice] sessions are designed around one thing: maximizing time. Kelly's solution is simple: The practice field is for repetitions. Traditional "coaching" - correcting mistakes, showing a player how to step one way or another, or lecturing on this or that football topic - is better served in the film room.
The up-tempo, no-huddle offense ends up benefiting in practice as much as it does in games. Without time wasted huddling, players get many more practice repetitions, leading to increased efficiency on Saturdays. As Sam Snead once said, "practice is putting brains in your muscles," and Oregon's up-tempo practices are all about making Kelly's system second nature.
Of course, as I stipulated previously, the no-huddle is not necessarily the hurry-up, and the beauty of the no-huddle is that you can change the tempo to fit your strategy. As Brown pointed out in that article:
There's no question that the no-huddle makes Oregon's attack more dangerous, but it's a common misconception that they have only one supersonic speed. The Ducks use plenty of their superfast tempo, but they actually have three settings: red light (slow, quarterback looks to sideline for guidance while the coach can signal in a new play), yellow light (medium speed, quarterback calls the play and can make his own audibles at the line, including various check-with-me plays), and green light (superfast).
This change of pace is actually how Oregon constantly keeps defenses off balance. If they only went one pace the entire game the offense would actually be easier to defend. When the defense lines up quickly and is set, Kelly takes his time and picks the perfect play. When the defense is desperate to substitute or identify Oregon's formation, the Ducks sprint to the line and rip off two, three, or four plays in a row - and it rarely takes more than that for them to score.
This is a notion that Gailey, too, found to be of utmost importance to the scheme. One of Gailey's most emphasized reasons for using the no-huddle was around the idea of controlling and varying tempo.
Tempo is one of the most unexplored offensive advantages. The two things that the offense knows is "where" and "when". We all seem to spend our time on the where and never give much time or effort to when. By lining up at the LOS, we push the defense into a tempo they are not accustomed to. We relate this idea to gears in a car. First gear is the gear most everyone uses. Both teams huddle then go to the LOS and execute their plays. In second gear, the offense does not huddle; therefore, the defense cannot huddle either. This changes the tempo. Third gear is hurry-hurry offense; with the no-huddle, you can get into this tempo at any time. Now we have the ability to speed up the game or slow it down according to our wants and needs. This keeps the defense off balance.
When the tempo does slow down, one advantage to the no-huddle is that the quarterback is afforded more time at the line of scrimmage to survey the defense and change plays.
As Tom Brady explains, when asked what he looks at when he's running a no-huddle offense:
"I kind of look at everything. You look at how deep the safeties are, where the corners are playing, the leverage of the corners. Obviously how they're defending the slot receiver, where the linebackers are, how they balance up the front of the formation. Do we have any advantageous looks to run the ball?""It's hard to say, at this point it's like trying to say, 'when you're driving down the street, what are you looking at?' I'm looking at my front, I'm looking in the side mirrors, I'm looking at the radio, in my rearview."
For these, and other very obvious reasons, it's nice to have a smart, savvy quarterback like Brady or Peyton Manning that can use that advantage to dissect and destroy opposing defenses.
As a corollary to the no huddle, and varying tempos, says Gailey,
It affects the defense. The defense needs to prepare differently for a no-huddle offense. They must shift into second gear. If we can cause them to spend 10 minutes of practice time a day on developing a different form of communication, that translates into 40 minutes of preparation time spent on something other than defending the actual plays (10 minutes per practice day times 4 days of practice). Also, defense elicits a great deal of emotion - slapping each other, pumping up each other, etc. This is almost eliminated since there is no time to regroup.
In the NFL, with CBA mandated limits on practice time and on-field work, the less time an opponent spends on real, game-speed repetitions and the more time they spend preparing and strategizing for new concepts and nuances, a competitive advantage is gained.
This is something that I think most fans fail to realize - teams only have so much time to install their systems, and realistically, you have to prioritize what you teach. Dom Capers famously regretted not spending enough time on read-option defense last year in the week-long runup before the Packers' Playoff matchup with the Niners (San Francisco had pretty much abandoned the read-option for the previous several games toward the end of the year so Capers likely lowered the priority of that), and Colin Kaepernick and his offense ran roughshod all over Green Bay. This is where simply having the no-huddle in as part of your scheme can give you a slight advantage. This is why teams still, weirdly enough, have the Wildcat in their arsenal. For no other reason than their opponent that week must make the time to prepare for defending it.
While the no-huddle and hurry-up are both old ideas, the full dedication and heavy usage is an innovative strategy, one that legendary coach Bill Walsh predicted would come into play. In his seminal book, Finding the Winning Edge, which is no longer in production, by the way, and costs an absurd but probably worthwhile amount on Amazon, Bill Walsh listed a few concepts that he predicted would change the way football was played. Can you guess which couple were first?
- Teams will huddle only when the clock is stopped.
- Teams will use single-world offensive audibles.
- The quarterback will receive direction from the coach at the line of scrimmage. Because the ball can be put into play at any moment, the defense must commit itself with its front and coverage.
- The quarterback will look to the sideline the instant the whistle blows on the previous play to see which personnel combination is entering the game. The designated coach indicates the formation to the quarterback and whether he should audible his own play or will receive a play call from the coach. All of these steps will occur without a huddle.
- The quarterback will have even more latitude in audibling at the line of scrimmage. His decisions will override those by the coach signaling in a play call.
One of my favorite aspects of the no-huddle/hurry-up is that the teams that are best at it are also the teams that are the most versatile, personnel-wise. Running the hurry-up is about more than simply dictating tempo, it's about dictating matchups. By not allowing an opposing defense to substitute specialized players based on what personnel you put onto the field, you can vary between run and pass depending on what vulnerabilities the defense presents.
When you come out in a 'run-heavy' look with two tight ends, the common response for a defense is to counter with their 'base' personnel. Fewer wide receivers on the field means fewer people to run with in coverage and more tight ends or running backs on the field means more people to account for in run blocking, in theory. When a defense shows a base personnel grouping to better defend the run, for instance, this means a linebacker is going to be matched up with one of your tight ends. If that 6'7, 'run blocking' tight end can run a nine-route up the field at 4.5 speed and burn your linebacker with ease, this creates a problem for your defense.
The Patriots have become famous for this with Rob Gronkowski and, of course, Aaron Hernandez.
"I think one of the biggest differences [between old-school no-huddle and what the Patriots are running today] is just the versatility of the players. How teams try to defend no-huddle is that you have big safeties that are like linebackers. And linebackers are like small safeties that can cover. Then you have big tight ends that can run routes but also run block. And then you have fullbacks that can make a bunch of plays down the field, so it's not like back then, it was like these two guys only do this. This guy, your fullback, only isolates on the middle linebackers and runs diagonals to the flat.
So a lot of what you ask the different players to do within the scheme is to be versatile so that you can go in and out of certain concepts rather than feel really reliant that this is the only thing that you do as a player."
(The Patriots are still going to be extremely versatile but since Gronk is hurt and Aaron Hernandez is locked up, let's take a look at the Broncos as a fun example instead):
In the 2nd quarter of Denver's Thursday Night matchup with the Ravens, Julius Thomas, a capable in-line blocker with excellent downfield speed, caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning after the Ravens' linebackers and secondary left him alone for a split-second. That poor safety on the playside had the unenviable decision between sticking with the outside receiver or the seam-running tight end.
Thomas, who caught two touchdowns on the night and became the first fantasy football breakout star of the season, will likely play a key role in Denver's no-huddle scheme predicated on '11' personnel - three receivers, one tight end and one running back. Each player in the scheme has a role to play in each particular play, and each must be versatile enough to play the different roles in each play. With the combination of Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, and one of their backs, to go along with Manning's mastery of ... well, everything, the Broncos' offense is indeed formidable. Formidable enough to blow out the defending world champs.
It comes down to match-ups and variation within the no-huddle construct. One play - for example, this 7-yard run by Knowshon Moreno in fourth quarter action, the Broncos come out in the no-huddle in 11 personnel and as they're facing nickel defense (five defensive backs, meant to defend against three-receiver sets), they decide to run up the middle.
Julius Thomas, who had already caught two touchdown passes, stays in-line on this play and seals off the defensive end with a key block.
The Broncos, with three wideouts and a pass-catching tight end, have dictated that the defense must respond with a six-man front. Two deep safeties, two corners, and a nickelback are busy worrying about what Welker, Decker, Thomas, and Thomas could do catching the ball downfield, and that gives Denver a great opportunity to run. It's six blockers up front against six defenders in the box. Those are the kinds of numbers you look for.
The very next play, still in no-huddle and facing the same Ravens' personnel grouping (nickel), Manning throws a deep bomb to Demaryius Thomas. This is something that was made possible because Manning knew he'd either be getting a one-on-one matchup on the outside he'd be getting Thomas up the seam again. His read becomes the safety to the playside.
With Julius Thomas getting all the attention from the strong safety, Demaryius Thomas gets his one-on-one and does what he does. Peyton, wily as ever, drops it into a bucket 35 yards downfield.
In a no-huddle, obviously, communication becomes a factor.
Because you can't all huddle up into a circle and tell each other what play to run.
"Communication is everything when it comes to the no-huddle. You have to get the communication to the offensive line first and foremost, to the running backs and also to the wide receivers. Communication is not just from the quarterback to the offensive linemen and to the receivers, but from receiver to receiver, from offensive linemen to offensive linemen. That's why the good teams are so good at it because everybody communicates very, very well together." - Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner.
The Patriots have developed a one-word system for calling plays, the Eagles use signals from coaches to indicate responsibilities of different players, and simplified nomenclature is the norm for all teams that run no-huddle schemes.
One of the reasons all teams do not heavily feature the no-huddle/hurry-up though is that it's extremely difficult to run efficiently. Because of the chaotic nature and fast pace, there are times where some of the players don't know what play to run. There are times when the quarterback can't tell what defense they're facing because, frankly, the defense hasn't had time to get set before the ball is snapped. This goes back to the idea that having a very smart, savvy, experienced team really helps. (duh).
Mostly, though, it comes down to the quarterback, running the show.
If a quarterback can't read coverages or fronts, he's not going to make the right checks and audibles, and the system can break down. If that happens, you're giving the ball back to the opposing offense in 15 or 20 seconds, and your defense is on the field for longer periods of time. The give and take.
Guess what? No conclusions here. It's Week 1. All we can do is monitor the no-huddle trend and enjoy. I, for one, enjoyed watching Peyton pass for seven touchdowns and I enjoyed watching Michael Vick and the Eagles turn up the tempo on the Redskins while jumping out to a huge early lead on Monday Night Football. I just like innovation, and this no-huddle/hurry-up business is exciting.
Photo credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports