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FOXBOROUGH — Just one word can be powerful.
Saying, “Help,” lets someone know a person needs assistance.
“Sorry,” can immediately heal some wounds.
“Stop,” could save someone from harm.
Yes, just one word can be potent.
The same holds true for football and the Patriots.
When the Patriots’ offense is at its best and running roughshod over opponents — like getting out to a 31-7 lead in Sunday’s 31-21 victory over the Broncos — it’s when they are going with the fast version of their no-huddle offense.
And against the Broncos, the Patriots ran it faster than ever. It was breathless with 89 offensive plays (second in team history for a non-overtime game since they had 94 in a 28-10 loss to the Steelers in 1989) and a franchise-record 35 first downs, the eighth-highest total in league history.
The NFL never has seen anything like it, and it may never be the same.
How did the Patriots run the offense that fast? What was the key?
Not one word to describe it.
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.
Direction on run plays.
Routes for receiver on passing plays.
Shifts in formations.
Possible alerts and play alterations.
“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.”
The future of NFL offenses has arrived in New England. And it’s thanks to the college game.
Back to college
One-word play calls are not unique to the NFL.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s eyes were opened his very first year in the NFL – 1975 with Ted Marchibroda’s Colts as a special assistant/errand boy — when he saw firsthand how a coaching staff named certain concepts.
“You learn to make words that are easy to say, one syllable and distinct,” Belichick said. “At the Colts, all our strong-side patterns were score, strike, sting, smash. And the weak-side patterns were whirl, whisk, wheel. And it was one word, usually one syllable, told everybody what to do [he says as he snaps his finger].”
Most NFL offenses fall into two philosophies for play calls: a numbers system for the routes, or the West Coast offense and its extended verbiage.
“Flip right, double-X jet, 36 counter, naked waggle, X-7, X-quarter” is the length of a typical play call in the latter system.
The Patriots’ system is a blend of both that leans heavily on verbiage. Regular play calls include a word that combines two or three concepts. For example, “crunch” signifies a crossing route, with another “under” route run beneath it. A typical play call would be “39 crack blow.” Three words tell the tale.
“We have a really heavy terminology-based offense,” Brady said. “So everything is really memorization with us, which is actually really hard, I think, for the guys that come in here because things usually don’t make a lot of sense.”
Somewhere in NFL exile, former Patriots receiver Chad Johnson, who came from a numbers-based scheme with the Bengals, might be nodding.
The Patriots, like other NFL teams, have decreased play calls for emergency situations down to one word. “Clock” is used by everyone for a spike to stop the clock, and each player knows where they are supposed to line up. The Patriots expanded that for other plays needed in a pinch.
“A lot of times it was situational,” Belichick said. “Like we were in the hurry-up and you have to get the ball out of bounds, whatever it is. But sometimes we’ve had that where one play means this is where we line up, this is the play we run, this is the snap count it’s on, and we’re going to either try to catch the defense off balance or we don’t have time to have a big conversation about this. It’s line up, snap the ball, and we’re running a sideline route to get the ball out of bounds or something like that.”
But that was the extent of the Patriots’ quick verbiage with shortened play calls.
Why didn’t anyone think of taking the next step to extend those calls to an entire offense?
Well, Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh did. In his 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.”Continued...