The Future of the NFL: More Up-tempo No-huddle

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that huddling is an archaism destined for the dustbin. I say it’s a slight exaggeration because there is a value to huddling, primarily when you have a great leader at quarterback as a huddle is an opportunity for him to show his leadership skills. But otherwise, it’s inherently inferior to going no-huddle. It’s slower, which is a problem both in games but also in practice where your offense gets fewer reps, and, maybe most importantly, the safety net of a huddle leads coaches to transform plays that can be communicated in just one or two words into multi-syllabic monstrosities. That’s the sad secret of those long NFL playcalls: They convey no more information than can be conveyed with one or two words or with a combination of hand-signals.

I prefer to go fast

It’s doubly bizarre that the NFL, which has the most (i.e. infinite) practice time to develop no-huddle methods, and where the quarterbacks actually have a radio speaker in their headsets — shouldn’t it be easy? And it’s no secret, too. Despite being a copycat league, most NFL teams don’t do it while the best teams and the best quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — kill people with it every week. And what is strangest of all is that the NFL was onto the no-huddle before most modern teams:

None of this is particularly new. In the 1980s and early 1990s, both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills used the no-huddle extensively, and college and high school teams have increasingly moved to no-huddle approaches over the last decade. In his 1997 book Finding the Winning Edge, Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh—whose West Coast offense fueled the growth of complex play calls—predicted that no-huddle offenses using “one word” play calls would come to dominate football. Walsh may have been a bit early, but Brady and Belichick are making his prediction come true.

But things may be changing, led by an influx of college quarterbacks comfortable in the movements of the no-huddle. As Tom Brady shows every week, there’s an art to manipulating the defense in the no-huddle. And there’s an incredible value to this, as NFL defenses become more and more complex.

Modern defenses want to match offenses in terms of strength and speed via personnel substitutions. They also want to confuse offenses with movement and disguise. The up-tempo no-huddle stymies those defensive options. The defense doesn’t have time to substitute, and it’s also forced to show its hand: It can’t disguise or shift because the quarterback can snap the ball and take advantage of some obvious, structural weakness. And when the defense is forced to reveal itself, Tom Brady can change into a better play. The upshot of this tactic: Brady, of all people, sees defenses that are simpler than those most other NFL quarterbacks go up against.

I’m somewhat more confident about seeing more no-huddle in the NFL both because there was more of it last season, but also because of those young quarterbacks. The “Gruden QB” camps are not the same thing as actual player evaluation, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting subtexts. Last season, everyone jumped on Cam Newton for his performance on Gruden’s show, when he was challenged about how simple his playcalls were at Auburn. The consensus was that because, in Auburn’s no-huddle offense, Cam would simply say “36” instead of one of those long NFL playcalls, he was unfit for the pros. Well those predictions didn’t turn out well.

Flash forward a year and in the Gruden quarterback camps, specifically the ones with Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden, significant time is spent on the up-tempo no-huddle offenses both operated in as they decimated opponents. Gruden asks both the same questions: How do you get lined up so fast? How do you get everyone on the same page? Griffin talks about using one word playcalls, while Weeden describes the elaborate (and sometimes not so elaborate) system of hand signals he uses to communicate everything.

Weeden, of course, uses the same offense and communication methods installed by Dana Holgorsen, which Gruden got to see first hand as he broadcast the 70 point beatdown (much of it coming from the up-tempo no-huddle) that Holgorsen’s current team, West Virginia, delivered in the Orange Bowl. (Also, you have to love Weeden diagramming the infamous Stick/Draw play, a play that is both a run and a pass, as Gruden’s eyes go wide.)

And much of this ignores the greatest benefit the no-huddle delivers: Better and more efficient practices. No one exemplifies that better than Oregon:

“The N.F.L. scouts on the sideline, the first time they come and watch practice, they’re like, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” Costa said. “They’re mesmerized by it. There’s nothing like it.”

An eclectic music shuffle constantly blares to simulate crowd noise. Songs include the symbolic (“Sympathy for the Devil” before the Arizona State game); the hip (tracks from the rapper Drake); and the out of place (“Circle of Life” from “The Lion King”). For good measure, the players hurry around attired in the Ducks’ dizzying yellow and green color scheme.

“Our practices are bedlam,” said the offensive line coach Steve Greatwood.

Underlying these frenetic practices is a change to how teaching is done in football, more and more: with film. Oregon is again Exhibit A:

Oregon’s practices last two hours, an hour less than a typical college practice, and there is so little time between plays that coaches must do their teaching with only a few words or wait until the film room. Kelly said that practice had become so sophisticated and fluid that getting off 30 snaps in a 10-minute period had become common.

Nowadays, everything is videotaped and can be watched instantly after practice. Too often in practice, time is wasted as everyone stands around while one coach delivers one sermon to one player. At Oregon — like Baylor, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and so on — unless a play is really a disaster they simply run the next play and make corrections in the film room or after practice or before the next one, just as it is with a game. As Sam Snead once said, “practice is putting brains in your muscles,” and the up-tempo no-huddle makes practice all the more efficient at doing just that.

The upshot is that the no-huddle puts additional pressure on defenses, simplifies communication, and makes practicing better, more efficient and — sometimes, at least — more fun. It’s a no brainer. And I can’t wait for the NFL to figure that out or, more accurately, remember it.

  • Brandon Hill

    Peyton especially has been running the no-huddle for many years now. I’m shocked that more teams haven’t already gone to this type of offense. Also, with the success it’s had in college, it seems a lot of the coaches are afraid of change. You have to embrace it.

  • NoHuddleAirRaidForTheWin

    Chris, what do you see as the future trend after the no-huddle has became the norm? Will there be any counter-trend, similar to power and option football again becoming a viable strategy because of the spread offense and spread personnel becoming commonplace? 

    Is the no-huddle here to stay for the rest of football history, or will there be a movement back to the huddle one day in the future?

  • smartfootball

    You have to be able to differentiate between cyclical strategies and dominant strategies. Huddling or not huddling is not necessarily a “trend”, in the way power versus speed and so on can be, where your primary advantage comes from your opponents not being ready for what you do. No-huddle, especially in terms of practice, is to me a dominant strategy in that you can make practices more efficient. This is especially important given that the trend is to more restrictions on practice hours and in terms of contact.

    Where no-huddle versus huddling is a trend is with respect to shifts and motion. If you go no-huddle you want to communicate things quickly and at least give the threat of a quick snap. If you do that you’re not going to do a lot of shifts or motions, and those *do* take more time to communicate. And if defenses get very good at defending no-huddle teams — something that hasn’t happened yet — there can be a value to going to a shifting, motion based offense. Again these things aren’t mutually exclusive but they are on one pole or another. 

    Note too the rise of “packaged” or combination concepts like packaging quick screens into a run play or more advanced stuff like the stick/draw. Those are no-huddle concepts — call one concept and read it on the fly. It’s also why a lot of good no-huddle teams are option teams, whether spread style or true triple. But huddling and slower tempo does give QBs more time to make decisions at the line, something I think that has been largely counterbalanced in the NFL with all of the defensive sets and confusion. That’s a big reason why I think it makes sense for NFL teams to go no-huddle more often; it really can cut down on the crap you face.

  • NoHuddleAirRaidForTheWin

     I agree, that makes sense.

    As for the defense getting good at defending no huddle teams, a large part of that I think will come with more versatile and conditioned defenders; IMHO we have definitely seen a movement towards that need with the 4-2-5.

  • vcmoose1

    Time and time again you mention how many people seemed surprised by Cam Newton’s success as a rookie in the  NFL.  I noticed Carolina used a lot of two TE sets with Olsen and Shockey.  How does Carolina’s offense compare to the other major two TE offense that everyone noticed this year: the Patriots? I’m particularly interested in this because my favorite team team, Washington seems poised to draft RGIII and their current personal seemed well suited to run a similar style of offense.

    Thanks in advance…

  • smartfootball

    The Pats are obviously a bit more multiple because of the skills of Gronk and Hernandez and the fact that Tom Brady has been using the exact same offense — though with shifting pieces — for over a decade. I thought Carolina did a great job with their two tight-ends this year. They used a ton of trips or “trey” sets, with either two receivers and an H-back type tight-end or one receiver and two tight-ends to one side, with Steve Smith backside. 

    If Cam got single or good coverage on Smith, he typically took it, and if he had numbers to the trips side they tended to give him a simple pass concept to that side. And if they were too spread out he had good numbers to run the ball inside; Carolina was third in total rushing yards last season and first in yards per carry. A lot of that was structural in just taking advantage of where the D lined up. 

    I think Washington can do some of those things with RG3. I actually think RG3 will be more comfortable reading progressions than Cam was, so should be able to step in to a somewhat more varied attack. The big thing with RG3 is I hope Shanahan uses him as a threat for zone reads and other read schemes. He’s not as good of an inside runner as Cam Newton, but Shanahan wants to use that zone run game and RG3 should instantly make it better by being a run threat.

  • zkinter36

    I’m curious to see if NFL teams will ever blend the No huddle approach with a multiple personnel group/shifting/motion concept.  I don’t see why you couldn’t immediately send a new personnel group onto the field into an initial formation while looking for sight adjustments should the defense not match up accordingly.  Should the defense match up accordingly, you could then send in a shift/motion/playcall.  I’ve never seen a pro team do this, but I would think that it would put a ton of pressure onto the defense… Especially if you were using new shifts and motions every game like many NFL teams do.  In reality, it would give the offense more time and would involve less running to and from the huddle.  The initial alignment becomes the huddle.  Using quick counts on plays without pre snap movement would also be lethal.  As soon as I get my own high school program, you can bet I will try this.  As an offensive coordinator, we use the no huddle successfully with a spread offense (inverted veer/zone read/counter read/west coast passing game).  We are usually only in about 4 formations though, and we motion a little bit with no shifting.  I would think that outside/inside zone from under center with a west coast passing game and multiple shifts/motions out of no huddle would be disgusting.

  • zkinter36

    I think the attribute which really allows Newton to succeed is his physical strength.  He actually reminds me more of an athletic Rothlesburger than anyone else.  It didn’t seem like he made many “rhythm” passing plays last year, but his ability to play after disruption is exceptional.

  • zkinter36

    Having been in a system which uses actual west coast terminology has really opened my eyes to how much excess verbiage there is within that system.  You could literally trim about 50% of the verbiage off of it and have the exact same product.  The thing with that terminology is that every term is very self explanitory, which makes it easier to understand… But is just not efficient for communicating in a no huddle context.

  • NoHuddleAirRaidForTheWin

    I agree. I do not have a very high opinion of Gruden as a coach for that very reason. I do not know him personally, so I am in no position to comment on his personality, but his whole playcalling thing and the fact that he gets to grill these guys as if he is some guru really gets on my nerves. I think Gruden, other West Coach coaches going back to Bill Walsh, and the West Coast believers tend to think that because they have a playbook as thick as a metropolis phonebook, complicated playcalls, and a million adjustments and audibles that somehow they are superior.  It makes me wonder how many more super bowls Bill Walsh’s 49ers could have won if they had taken the core components of the West Coast offense and drastically simplified the playcalling process, adjustments, audibles, assignments, and the way Walsh and his staff taught the plays (i.e. plays vs concepts). I know Walsh won 3 super bowls as the coach, and the system he put in place won 2 more after him, but there were times where the 49ers appeared to be hit by paralysis by analysis (i.e. too much information and too many things to worry about).

  • smartfootball

    It’s highly likely that Bill Walsh was the greatest offensive coach to ever live. He’s certainly in the top three or four guys. If there’s a problem for the latter day West Coast offense guys, it’s that the shadow of Bill Walsh looms so large.

  • coachfort99

    I agree Chris.  Similarly, the concepts that Bill Walsh developed have always seemed to work better when pieced together rather than thrown all at once.  QB decisions are far more improved by understanding a piece by piece approach to passing.
    One analogy that might fit would be the way we view technology.  Who is the smarter guy, the guy who invented TV or the guy who developed the HDTV or the 3D HDTV?  Logic would dictate that the latter 2 guys might not have developed what they did if not for the first guy pointing the way.  Similarly, Bill Walsh “invented” (popularized and categorized) the short passing game and the precision required to play the game that way.  The rest of us who have come later are simply learning from what he did and adapting to the times.  To put it bluntly, we are standing on the shoulders of giants so that we may see over the mountain!

  • Len Swanson

    Amen, Chris.

    As a Chip Kelly disciple, I predict an increase in no-huddle AND aggressive playcalling on 4th down.  The combination is lethal; it’s been working at Oregon for three years, and I’m guessing it will work once Chip bolts for the NFL.  Case in point (jump to 1:30 for the combo):

  • I strongly believe that is the approach Bevell should take with Russell this season. The defensive coordinators will have been spending the offseason figuring out ways to counter the Seahawks offense. If Russ comes up to the line in a no-huddle setup and CALLS HiS OWN PLAYS a la Manning, the the defense will go crazy. And Russell has the intelligence and work ethic to do just that, even this early in his career.

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