FOXBOROUGH — It’s now a running joke.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning went to the podium Wednesday in Englewood, Colo., and humorously explained that “Omaha” is a running play.
“But it could be a pass play,” he said, “or a play-action pass, depending on a couple of things.
“The wind. Which way we’re going. The quarter. And the jerseys we’re wearing. So it really varies play to play.”
All good fun for the Denver Broncos quarterback who, through his histrionic display at the line of scrimmage Sunday, managed to foul up the normally disciplined San Diego Chargers defensive line in the AFC Divisional playoff round.
By barking “Omaha” and constantly changing the play at the line — “Omaha! Omaha!” — Manning was able to get the Chargers to jump offsides five times, adding a colorful display to the NFL playoffs.
“Omaha,” Patriots players point out, is a dummy call. So while Manning joked that it varies from one play to the next, it really does. Listening to Manning, whether he’s barking dummy calls or pointing every which way, can confuse defensive players.
In watching the broadcast version of the game, Patriots players were both in awe and wary of what Manning was able to do while setting up each play.
“I don’t know if they turned the volume up. It sounds like he’s on the stadium PA or sound system,” said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. “I think it’s fun watching him, personally, just being a football fan. Forget being a player. Just the control he has over his offense, really the team. It’s obvious everyone looks to him for answers in everything. It’s fun to watch.”
But Manning’s theatrics do little to change the Patriots’ view of what needs to be done in defending against the Broncos. According to defensive players, strict discipline at the line is needed. And, above all else, ignore everything Manning says.
“Obviously you want to play smart out there,” said Patriots rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano. “He’s on a level that he’s gonna do some things so he plays you. You think you know what he’s calling, and then he’s gonna switch it on you. So I don’t try to get too crazy with his stuff at the line, because there really is so much of it, it’s hard to track. It’s tough to even get a bead on it.”
Chris Jones, the Patriots’ other rookie defensive tackle, agrees.
“He has great hard counts,” Jones said. “You just gotta key your man, key the ball.”
“It’s tough to really get a bead on all that,” Vellano said. “But you gotta really make sure you know your assignment, make sure you’re in your alignment and just be really consistent. Don’t let all that stuff get to you. Because it’s going to slow you down more than it’s going to help you. And when you get in the game, and you have so many different [situations], it’s hard to really go 100 percent on something like that.”
What’s more, there’s no real tick or visual cue to indicate intentions for someone like Manning, Jones said.
“You kinda just have to be prepared at all times,” Jones said. “I mean he gets the ball out quick, we know that. He’s a great player, he’s great at changing up the game plan. But really you just have to be able to catch it in the game.”
Even considering the numerous changes that Manning and the Broncos appear to make before each play, that doesn't mean Denver is actually changing its original calls at every opportunity, said Bill Belichick.
“I think if they have a play called and they get a bad look, that they get to something better,” Belichick said. “That’s what I think they do. So how many times does that come up? I don’t know. When it comes up, then they do something about it. I don’t see them run a lot of bad plays into plays that just have no chance. I don’t think they go up to the line and call a different play four or five times every play. I just don’t see that, but you’ll have to ask them.”
Part of Manning’s talent, at least prior to the snap of the ball, is his ability to get defenses to show their hand before running the play, making it easier for him to get a gauge on defensive schemes, including blitzes and coverage. Part of it is a mind game, Patriots player say. The repetitiveness of a dummy call like “Omaha” is key to that.
“It is tough,” said safety Devin McCourty. “He does a lot up there. He, knowing himself, he understands what he is doing so most of the time within the game you don’t get a lot of the same things repeating so it is hard to try to get a bead on that.
“As a defense we can’t be out there saying, ‘We heard him scream this, it must be that play,’ because they have different plays off the same word, that same track. So for us it will be kind of sticking to what we have planned, what we’re doing or whatever particular play we’re in or whatever defense we’re in and sticking to that and not trying to outsmart ourselves and guessing things and doing our own thing. I think the key for us is to stick to the game plan and doing what the coaches decide for us to do and as players what we watch on film.”
It’s not as if the Patriots don’t get practice on this all the time. They see the same thing with Tom Brady, who has his one-word calls and his own adjustments he constantly makes. He just may not be as loud as Manning during the game. But even that is up for debate.
“I don’t know if they turn up the volume, if it’s as loud [for Brady],” Hoomanawanui said. “Obviously I’m not at home watching, but it seems loud out there.”