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.”
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.
Two years ago, a New England native with an affinity for visors and fast-moving offenses walked into Gillette Stadium to talk football with the Patriots’ staff.
Genius of the NFL, meet the genius of college football.
Up to speed
Chip Kelly has the University of Oregon ranked No. 2 in the country. His spread offense is dazzling and seemingly unstoppable. This season, his Ducks have averaged 52.3 points per game (fourth in Division 1) and 541.6 total yards (seventh).
The Ducks have surpassed 40 points in 34 of 46 games with Kelly as head coach, including all five this season and eight straight games dating to last season.
“Chip Kelly is a mastermind,” said Ravens tight end Ed Dickson, who played at Oregon for Kelly.
Not bad for a guy from Manchester, N.H., who split his four-year career at UNH between quarterback and defensive back.
Kelly’s offenses, while coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Wildcats from 1999-2006, were just as prolific as when he became Mike Bellotti’s offensive coordinator with the Ducks in 2007 before ascending to head coach in ’09.
That’s because Kelly is obsessed with speed.
Forget time of possession. It’s all about total numbers of plays to Kelly. What he’s really looking for is yards and points per minute.
Fast might be an understatement when describing Oregon’s offense. When they’re really going, they get plays off in five seconds. Oregon fans will boo the chain gang moving the sticks on the sideline because they are holding up the offense. Oregon players tell tales of defenders saying that if the Ducks go any faster they’re going to vomit or pass out.
Kelly’s practices are the stuff of legend. There is no need for wind sprints because no one stands around. At all. Not the players, not the coaches. Music is blaring. The defense sometimes plays with 25 players so the offense can get more precise.
It’s dizzying by design. The games are actually tranquil.
“I remember the first day he came as offensive coordinator, we started one of his drills,” Dickson said. “And he said, ‘I’m going to show you how fast I want to go. Your two-minute that you’re running here is going to be nothing compared to what I teach you.’ It was insane. I thought he was insane. I was like, ‘Nobody moves that fast.’ The only way you’re going to simulate that speed, you have to practice that way.”
If you want to see what’s next on the pro level, look to the colleges. That’s what Belichick does, with his alliances with coaches such as Nick Saban (LSU and Alabama), Urban Meyer (Florida and Ohio State) and, now, Kelly.
That’s why when Kelly walked into Gillette Stadium two years ago — and he’s been there three times total — ears perked up among the Patriots’ coaches, including Belichick.
Kelly had become friendly with former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien while both were rising in the college ranks. The UNH coaching staff would visit Brown, where O’Brien was coaching, for pickup basketball games and to talk X’s and O’s.
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,” 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.”
Welcome to Gillette Stadium, can I take your play call?
Changing on the fly
It is believed the Patriots started to implement the one-word no-huddle for the 2011 season under O’Brien, but it didn’t always go smoothly because of the verbiage.
“We have smart guys and everything,” Brady said. “The correlation with what you say, maybe it’s a call in your offense that means something, and then there’s something that means similar in no-huddle.
“I think there are universal terms in football that defenses may use from team to team or we have certain words like ‘tinn’ and you have to know the depths. That’s a very universal term that a defense may even use that we use as an offense. So when you go to no-huddle, you don’t want to say tinn because everyone else has a pretty good idea of what you’re talking about.”
And the Patriots have to change their words because it doesn’t take long for other teams, especially those within the division, to catch on.
“We’ve changed them three times,” Brady said. “[The coaches said], ‘Well, we’re not going to use that, we’re going to use this particular word.’ And I’m like, ‘Man, can’t we go back to one we’ve already used before, back to the original one?’ ”
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.
The Patriots’ one-word no-huddle really took hold down the stretch of the ’11 season, and rolled into the playoffs. With a postseason bye week, it hummed to perfection in the 45-10 AFC divisional playoff victory against the Broncos, when Brady tied a league playoff record with six touchdown passes.
The Patriots were most lethal in the 33 no-huddle snaps, rushing for 7.3 yards per attempt with 21 first downs and four touchdowns from Brady, who completed 85 percent of his passes with an amazing 11.8 yards per attempt.
In the other 31 snaps, the Patriots had averaged 3 yards on the ground, had seven first downs, two touchdowns, and Brady completed 64.3 percent of his passes at 9.1 yards per attempt.
Although the Patriots did not show it in the training camp practices open to the public, players remarked how the pace of practice quickened once sessions were closed to reporters. It’s not quite an Oregon practice, but for the NFL, the Patriots are practicing at break-neck speed to prepare for games.
“I think the Patriots do a great job,” Dickson said. “The key is getting up on the ball, getting set, getting the ref to spot the ball and getting the play called. The Patriots do a great job of keeping people unbalanced by getting on the ball and finding little dinks and dunks, inside routes and it kills teams. Those little 3-yard routes, you catch them, the defense has to run all over there, they’re going to be tired.”
Brady said he doesn’t see a time in which the Patriots are always operating a no-huddle offense.
“There’s advantages, there’s disadvantages,” he said. “There’s an advantage when it works. If your defense is back on the field in 14 seconds, it’s not good. So I think you always have to be able to do both [huddle and no-huddle], because the tempo of the game always changes. If they’re going no-huddle, and you’re going no-huddle and it’s a no-huddle game and each team is going to have 17 possessions, sometimes teams don’t want that. I think it’s good for an offense, but also defenses are getting better at it, too. One’s always ahead of the other.”
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? 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 NFL is a copycat league, so only when someone with job security — like Belichick — tries something new and it works does it spread across the professional ranks.
Belichick has learned that if it’s going on in college, then it’s coming to the NFL. That’s the talent pool, and you should accentuate the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of that talent.
Thanks to guys like Kelly, college players entering the NFL are playing offensive football faster than ever. So that means more teams are going to go faster and faster on offense.
The Patriots are already there, as everyone saw against the Broncos, thanks to one word.
Yes, powerful indeed.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.