Saturday, April 14, 2012

Taking a break to Huddle up

So I'm going to take a break briefly from studying the 2012 crop of young prospective NFL linebackers and instead talk about an article from another site that typifies something that has always annoyed me about coaching.

The article in question comes from, the home of Chris Smart. Normally I love Smarts' articles and I think he covers quite an interesting range of topics over the course of a season. But every now and again I see the odd article that doesn't sit well with me, which is only to be expected. You can't please all of the people, all of the time, as the saying goes.

I want to highlight this article in question because it covers an interesting topic and an interesting discussion that is taking place among all coaches at all levels of the game. I'll post a link here to start with, and then I'll provide the link again at the end for convenience.

Basically the premise of the article is that the success of the Baylor Bears football team in 2011 - under the leadership of 2012 pro prospect quarterback Robert Griffin - was not only not a fluke, a one off season using a contrary offense, but indeed is almost the blueprint for the future of offense in football.

The element that is highlighted as being so critical is the No-Huddle component. Specifically the article states that; "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".

Wow. That's quite the statement. I have to lay my cards on the table right away and say that I disagree with that assessment. Quite a lot actually. Hopefully I'll be able to articulate why in the course of this article.

I've always been sceptical anytime somebody describes a strategy or tactic as being "inherently inferior". By definition that phrase suggests that there is some crippling fault with a tactic or strategy, an insurmountable flaw that can never be overcome in comparison to another tactic or strategy.

I prefer to think of football as something that constantly shifts and evolves. Offense gains an advantage over defense, defense figures out a way to level the playing field, then defense takes the advantage, then offense counters, and so on and so forth in a battle that never ceases as offensive and defensive coordinators try their hardest to undermine each others plans.

Just when you think you've cracked the code and found a system that cannot be touched, sure enough someone else will come along and find the weakness. All that, before we even get into the influence of personnel.

One of the reasons that the Pittsburgh Steelers are such a great defense is because of their personnel. Troy Polamalu is not your average safety, James Harrison is not your average outside backer, Casey Hampton is not your average nose tackle. And for Baylor last season, Robert Griffin III was not the average quarterback and Kendall Wright was not the average wide receiver.

They were often described - quite aptly as it happens - as a team of track athletes playing offense. Griffin is a great example of that; a track athlete who became a Heisman winning quarterback. That helps to explain a fair amount of Baylor's success, and gives us the first insight that the No-Huddle offense may not be as magical as it sounds.

In fact, when we look at Baylor's record last year there are a few points of interest. Like the losses for a start. Against certain teams Baylor let loose and did some serious damage offensively. They practically piled on points for fun. Most of the scorelines for their games read more like bad Basketball games than exceptional football games, with both sides routinely running up scores over the forties.

But against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State they were limited to under 30 points, well below their normally high standards, while giving up 55 and 59 points on defense respectively. In fact looking at the numbers given up by Baylor's defense might seem odd, given that we're talking about their offense, but there is a connection.

In the past coaches and TV talking heads always talked about time of possession. Winning the battle for time of possession was considered a sign of significant success and domination. These days all the talk is not about time of possession, but number of possessions.

In theory, the more times you have the ball the more chances you have to score. If you possess the ball 12 times in a game and the opponent only has the ball 9 times, you have three extra opportunities to score. The sheer pace of Baylor's offense means that their drives typically take little time off the clock compared to many other offenses (especially when incomplete passes are factored in), which tends to extend the game time and give Baylor more opportunities to possess the ball.

Unfortunately it also does the same for the opponent. If they too drive pretty fast, it gives them extra opportunities to put points on the board when your defense is not up to scratch. This helps to explain why Baylor not only scores a lot but also gives up a lot. For comparison, most NFL teams can expect to see the ball maybe 9-11 times, depending on the game.

In their 67-56 win over Washington in the Alamo Bowl, Baylor had 15 possessions to Washington's 13. None of Baylor's drives lasted more than 4 minutes, and only 3 breached the 3 minute mark. The numbers were vaguely similar for Washington, who had a 6 minute drive and two drives over 4 minutes, but also 5 drives that barely clocked one minute.

An up tempo, no huddle offense can be great but when the other teams offense is just as handy as your own, and their defense is better than yours, it can backfire. Badly. Sometimes, as much as offensive coaches don't like to admit it, you have to play a style that fits in with the defense. After all, we can't all be geniuses and sometimes the knuckle dragging, club wielding meat heads occasionally referred to as defensive coaches need a helping hand ;)

Moving on, I dispute the argument that Mr. Smart makes that the only value huddling provides is to allow an inspirational quarterback to show off his skills in that department. Huddling has many additional benefits. The first is that it allows the offensive coordinator a moment to think.

It's true that a no-huddle team can (and they do) run to the line of scrimmage and set up just to force the defense to line itself up and not substitute, at which point the quarterback turns to the sideline for the call. In this scenario the coach has now had the chance to study the defense briefly and can make a play based on the information presented to him. It's not always that simple though.

There is a very good reason that most coaches now use "cheat sheets", that's the large, laminated pieces of paper with all the colored sections that you see offensive coordinators reading from and then using to cover their mouths, as if they were bad mouthing the coach on the opposite sideline and didn't want him to see.

These sheets were one of the many legacies of coaches like Bill Walsh. On them is a myriad of plays from the teams playbook, grouped into sub sections for things like "first and 10", "3rd and 2", or "blitz beaters". These plays were chosen by the offensive coordinator at the start of the week, often during a conference with his other offensive coaches that can go on well into the small hours of the night, and have been selected based on an assumption by the coaches that these plays have a good chance of working against the upcoming opponent.

Sometimes these plays involve setting a very specific formation, using a very specific motion, and then running a play that is expected to succeed because of the prior set up and because of an anticipation of how the defense will respond. This is not the sort of thing that can just be passed on with a single word play call.

It requires a huddle in order to give the quarterback time to tell his team "Red Right Tight, Zoom, 35 Magic, X Scissor, alert 19 power, on three, ready.. break!".

Now to the average person that sounds a lot like the quarterback is playing a classic game of bullsh*t bingo, the kind that any aspiring middle manager would find himself right at home in with his "blue sky thinking" and "floating concepts in the think tank to see if they sink or swim" etc.

However once you get the hang of it, it's actually not that bad. "Red Right" is a split back formation, with the tight end lined up to the right. "Tight" just means the X receiver will come and line up next to the left tackle. "Zoom" means that the Z receiver will wait for a signal from the quarterback, then run across the formation and line up wide on the opposite side. "35 magic" is a pass play, with 35 being the play and magic being the protection. "X Scissor" is a corner route by the x receiver, where he fakes running a post and then cuts back to the outside and runs towards the corner flag.

"Alert 19 power" is a run play that the quarterback can check to if he doesn't get the right look from the defense. Typically you use an alert when you're after a very specific kind of defensive reaction to the formation and motion you've given, or when the motion is likely to create a weakness on one side of the defense that can be exploited by the run, as in this case. The last bit is just the snap count and breaking the huddle.

While it may have taken a minute or two to explain and can take a few seconds to verbalise, it's actually simple to understand when you're familiar with the terminology, and my current opinion is that coaches make too much of the terminology issue.

Think of it like the Internet. At first it can seem very daunting with all this talk of browsers, tabs, blogs, cookies, temporary files, pop ups and social networking. But once you've spent a bit of time around it all, it becomes second nature to talk about opening a new tab in the current browser so you don't have to leave this blog while you delete your temporary Internet files.

It's the same with football. Really, huddling up and delivering a verbiage heavy play isn't actually as tough as is often made out, especially if your kids study their playbooks and you approach the issue of teaching terminology in a common sense manner.

What it does allow you to do is to give your players an extensive play call that is designed to catch the defense out for a big gain. The alternative is to either drastically shorten the play calls, or attempt to find signals for every single call in the playbook, both of which have issues of their own. Saying that huddling is "inherently inferior" to these methods is untrue. They're different. They have different problems, and different advantages.

This also belies the issue that communication is a two way street. The idea suggested in the article by Mr. Smart that the offense can get set to the line and call plays in just one or two words, but somehow the defense can't, is quite bizarre. He asserts, as have many others, that the defense is now limited to a very vanilla scheme and can't do all the fancy blitzes and coverages that it would otherwise.

This should be self evidently untrue. If an offense can contain most of its playbook in a series of one or two word play calls, then obviously so can a defense. At the most basic level let's just assume that a defense assigns one defensive play call to every letter of the alphabet in order to keep the calls distinct. That's 26 play calls just to start with.

If a quarterback can call plays just by looking to a coach for a signal or making a decision on his own, so can a Mike linebacker. In fact, most defenses already feature play calls that are much shorter than offensive play calls. "43 Banjo", "34 Clutch", "52 Dog" etc are common lengths for defensive play calls, so if anything the defense already has an advantage over the offense in respect to shortening their calls to suit a No-Huddle situation.

If you want further proof of this, just ask Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. Do it nicely though, that guy can shift some serious weight. Lewis has - along with other Ravens team mates - repeatedly stated that one of the reasons the Ravens defense seems to play better on the road than it does at home is because the crowd doesn't make any noise when the home offense is on the field.

What this allows the Ravens to do is to communicate much better and much more clearly. In the same way that a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger might make calls at the line to adjust the offense, so the Ravens defense (like many defenses) has proved very adept at making calls on the fly and adjusting their pass rush and pass coverage schemes using simple verbiage and hand signals.

Sticking with Brady and Manning for a moment, another assertion in the linked article is that Manning and Brady routinely ripped opponents apart with No-Huddle offenses. That's true to a degree, but its also true that they make mistakes in the No-Huddle. A receiver runs the wrong way, a linemen didn't hear the play call, the running back isn't sure who he's supposed to block. These things happen.

And to me it's very telling that if Brady and Manning are so successful running the No-Huddle, why do they not do it all the time? Why not permanently run a No-Huddle offense? I've never been able to get a satisfactory answer to this question anytime I've discussed the No-Huddle with coaches who preach the philosophy to death.

The true reasons are likely as diverse as the individual coaches. Some coaches may just prefer huddling as a norm and used the No-Huddle as a change of pace. Some coaches may prefer to run the ball and find that although the defensive line gets tired by the quick pace, so do their own linemen, and they don't have the benefit of lining up in a very aggressive 3 point "sprinters" stance.

I'd also like you to consider that basically every team in the league goes No-Huddle at some point, that being in the final two minutes of a half/game, when they switch to their two minute offense. If the No-Huddle were really the panacea that some in the coaching community think, then I'm surprised that more teams don't score during their two minute offense?

I accept that you have certain limitations under two minutes. You don't really want to be passing the ball across the middle of the field and rushing plays are not high on the agenda either, but it also has to be accepted that running a No-Huddle does not suddenly immunise a team from dropped passes, blown protections, poorly run routes, hurried passes and poor quarterback decision making. Indeed, running the No-Huddle may in some cases exasperate those problems.

Which brings us back to personnel again. Kendall Wright was a very quick receiver at Baylor and certainly his speed cannot be discounted in the success of the offense. It's much easier for an offense to throw for 400 yards and 3 touchdowns when you're number one wideout is quick enough to give corners big problems, and when you're throwing as many as ten wide receiver screen passes per game.

Lets not forget either that Griffin himself played a big part in the offense. His speed on the move when the pocket broke down did much for the Baylor offense. Which is another question mark that I have against the No-Huddle.

One of the primary reasons to run such a scheme is to prevent the defense from substituting, which helps to tire out the defensive ends and tackles who are normally the main pass rushers. Yet most teams seemed to do quite well when it came to applying pressure on Griffin.

To his credit, a less mobile quarterback might have been sacked many more times. Though a less mobile quarterback might have actually read the field better and thrown more passes on time, but that's a different discussion for a different day.

Finally we turn to the practice field and the argument that running a No-Huddle offense is better, and specifically more "efficient" for practising, because it allows more plays to be run. To a degree I can see where Mr. Smart is coming from, but there are two small points of disagreement that I would bring up.

First is the point he made about coaches standing around lecturing players on the field when it could be done better in the film room. That's fine if you agree with that method, but that's not an advantage offered exclusively by practicing without huddling. That's merely an observation about how certain teams coach their players. A team that huddles could just as easily save the coaching points for the film room and simply focus on getting their men back into the huddle for the next play.

Secondly, I have doubts about the notion that running more plays or more reps in a drill = a better practice. To an extent that's true, but the quality of the plays/reps is just as important. A wide receiver who runs a sloppy, sluggish route ten times instead of five times during an individual drill is still running a sloppy, sluggish route.

In fact, running it ten times instead of five may actually be worse if it helps to further ingrain a bad habit in the player. Over time players develop the fabled "muscle memory" and the last thing you want is for players muscles to "memorise" bad habits and bad routines.

What we want in practice is good quality repetitions, such that the player learns the correct method of how to perform a given task. If he doesn't perform the task correctly in the game then it's of little to no value to us. For me that's the essence of practice time (or was), to teach and develop the skills needed to help us win games.

Running 30 plays in 10 minutes is of little use if the plays are not performed to a high standard because the players are tired or confused. Or worse, both. A player who is not concentrating properly on what he's supposed to be doing or what reads he's supposed to be making, purely because we are in a hurry to run an arbitrary amount of plays during a set time period, is not advancing himself as a football player. He's just trying to survive the session.

Maybe I'm just a little too picky about that subject, but I prefer quality over quantity. I'd rather see a wide receiver run three or four excellently executed out routes that will help him get open on game day, than ten to twelve badly executed patterns that aren't going to help the team at all.

But that's just me I guess.

In summary, it's not that I'm against the No-Huddle, I'm just against the hyperbole surrounding it. Find a coaches forum for high school/lower level college coaches, and I guarantee you that you'll find a swathe of coaches who run some variation of a "Super High Speed, Ultra Fast, Turbo, No-Huddle, Spread Gun, Guaranteed Win Every Friday/Saturday, Sixty Points Per Game, If You Just Pay Me Three Thousand Bucks For A F**king Playbook, No Refunds, Offense".

I'm sure they'll tell you all about the success they've had with the offense, except for the playoff games that they've lost and the distinct absence of championship trophies in their cabinet, but don't let that put you off. After all, why wouldn't you want to pile on the points using an offense that nobody can stop?

Ok, sarcasm over.

The No-Huddle offense is not a magic, silver bullet. It's one element that you can integrate into a scheme, or even build a scheme around, but like all offensive and defensive schemes you need to get your head around it all for it to be effective.

You need to understand what the advantages are and what the disadvantages are. You need to know how to coach it, how to develop your players in it. You need to know how to adjust it, how to adapt to the changing circumstances of a single game, a season, a career even.

And perhaps most importantly, when little Jimmy comes up to you and says "Coach, what happens if...", then you had better be able to give him a good answer. At least if you want him to have any confidence in you.

Here's the link to that Smart Football article again, in case you missed it the first time.

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