February 5, 2012


Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, And The Genius Of The Patriots' No-Huddle Offense (Chris Brown, 2/03/12, Deadspin)

 It's worth pondering, though, why NFL teams have been slow to react to something that seems intuitively to be so much better. Real-life huddles are not nearly as interesting as they are in sports movies, where players frequently debate, bicker, or deliver monologues, somehow within the strict confines of the play clock. Typically the only thing that's said in the huddle is the play call itself. This is part of the problem: In the NFL, these calls are absurdly long. With only 11 players on a side, there is really no reason other than inertia for there to be lengthy, polysyllabic bits of code to convey each player's assignment. But if that's how playbooks are written, then you really can't go no-huddle; it's impossible to shout "Scatter-Two Bunch-Right-Zip-Fire 22 Z-In Right-273-H-Pivot-F Flat" to a bunch of people scattered across the width of the field.

But led by Brady, things are changing. Almost all of the information in the play call above can be shortened to just a few words or numbers, or the relevant information can be conveyed to just the right people: Tell the receivers their assignment, the linemen theirs, and so on. And this is increasingly a necessity given the complexity of defenses: It's a lot easier to complete passes when you have a coherent idea of what the defense is doing. It's this defensive movement that's the difference between quarterbacking in college or the NFL. Pro and college teams run the same coverages and blitzes. There are just exponentially more disguises and variations in the NFL. [...]

 One of the downsides of the no-huddle is that the offense, like the defense, is unable to substitute. NFL coaches love their toys, and they spend a lot of time trying to outsmart each other by creating specific matchups. Belichick, by contrast, values versatility, and he has personnel--particularly his two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez--that allow him to be flexible. Gronkowski, if he's healthy, is a tremendous threat given his ability to decimate defenders on pass plays and as a run blocker. Hernandez, meanwhile, has recently added running the ball from the backfield to his typical repertoire of pass routes.

Belichick's use of Hernandez as a running back is the best example of how the Patriots outflank defenses. With no traditional runner in the game, Belichick can force the defense to substitute to a zero-running-back personnel grouping. Once they're in this pass-centric set-up, he can run the ball with Hernandez anyway. If the defense fails to react, the Patriots can simply drop back and run a pass play. And they can do this all with or without a huddle, and Brady can figure out his next move within seconds, on the fly.
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Posted by at February 5, 2012 12:00 AM

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