I've often wondered why a league that is governed by quarterback play has been slow to cater to the skills of young signal callers entering the NFL. Instead of ham-handedly plugging QBs into complex systems that require mastering excessive verbiage and complicated progression reads, why don't NFL offensive coordinators mesh their preferred system with concepts that are familiar and comfortable for young passers?
Now, typically, I'm as old-school as they come on the subject of offensive schematics, based on my exposure to particular coaches -- see: Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden, Andy Reid, Al Saunders, Paul Hackett, Mike McCarthy, Bill Callahan, Kevin Gilbride and Dan Henning -- during my time as a player and scout. To me, that's a list of some of the brightest offensive minds in NFL history. But when I was under them, these wily architects believed in traditional methods. They required young quarterbacks to not only master a complex playbook with lengthy play calls and full-field reads, but also possess a solid grasp of defensive fronts, coverages and blitz responsibilities.
Sure, every quarterback in the NFL must eventually master those things to continue succeeding at the highest level. But -- and here's where I differ from some of my mentors -- I believe the no-huddle offense can significantly simplify today's game to help a young passer thrive.
Part of my belief in the no-huddle stems from my experience as a player with the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s, when I joined a team fresh off four straight Super Bowl appearances. Although the Jim Kelly-led squad failed to lift the Lombardi Trophy during that time, the Bills' offensive dominance behind the "K-Gun" left an indelible impression on me as a young player. Like most observers in that era who watched Buffalo's offense light up scoreboards around the league behind a frenetic no-huddle offense, I thought the unit's success was largely due to a Hall of Fame quarterback masterfully controlling the game from the line of scrimmage. From calling nearly every play to changing formations and making blitz adjustments on the fly, Kelly was like a chess player controlling the board with his every action. He deserves a ton of credit for his ability to manipulate opponents with his mind, BUT I also believe the no-huddle allowed the Bills to dominate opponents behind a simplistic schematic approach that mirrors some of the spread concepts dominating football at the lower levels today.
In Buffalo, we used extremely concise play calls (a couple words or so) to communicate assignments to the offensive line and skill players, thus allowing us to play at a breakneck pace. For example, Kelly would shout out "one, ninety-one" or "one, fifty-six," with the first number providing the formation and the second number indicating the route or running play. I was amazed at the simplicity of the communication, how easy it was for a young player to pick up the nuances of the system.
Knowing some of the no-huddle systems coaches are utilizing at the high school and collegiate levels, I believe more NFL teams should explore the possibility of playing faster and giving their young quarterbacks the power to control the game at the line of scrimmage. QBs entering the league these days are comfortable directing a no-huddle offense, having grown up in the spread era. In addition, the explosion of 7-on-7 competition has allowed young quarterbacks to control all aspects of the passing game in their teenage years. (In some states, coaches aren't even allowed on the field during 7-on-7 events.)
With buzz building that a few NFL teams are looking to increase their utilization of the no-huddle offense to help their young quarterbacks play their best, I want to explore why the scheme can be so effective.
The no-huddle offense puts young quarterbacks in their comfort zone.
Part of the transition to the spread and no-huddle offense certainly can be attributed to Cam Newton's success in Carolina. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft quickly made the transition from spread-option college quarterback to high-level NFL starter by directing an offense that blended some of his favorite concepts at Auburn with a scaled-down menu of plays from a traditional pro script. With the Panthers also mixing in some no-huddle and up-tempo pacing, Newton has become one of the league's best quarterbacks, having just taken home MVP honors and led Carolina to the Super Bowl.
Now, old-school quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators frequently cite experience under center as a vital component when evaluating young quarterbacks, but honestly, the NFL has become a shotgun league over the past few seasons. In 2015, teams aligned in shotgun formation on 61.7 percent of offensive snaps, compared to 59.6 in 2014 -- and up significantly from the 40 percent of shotgun snaps logged in 2011. Thus, the pro game mirrors the college game far more than most observers acknowledge.
Consequently, NFL offensive coordinators would be wise to put their young passers in the shotgun, allowing them to utilize the footwork and mechanics they're most comfortable with. This is crucial for greenhorns, as a comfortable quarterback plays more decisively and with better accuracy.
Another thing that helps a young QB: Picking the pace. Anyone who has watched the college game over the past five seasons is very familiar with this strategy. But the no-huddle trend didn't really catch on in the pro game until pretty recently. In 2011, the no-huddle was utilized on only 5.7 percent of total snaps, compared to 12.4 percent in 2014 and 13.1 in '15.
The no-huddle allows offenses to regroup at a rapid pace between plays. This is accomplished by using succinct play calls to signal the formation, blocking scheme and play (as touched on above). With young quarterbacks comfortable communicating play calls with minimal verbiage, the no-huddle approach allows signal callers to avoid the excessive chatter that can muck up a traditional offense.
I'm not surprised to hear the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders are among a handful of teams looking to take more no-huddle snaps in 2016. Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston and Derek Carr all have shined when asked to direct no-huddle offenses at the end of halves, and that success has prompted their coaches to make the scheme a significant part of the game plan. Bortles and Carr, in particular, have performed at a highly encouraging level when playing with pace: The Jags QB posted a whopping figure of 9.7 yards per attempt in no-huddle situations last season, while Carr completed 76 percent of his passes in this scenario. Although Winston's numbers aren't up to standard from an individual standpoint, the Buccaneers finished tied for eighth in points (70) in the final two minutes of halves. So, yes, Tampa Bay is plenty efficient when Winston is allowed to control the game from the line of scrimmage.
Of course, you need a lot of trust and communication to allow a young quarterback to take control of the offense. Then again, coaches can implement a few tactics to give their signal callers enough options to handle the various defensive fronts and coverages opponents will use to disrupt rhythm. Play callers can install some packaged plays (concepts that feature quick-pass, bubble-screen and running-play options) and some "check with me" calls (quarterback has a three-play menu to choose from, based on defensive front or coverage) to combat any defensive tactics.
With a handful of blitz-beaters and audibles also available, a young quarterback can succeed with a small play sheet at his disposal.
Combining quick routes with a no-huddle tempo increases QB efficiency.
Stringing together first downs is the key to successfully operating a no-huddle offense. Quarterbacks must take advantage of high-percentage passes to stay ahead of the chains and keep the offense in manageable situations. A coordinator enhances his quarterback's chances by featuring a quick-rhythm passing game that utilizes isolation routes (quick outs, hitches and slants) on the back side of 3-by-1 formations, or "cat and mouse" concepts (slant-flat, double slants and stick-go outside) that allow the passer to make a read off a single defender.
Studying the stats of the aforementioned trio of young QBs, it is not a coincidence that, on no-huddle plays, each of them averaged less than 10 air yards per attempt in 2015 (Winston is at 9.0, while Bortles' figure is 8.3 and Carr's is 6.6). To establish an offensive rhythm, quarterbacks must be able to string together a series of completions that results in multiple first downs. That's why featuring a passing game built around quick routes is essential to thriving in a no-huddle offense.
Look no further than four-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady -- and specifically, his success through the years in directing the Patriots' no-huddle offense without a number of A-level stars on the perimeter. The veteran has a terrific understanding of how to attack the vulnerable areas of coverage with a variety of quick routes, particularly from spread formations with skill players placed in unique alignments (running backs or tight ends aligned outside of wide receivers in empty formations).
If Bortles, Winston and Carr can master the nuances of attacking the defense with jabs to set up knockout blows, these three youngsters will not only help their respective offenses rise to another level, but they can lead their teams into playoff contention.
The no-huddle tempo handcuffs the opposing defensive coordinator.
For all of the positive benefits the no-huddle gives a young quarterback, the biggest benefit is the dramatic effect that an up-tempo attack has on an opposing defensive coordinator. Fast-paced offenses limit the options available to the defensive play caller, primarily due to concerns about communication. Coaches are reluctant to blitz against no-huddle offenses because a player or two could fail to get the call from the sideline, leading to a blown coverage and an easy score on the perimeter. Thus, quarterbacks directing no-huddle offenses are more likely to face static defenses.
In addition, quarterbacks operating a no-huddle offense will see fewer exotic pre-snap disguises and blitz looks because, in frenetic moments, defensive coordinators emphasize proper alignment over deception. At a time when top quarterbacks are capable of picking apart defenses when they can identify the coverage prior to the snap, the ability to eliminate defensive disguise is a huge advantage for the offense.
Lastly, the no-huddle tempo prevents defensive coordinators from freely substituting personnel to get their optimal defensive package on the field in key moments. Defensive play callers are unable to run situational pass rushers and extra defensive backs onto the field, which affects how defenses match up with spread formations.
If a quarterback has a great understanding of pace, he can render even the wiliest defensive coordinator a helpless sideline observer.
Why are some teams reluctant to utilize the no-huddle with a young QB?
What's the biggest obstacle preventing teams from handing over the keys of the offense to a young quarterback? The ego of the offensive coordinator. Most play callers are not only control freaks, but they're guys who are hoping to parlay their team's offensive success into a head-coaching opportunity down the road. Some will snicker at that thought, but receiving credit for a team's success is essential to landing one of the 32 top jobs.
For an offensive coordinator to relinquish control of the offense, he must trust his QB's football IQ and judgment. Despite some of the simplicity associated with no-huddle offenses, there are a number of split-second decisions a quarterback must make to put the offense in the best position to succeed consistently against elite defenses. The signal caller must understand how to manage the game through conservative play from the pocket while also pushing the envelope with aggressive playmaking attempts. To master that part of the game, the quarterback and offensive coordinator must work through situations on the practice field and constantly exchange ideas throughout the game on the sidelines between possessions.
Now, I know defensive-minded observers will question whether a no-huddle strategy will expose the team's own defense to extra snaps and possessions. But I believe a young quarterback with a good understanding of situational football can control tempo and dictate the terms to the opposing defense while also draining the play clock from time to time to ensure enough rest for his defenders. In the end, it comes down to stringing together first downs and scoring touchdowns in the red zone. When I've spoken to college coaches in the past -- guys like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin -- they've cited 30 first downs as the standard for winning football on the collegiate level. I believe 28 first downs is the magic number in pro football, based on the reduced number of offensive snaps in the NFL game. If young quarterbacks understand how important it is for the offense to surpass that metric, their defenses won't be exposed to the excessive workload that undermined the Philadelphia Eagles' D under Chip Kelly.
Who are some of the other young QBs with the tools to go no-huddle?
Well, I think Brock Osweiler could excel in a no-huddle offense in Houston. The Texans' marquee free-agent signee efficiently directed an up-tempo offense at Arizona State under Noel Mazzone, which is why Bill O'Brien could opt to mix in some no-huddle to help his young passer find a rhythm in H-Town. By granting the fifth-year pro -- and first-time No. 1 QB -- the freedom to run the show from the line of scrimmage, O'Brien can allow Osweiler to push the pace and keep opponents from attacking him with a host of exotic blitzes and pre-snap disguises to exploit his inexperience (only seven NFL starts). In addition, the rapid pace will prevent opponents from using creative coverages to double-team or bracket DeAndre Hopkins on the perimeter.
Oh, and just in case you forgot, O'Brien was on the Patriots' offensive staff that began to torch the NFL by incorporating spread and no-huddle components. He could lean on that experience to add a little juice to a Texans offense that has some serious firepower on the perimeter (rookies Will Fuller and Braxton Miller have explosive potential).
Kirk Cousins is another quarterback with the potential to shine as the director of a no-huddle offense. He is at his best when the Redskins spread the field with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed in 2-by-2, 3-by-1 and empty formations to attack opponents with a quick-rhythm passing game featuring a barrage of short throws (passes that travel fewer than 10 air yards). Given Cousins' efficiency at short range and the seams created by spread formations, the Redskins easily could employ a no-huddle to keep opponents on their heels in critical moments.
Bottom line: In a league where everyone is searching for an advantage to help their best players thrive, I believe teams should incorporate the no-huddle offense to allow the next generation of quarterbacks to maximize their immediate potential.