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And then Tom said to his offense, “Bama Left”

Belichick is watching you.

One thing I’d like to do more of here at Football Perspective is to point you in the direction of some great content you can find at other sites. You can scroll down and on the right side column I have a “Friends of FP” list, linking to great sites like Pro-Football-Reference.com, Footballguys.com, Smart Football, my old comrade Jason Lisk at The Big Lead, Football Outsiders, and Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL Stats. In addition, I also frequent Bill Barnwell at Grantland, Mike Tanier at Sports on Earth, Scott Kacsmar, and Pro Football Focus. And yes, Matt Hinton, who also moonlights at CBS and Football Outsiders, remains the best college football writer out there. And then there are my tireless Footballguys co-Staffers like Sigmund Bloom, Matt Waldman, Jene Bramel, and Cecil Lammey, who somehow simultaneously never stop talking football and maintain a consistently excellent quality of production. There are more great writers out there — this is probably why I have always gotten distracted whenever I try to link to some of the excellent content out there.

But Greg Bedard has delivered a fascinating look into how Chip Kelly (and Paul Brown) have helped Bill Belichick further refine his incredible offense. The entire article is worth a read, and I won’t quote it all, but here are some particularly interesting points:

The Patriots operate their no-huddle attack most often using one word as the play call.

More accurately, they use six one-word play calls a game.

That word tells all 11 players on offense everything they need to know.


Blocking scheme.

Direction on run plays.

Routes for receiver on passing plays.

Shifts in formations.

Snap count.

Possible alerts and play alterations.

One word.

“I think the point of it is to try to get everyone going fast,” quarterback Tom Brady said recently. “So as fast as you can get the communication to your teammates, everyone can be on the line of scrimmage, then the better it is.”

In [Bill Walsh’s] seminal out-of-print book Finding the Winning Edge published in 1998 — Belichick has called it the coaching bible — Walsh had a section on page 308 titled, “Determining the Future Dynamics of Offense in the NFL.”

First bullet point: “Teams will huddle only when the clock is stopped.”

Second: “Teams will use single-word offensive audibles.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” Belichick said. “But when you talk about Bill, that’s Paul Brown. When you think about how far ahead of the game Paul Brown was back in the ’40s and ’50s, all the things he did and the way he practiced, the way he did it, and then everybody has done it since then, has really stood the test of time. I don’t care what school you came up through. Everybody pretty much does it the way Paul did it.”

So Walsh, and likely Brown, had an idea offenses would move faster and faster.

So did somebody else.

That somebody else is University of Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, who likes to measure his offense’s success by points and yards… per minute.

Kelly told the Patriots he was moving to a no-huddle that only used one word to signify everything involved in a play.

Sideline calls take too long. Wristbands too.

One word is all that is needed.

“The things they’re doing now, they’re even faster,” [Ravens tight end and former Oregon player Ed] Dickson said. “They have things where they can call one thing and it’s going to tell them formation, plays, everything, and all you have to see is coverage.”

The collective Patriots’ response to Kelly’s assertion was, basically, “You run an entire offense like that? How do you get the players to comprehend that?”

Kelly declined to be interviewed, but those with knowledge of the discussion said Kelly laid out his rationale.

Players memorize thousands of words in songs, hundreds of movie lines, and many other things involving pop culture.

Why can’t players have instant recall of a handful of concepts? Heck, everybody knows No. 2 on a McDonald’s menu gets you a Quarter Pounder, medium fries, and a drink.

“It’s kind of easy,” Dickson said. “It comes with repetition. A lot of guys learn different. Myself, I just needed to be out there repping those plays. The more comfortable you get, the faster you’ll go. He wants to make it easier to where you’re not thinking about anything, you’re just going fast. Make it as simple as guys can learn it so you can go really fast. That’s the key, making it simple for your players so they can play at top speed.”

Kelly’s overall message to the Patriots: Don’t put a limit on your players’ minds; they will learn whatever you teach them.

“I was interested to hear how he did it,” Belichick said. “I would say he expanded it to a different level and it was very interesting to understand what he was doing. Certainly I’ve learned a lot from talking to Chip about his experiences with it and how he does it and his procedure and all that.”

As you might suspect, having Tom Brady can help make this offense run smoothly, although it’s worth noting that several different quarterbacks have excelled under Kelly at Oregon:

The beauty of the Patriots’ no-huddle is it can take many forms and speeds because of Brady.

It’s not technically one word, because a play call such as “Bama” would include an alignment call. Brady would bark out the call like, “Bama left.”

But the bottom line is the same: Brady uses one of the six game-planned calls when he wants to go fast, and that tells everyone on the field what they are supposed to do.

From there, Brady can choose to just run the play as called for speed — like he did against the Broncos — or he can make changes depending on the defense.

The unquestioned goal of the Patriots’ offense is not to run plays into a defense alignment where the play has little chance at success.

So even in the no-huddle, Brady has the ultimate power. He can simply change the direction of a run, or since many plays have run/pass options (some at the snap), Brady can go as far as changing a run into a shotgun pass.

If a team is overloaded against a pass, Brady can switch to a run even if there’s no running backs on the field. They have, when healthy, Aaron Hernandez, the NFL’s Swiss Army Knife.

“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,” Brady said. “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 more time on the play clock, the more opportunity for Brady to decipher the defense and work his magic.

This is a particularly development especially for those who consider the history of football less linear and more like a pendulum, swinging back and forth. In the early days of professional football, there was no such thing as specialists. Players played offense and defense and kicked; players were halfbacks or tailbacks or wingbacks or offensive lineman, and could play all of those positions in the same season. Even in the post-World War II, free substitution era, players were still far from specialized. Lou Groza was a left tackle, Bobby Layne and George Blanda were quarterbacks, and Gino Cappelletti was a wide receiver, but all also served as placekickers. Jim Brown and Larry Csonka were fullbacks, and both Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor were halfbacks and fullbacks (and Hornung would also throw from time to time).

But eventually, the NFL became specialized, a seemingly foregone conclusion as rosters expanded, the game become more popular, and excelling at one thing became competitively advantageous. Having not just a specialist kicker but also a kickoff specialist could give your team a small edge; a linebacker who could play three downs pretty well was less valuable than two cheaper linebackers, one who could excel on first and second down and one was strong in passing situations. Shannon Sharpe may not have made a roster as a tight end or a wide receiver in 1975, but in 1995, his skill-set made him very valuable.

But the no-huddle offense may mark a return to emphasizing the utility player, with Aaron Hernandez being a good example. It’s way too early to guess, but one could at least envision a world where specialists become less valuable than having the ability to play multiple roles.

One last good piece from Bedard:

For now, the Patriots are ahead of the game.

Simplified play calls are all the rage on the college level, where O’Brien has transferred the Patriots’ package — dubbed “NASCAR” at Penn State — to the Nittany Lions, who ran 39 plays in just more than a quarter to erase a 28-17 deficit to defeat Northwestern, 39-28, Saturday.

That previously mentioned lengthy West Coast play call [Flip right, double-X jet, 36 counter, naked waggle, X-7, X-quarter]? It’s the same one ESPN analyst Jon Gruden threw at former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton on his QB Camp television special.

Newton was at a loss to equate an Auburn play to an NFL play. Newton was ridiculed nationally because critics thought it showed that Newton couldn’t handle a pro offense.

But what people didn’t realize at the time was Newton’s subsequent answer, when Gruden talked about Auburn using the no-huddle a lot, was actually more telling.

“Our method is ‘simplistic equals fast,” Newton said. “It’s so simple as far as, you look to the sideline [and] you see ‘36’ on the board. And that’s a play. And we’re off.”

What people didn’t get, because the NFL is slow to evolve, is that Newton was actually showing them a glimpse of the future.

The always excellent Smart Football actually hit on this last April, when the Gruden-Newton video began making the rounds. Some had wondered what it meant when Newton appeared unable to process what Gruden was throwing at him:

The argument is that Newton just passes on the long verbiage call and, in not answering, fails the question. Now, it’s clear that Newton’s offense in college was not as complicated as what the pros do, I think the conclusion that Cam is automatically unfit is unfair. He didn’t forget his own plays; he says they did not have it in his offense because everything had to be done from the no-huddle. He says “36″ might be the play name, and they call 36 and up and go. (For what it’s worth, in his book Finding the Winning Edge, put out in 1997, Bill Walsh said the future of football was in no-huddle offenses where the plays were called with single words.)

In the full segment, Cam diagrams a couple of plays and a couple of things were clear to me: (a) he’s a freak athlete, (b) he actually internalized his coaching quite well, as he remembered all the coaching points and axioms from Malzahn (and Gruden said he retained everything in their meeting quite well), and (c) he really does have a long way to go in terms of mastering a complicated NFL system. The upshot is that, while I like Cam’s potential, drafting him number one is risky. But he’s not incapable of mastering an NFL system.

But a final thought. Gruden — rightly, I think — emphasizes to Newton that he is going to have to prepare himself for complicated NFL playbooks and verbiage, because he will be a new employee and that’s what they do. Yet it’s not clear to me that all that verbiage goes to good use; I’m curious if Gruden, if he goes back into coaching, will choose to deluge kids with those insane playcalls or will instead do as Walsh predicted and as Malzahn does, and find a simpler way of doing business. As Cam says in the clip, “simple equals fast,” and as Holgorsen likes to remind his team, “if you’re thinking, you’re not playing.”

If Gruden wants to get back into coaching and succeed, he might have to be flexible enough to do things a new way, too.

  • Richie

    Good stuff.

    I would like to know more about the Patriots six-word system. If they are going from the no-huddle, and Brady is shouting “Bama”, it wouldn’t take long for the defense to figure out what Bama means. So there must be some dummy signals in there to disguise things. I would really love to see some specific examples of how their play-calling works.

    (It’s been a long time since I played football, and our plays were called “32 dive”.)

  • Kevin

    I ran a one word no-huddle with 9-10 year olds. We had the fastest offense in the game. We have won 23 games straight with back to back Championship wins.
    We associate silly photos with each play. While you might not hear College or NFL players say a play called justin bieber or showing a photo of that guy. Youth football players can use it all day. I would show a photo of Justin B. and the kids would know what play to run. If I felt the other team was figuring it out I could switch to a photo of Salena gomez. All 10 year olds know who she is and that she dated Justin B. One Word system is the most efficient way to run the hurry up. I think you have to make it a simple as possible and unless you only have one play you don’t have to worry about to many teams figuring it out. If you think they might you can have multiple words that mean the same thing. I used Salena G. in place for Justin B. For example: Bama was used in the article. I would also have the words like Role-Tide and Saban as the play call also. Anybody out there can associate Role-Tide and Saban with Bama.
    -Coach Kevin
    Tucson Gators Youth Football