That's the word buzzing around the NFL in 2014. Hoping to duplicate the success of fast-paced attacks run by teams like the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints, several play-callers are experimenting with "tempo" offenses this preseason in an effort to determine whether running more plays will yield better production.
Having heard a number of head coaches and offensive coordinators express their desire to play faster, I thought I'd take a closer look at the no-huddle/hurry-up offense, using All-22 Coaches Film to study the pros and cons of the trend to watch heading into the regular season.
So, what is "tempo"?
Simply put, it describes the pace of play. Practitioners of the no-huddle/hurry-up offense want to operate at a fast pace, leading to more plays, first downs and scoring opportunities while also wearing down opponents, limiting defensive substitutions and slowing the implementation of different defensive tactics throughout the game. When a no-huddle/hurry-up attack operates at optimal speed, the defense is at the offense's mercy, and defensive coordinators are rendered helpless on the sideline.
Although every team has a fast-paced, no-huddle package for two-minute/end-of-game situations, the notion of playing faster has been a common theme throughout this offseason. Coaches like the Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy, Miami Dolphins' Joe Philbin and Detroit Lions' Jim Caldwell have openly discussed the benefits of playing with more urgency on offense, while several other offensive gurus are implementing schemes designed to push the pace.
Why are more teams looking to play faster this season?
When I broached the subject with several coaches, they told me that changing speeds creates more scoring opportunities and, by limiting the number of substitutions that can be made, forces defensive coordinators to abandon their exotic sub-packages. Opponents also tend to lean on more vanilla coverage and employ fewer blitzes, due to concerns about miscommunication and blown assignments. Revving up the pace allows offenses to control the game.
As a receiver with the Buffalo Bills during the mid-1990s, I saw the "K-Gun" offense wreak havoc on foes with its frenetic tempo and superb execution. Quarterback Jim Kelly orchestrated the no-huddle at a breathtaking pace, preventing opponents from substituting and severely limiting the calls available to the defensive coordinator. As a result, the Bills played against simple defensive looks, allowing Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and others to run wild on the perimeter.
More recently, quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Nick Foles have produced monster campaigns directing rapid-fire attacks, while running backs like LeSean McCoy, Knowshon Moreno, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson have enjoyed tremendous success as centerpieces of up-tempo offenses. Quickening the pace is obviously a sensible tactic for teams looking to jump-start their offensive production.
How are teams accomplishing this?
Offensive coordinators have to revamp their communication methods and simplify their game plans. First and foremost, the offense must abandon the huddle and find a way to communicate play calls through hand signals or sideline placards. The use of signals streamlines the process and allows players to get lined up quicker. After a play is over, running backs and receivers are instructed to give the ball to the referee as soon as possible -- so that the ref will spot the ball immediately -- while turning their eyes to the sideline or quarterback to get the signal for the next play.
Coordinators also reduce the verbiage of plays, shrinking calls that typically comprise sentences of 10 to 15 words to one- or two-word commands. Consider a simple passing play that, in West Coast terminology, would be called "Trips Right Zebra Left 72 'X' Shallow Cross." In hurry-up mode, this could be shortened to "X Cross." The quarterback then must remember the protection call (designated by "72" in the long version) and bark it to his offensive line prior to the snap, or the offensive line must memorize the protection associated with the call.
Offensive coordinators directing up-tempo attacks greatly reduce the number of plays on the call sheet in an attempt to give their guys the best opportunity to execute at a high level on game day. Whereas most traditional offensive coordinators enter the game with as many as 100 different pass plays to choose from, those running a hurry-up offenses will utilize just 25 or so different concepts from a wide variety of formations. This drastic reduction might appear to be a limiting factor, but the simplicity frees players from mental clutter and allows them to play faster.
From a schematic standpoint, quick-rhythm passes and simple runs can speed things up and generate momentum. The idea is to help the quarterback string together a number of completions via a handful of high-percentage passes. This is akin to a great shooter in basketball hitting a few layups to start a game. Once he sees the ball go through the net a few times, he begins to believe he's "in the zone," building confidence that will allow him to step out farther and knock down jumpers later on. Similarly, connecting on a series of bubble screens, quick outs and slants will help give a quarterback the confidence necessary to make pinpoint passes on intermediate and deep routes later in the game.
Offensive coordinators also are using packaged plays to quicken the pace. Meshing a run and a pass play together gives a quarterback a variety of options, allowing him to use the same play call on consecutive downs. Deployed extensively in the college game, this tactic has made its way to the NFL in recent years.
The following set of screengrabs, pulled from the Eagles' 2013 preseason matchup with the Carolina Panthers, showcases a draw-stick combination play. The Eagles are aligned in trips formation to the left, with the outside receiver instructed to run a go-outside and the interior receivers executing a stick combination. The tailback is running a draw play up the middle. Nick Foles will read the reaction of the linebacker and decide whether to throw the ball or hand it to the running back:
When the linebacker drops back to defend the pass, Foles hands the ball to McCoy on the draw play to take advantage of the soft defense:
How many different speeds will tempo offenses use?
Circumstances can dictate when offensive coordinators elect to vary their speeds, but each team should be able to go to at least four different speeds on game day: regular, up-tempo, warp speed (or NASCAR) and turtle. Here's a closer look at each one:
NFL teams rarely operate at a lightning pace for an entire game, but even when utilizing a huddle, coaches still stress the importance of moving quickly. Savvy coordinators want to give the quarterback enough time to survey the defense for ways to exploit the front or coverage and check into the best possible play at the line. Coaches also encourage their players to move rapidly during motions and shifts, in an effort to force opponents to declare their intentions prior to the snap. If the quarterback under center is adept at breaking down pre-snap disguises, the offense will have a huge advantage.
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Teams also use a "sugar huddle" (a huddle that is positioned 3 to 4 yards from the line of scrimmage), which allows the offense to run to the line when the quarterback spots the defense trying to make a last-minute substitution. This clever tactic, which was frequently utilized by Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche in the 1980s, is also used by veteran quarterbacks like Manning, Brady and Brees.
I think it's important to mention the "freeze" tactic here, because it's a key component of no-huddle game plans. Quarterbacks will hurry to the line, mimicking a frenetic pace, then show their hands and raise a leg to bluff a potential snap before pausing to read the defense and check into an optimal play. At the collegiate level, the audible will come from the sidelines as the entire unit looks to the designated play caller, but in the NFL, the quarterback controls the adjustment.
This is the "base speed" of most no-huddle/hurry-up offenses. At this speed, the goal is to get the ball snapped within 25 seconds of it being spotted by the referee. Coordinators will signal in plays from the sideline and instruct the quarterback to relay the plays to their teammates at the line of scrimmage.
3) Warp speed
To play at the fastest pace possible, offensive coordinators will use scripted four-play sequences to get the ball off within 10 to 15 seconds of it being spotted. These sequences are memorized by the offense during the week and executed without anyone having to look to the sideline for a call, allowing the players to simply line up and go. Of course, the quarterback has the ability to "kill" the sequence when game circumstances (down and distance) require different plays.
When I researched how offensive coordinators built successful four-play scripts, I discovered that most play-callers filled the sequence with simple runs and quick-rhythm passes. The goal is to build offensive momentum by stacking a number of positive plays in succession to put the defense in a bind. If the offense reels off multiple first downs utilizing this approach, the energy can overwhelm an opponent, especially one that is unable to adjust to the frenetic pace.
Sometimes, it's advantageous for "tempo" offenses to slow things down while maintaining a no-huddle approach. The quarterback will quickly get the offense to the line of scrimmage, then deliberately work through the process of making the play call before calling for the snap with less than five seconds on the play clock. Most quarterbacks will rely on the "turtle" approach in four-minute situations, but slowing the game down is also a valuable tactic when a team is leading by at least two touchdowns in the second half and wants to limit its opponent's possessions.
What is the key to making tempo work in the NFL?
To run an effective up-tempo offense, the unit must generate first downs early in drives to establish the necessary rhythm and momentum. The cumulative effect of long drives is that opponents will be worn down in the later stages of a game.
I talked to several proponents of the no-huddle on the collegiate level (Cal's Sonny Dykes, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops), and they stressed the importance of stringing together positive plays. While many observers focus on the number of offensive plays that a unit runs each week, a better barometer of success is total first downs. If that number is north of 30, it's likely the team has won in convincing fashion behind an efficient no-huddle approach. Rodriguez told me he shoots for 30 each week; if his squad reaches that, he knows the ball is being moved successfully down the field.
In the NFL, where rules prevent offenses from operating at the breakneck pace we see on the college level, it's rare for a unit to surpass the 75-play mark on a weekly basis. Thus, up-tempo teams should aim to collect around 25 first downs per game. Of course, this is easier said than done. Last season, the Denver Broncos led the league with 27.2 first downs per game (on a league-best 72.1 plays per game), while just three other offenses (New England, New Orleans and San Diego) finished with an average of 22.3 or better.
Running an up-tempo offense can backfire if it results in a number of three-and-outs, but the possible benefits to operating quickly are numerous and worth pursuing. The tactic can help young quarterbacks succeed as playmakers from the pocket by grinding down opponents, limiting the number of substitutions they can make and forcing them to simplify their schemes. And, while many associate the no-huddle/hurry-up offense with the passing game, I think it can also boost a sagging ground attack, with the dizzying pace effectively creating running lanes for explosive ball-carriers in the backfield. Consider that the Eagles and Bills respectively ranked first and second in rushing last season behind up-tempo strategies.
As I've said repeatedly in past columns, the NFL is a copycat league, filled with coaches who are prone to stealing ideas and tactics from their counterparts. Thus, I fully expect to see more teams employing no-huddle strategies this year.