Calls for change are barely audible
QBs today rarely have green light to switch play
By Kevin Paul Dupont, Globe Staff, 09/01/00
All the elements conspired in his favor, as if someone tossed him the drawing board from the sideline, slapped him on the back, and told him to plot the X's and O's of his dreams.
Now more than 15 years later, Bob Avellini, the former Bears quarterback, can close his eyes and picture where everyone was on the field that day, that moment in the Kingdome.
``Perfect,'' he thought. ``This is just perfect.''
The speedy, sure-handed Willie Gault was the Chicago receiver - at least the intended receiver. The Seattle defensive back was Kenny Easley. Between the two, Avellini spotted some 10 yards of daylight, pure Gault running room, enough space almost to imagine a billboard with the word ``Audible!'' scripted across the front.
``The noisiest stadium in the NFL - absolutely the noisiest,'' recalled Avellini, noting the trick it is to check off on a play amid the deafening thunder of a crazed vox populi. ``But even with all that noise, everyone got the audible. We were going with a quick out, a hitch, and everyone was lined up perfectly.
``No one had to shift. No one had to move . . .''
But someone did. Avellini won't say who erred, other than to emphasize it was not Gault. In a flash, the golden egg of opportunity turned rotten.
``You know what happens,'' recalled Avellini. ``The guy shifts, gives the play away, and, boom! Easley steps up, picks it off, and takes it back for a touchdown. And all because one guy moves.''
There is no way to trace the root of the audible or compute its rate of success. Former Patriots coach Ron Erhardt said he would, ``Put a bet on a guy like Sid Gillman,'' and other pass-oriented coaches such as Don Coryell as being the check-off's founding fathers.
``If you want to ring the cash register,'' Gillman often said through the years, ``you have to pass.''
The crown prince of the audible may have been Joe Namath, who led the Jets' 16-7 upset win over the Colts in Super Bowl III with a ``check-with-me'' offense. Broadway Joe would follow his charges to scrimmage, assess the Colt defense, and implement the play based on his quick read of the Baltimore line and backfield.
But as the game has evolved, especially through the '90s, on-field ad libs have gone the way of drop kicks and leather helmets. The audible isn't extinct, but it has dropped deeper into the background as the game has introduced technical gadgetry, tightened the clock, and larger, more play-specific coaching staffs have sought to control both sides of the line every time the ball is snapped.
``I can't tell you exactly how much they're doing it today,'' said ex-Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan. ``But I can tell you, the offenses I was part of for 16 years, we didn't audibilize much. Most coaches I played for thought it really put the offensive linemen at a disadvantage, created more room for error, and overall you were better to run the play just as you called it in the huddle.''
And much has changed since Grogan last stood under center in 1990, including the sideline-to-quarterback headsets that streamline the play-calling process, and the 40-second play clock that begins ticking once the ball is spotted. The headset typically keeps the offensive coordinator wired directly to the QB's brain, until only 15 seconds remain on the play clock or the ball is snapped. The clock hurries the pace. Both can diminish, if not negate, a quarterback's instinct to freelance.
``It's obvious you don't have the same time frame today that you used to have,'' said Grogan. ``You take your time getting in the huddle, calling the play, moving to the ball . . . then factor in the read, audibilizing, snap the ball . . . guys just don't react that fast. If 10 guys do it right, wonderful. But if one guy does it wrong, boy, you've got some finger-pointing going on come Monday.''
Crowd noise also can render the audible useless, especially for the visiting team on any given Sunday. As the game grew through the latter decades of the 20th century, so, too, did the arenas. More people. More noise. As the decibels increase, the greater the chance for someone on the offense, especially the wideouts and tight ends, to be left out of the loop when the quarterback switches to Plan B. A hand signal can help, but a gesture to implement a new play also can serve as an alert to the defense.
``The whole idea of audibles makes for great, great movies,'' said Avellini, who now runs his own real estate business in Chicago, his office not even a Sammy Sosa shot from Wrigley Field. ``But that's good theater, not reality. Coaches thrive on control. They love it. They want their plays run. And it's not always because they're calling a great game. They just figure they know more. So if you're going with the audible, let me tell you, it better go for a first down - it better go for a touchdown. Because if it doesn't, and it blows up in your face, that's probably gonna be the last game you've played for the year. That's how it worked with [Mike] Ditka.''
There are quarterbacks with latitude. Brett Favre has the cache (read: security) to stride confidently to the line and check off as desired. Here in New England, Drew Bledsoe has the kind of wiggle room that someone like Michael Bishop might not be afforded. Seniority has its privileges.
``I think on this team, with Drew at quarterback, I think it's part of our team, and I think he can handle it,'' said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. ``But if it becomes a situation that I don't feel that way, I won't do it.''
Belichick remembers the days of his youth, watching the great Johnny Unitas make it up as he went along with the Colts. Weeb Ewbank, former coach of the Colts (with Unitas) and Jets (with Namath), typically let his quarterbacks be their own eyes and ears. Don Shula trusted Dan Marino to wing it when he wanted.
``A lot of it's cyclical,'' offered Belichick. ``Anytime there is a team that has success, there is usually a tendency for other teams to copy those types of plays. I remember in the '80s when Joe Gibbs was at Washington, they never audibled - never. And I talked to [ex-Skins QB] Joe Theismann about it subsequently, and I can remember Joe saying that they could be calling off-tackle to the right, and there could be eight guys standing in that hole, and they were running that play. They would never audible, and you knew that. And they won a lot of football games running it that way.''
The great Steeler teams that won four Super Bowls (1975, '76, '79, '80) had Terry Bradshaw in charge, perhaps the most animated when it came to the audible.
``Ridiculous,'' said Avellini. ``Everyone from California to New England could figure it out with Bradshaw. He might as well have said, `Hey, everybody, I'm calling an audible! Here it comes!' It didn't take long for defenses to figure that out.''
Romanticize it as you will, said Avellini, but there was never much art to the audible. Most often, it was used to direct a play left that originally was designed to go right. Or like that day in Seattle, with Gault left unguarded, it could be used as a slight improvisation, a quick hitch designed for a 10-yard gain.
Some things look great on a blackboard, said Avellini, but a play's mettle often collapses on the gridiron. The audible often hurts more than helps.
``It is professional football,'' said Avellini. ``It is a job for everyone out there, and you'd like to think that everyone is smart and studies the playbook, and knows what's up all the time - but it's not the case. A lot of times, it's as simple as a guy going offside, or someone forgets the count you're going on. Most audibles are screwed up, one way or the other.''
The last one Avellini remembers was headed south in the arms of Kenny Easley. He's not certain, but he thinks it's the last game he ever played for Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears.