Following is a guest post by Kurt Earl, who wrote this article while he was the Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach at LCS. He just finished his second year as their Head Coach. Coach Earl is the founder of Compete4Christ and his first book “Same Game | Different Fame” was published in late October. Coach Earl has also started a movement called Culture Coordinator at www.culturecoordinator.com that is “Equipping coaches to build unity, develop people, and win games.”
Several years ago while searching for a competitive advantage my head coach handed me a VHS tape and said, “Watch this. I think we should go no huddle.” I grabbed the tape and looked at the cover which featured a relatively unknown high school coach in Arkansas named Gus Malzahn (So yeah, I like to tell people I was on the Gus Malzahn train before they were).
The video contained tons of information, but the concept that caught my attention was this: If we can average 4-6 yards per play why wouldn’t we try to do that 85 times per game instead of 55 times per game?
When I heard that I hit pause on the VCR and just sat there for a moment. Good question. Why wouldn’t we?
And so, the journey towards what Chip Kelly calls “Tempo calls” began.
When we first implemented the no huddle system we signaled all the information in. First we signaled the formation. Then we signaled the play and the snap count. Signaling all those things was complicated and took just as long as huddling. I soon realized we weren’t going any faster than teams that huddled. We regularly snapped the ball with less than 10 seconds remaining on the play clock. We weren’t getting any extra offensive snaps each game and while all the signaling made us look legit we weren’t gaining much of a competitive advantage.
Stepping Stone #1: Automatic formations
After a couple years of operating in what we could have called the “down-tempo no huddle” we made a critical adjustment. We began operating exclusively from our base formation, setting the strength to the field, on every snap. As soon as one play ended our linemen rushed to the spot and began yelling “right, right, right” if the field was to the right and vice-versa. Thus, we had eliminated the need to signal in the formation.
At this point we were signaling in or yelling in a series of numbers that were decoded on a wristband. When our kids got the numbers they looked at their wristbands and ran the called concept. Our tempo improved dramatically. Though defenses still had time to get their signals in and change their look every play we were operating at a pace that most teams simply weren’t ready for. We soon realized that if we could get to the 5th play of a possession the likelihood of scoring neared 100% because the defense would get tired and give up a big play.
Stepping Stone #2: Concepts rather than adjustments
Shortly thereafter we realized that having only one formation allowed us to create and teach dozens of concepts from that single formation. Think about it. If you’re a coach that likes to run 5 or 6 concepts from 5 or 6 formations you’re teaching dozens of adjustments for each formation. We decided that if we only had one formation we could teach dozens of concepts instead. We felt like we were asking our kids to learn the same amount of information either way.
This led to what became known as “We got answers.” We began to show our players how each of our concepts was an answer to a possible defensive adjustment. We began to develop “base” concepts with complementary concepts or constraint concepts. As time went on we essentially had 4 or 5 base concepts and each of those concepts had 2-5 complementary or constraint concepts. For example, Zone Read was a base concept complemented by Bubble Screen and a couple quick hitting play-action pass.
The key point I want to make here is that we got to a point where we could line up in our automatic formation and make a call based on how the defense was lined up and had been playing us AND that we were going so fast the defense had trouble mixing things up to keep us honest.
Stepping Stone #3: Packaged plays
Now that we were only signaling play concepts and not signaling formations we were clipping along at a pretty good pace. We found that we could hurry to the line and force the defense to show its cards early and call a play based on their alignment and tendencies.
This worked perfectly for about a year. Then, in a playoff game, a wise defensive coordinator taught his kids to switch their look as soon as they heard our kids communicating our number series to each other. They did a spectacular job of switching from one look to another and switching into a look that killed my call. It was frustrating, and irritating, and my hat is still off to their defensive coordinator. He did an incredible job. And they won. Ugh.
I spent some time that offseason studying packaged plays. I soon began to realize that I could combine many of the base concepts in our system with their corresponding complementary or constraint concepts. The next fall we began to combine base plays like Zone Read with constraint plays like Bubble Screen. We first installed this by going 11 vs 1. We literally lined up the strong safety vs. all 11 offensive guys, called the Bubble/Zone Read concepts using our number system and either threw the Bubble or ran the inside Zone Read based on the strong safeties alignment and first step.
It was ugly, very ugly, at first, but we began to master it. By mid season we were relying on a couple of packaged plays and calling several of our old concepts from years past. We became harder to defend and really started to establish ourselves as a fast paced no huddle power.
Stepping Stone #4: The Patriots roll my Broncos
One Sunday afternoon a week after a team we had played 9 times in 4 years (JV, Varsity and playoffs) cracked our number code in a JV game my wife and I were watching our Denver Broncos play the New England Patriots. We grew up north of Denver so watching the Broncos is a regular Sunday activity.
About the third possession the Patriots started operating at a very Oregon like pace. Intrigued, and irritated because the Broncos clearly weren’t prepared for the tempo, I turned up the volume and started listening closely.
As the officials spotted the ball Brady was yelling one word instructions. I’ll never forget him yelling “lasso, lasso” and watching all 11 Patriots quickly jump into a new formation and run a play immediately after the official set the ball for the ready. I looked at my wife (who loves football as much as I do) and said, “They just told the whole team what to do with one word. Did you see that?” She nodded and yelled at the Broncos to “Hurry up!”
The next play Brady yelled something else. I can’t remember what he yelled, but it was different and the Patriots lined up in the exact same formation and ran the exact same play. Again, I looked at my wife and said “Did you see that? He just yelled something different and they ran the exact same play.” Again, she nodded and yelled instructions at the Broncos.
I got online and started digging. Blog post by blog post I pieced it together. Chip Kelly, who was still at Oregon at that time, had visited the Patriots in the off-season. As I reviewed my previous notes on Kelly (I’ve been chasing his ideas for years and years) and read through some new information on Kelly I realized he was using one or two words to communicate everything about a play. When Oregon was completing six play, 70 yards touchdown drives in less than 100 seconds of REAL TIME they were doing it using “tempo calls” in the same way the Patriots were using “lasso.”
By the following Tuesday we were implementing tempo calls. In those first weeks we were using a combination of tempo calls and an upgraded version of our number codes. By the beginning of the next season the numbers and the wristbands were gone. That was the fall of 2013. We haven’t called a play using anything other than code words/tempo calls since. We call them “Quack Attack” words after Kelly’s Oregon Ducks.
We come at defenses with the throttle wide open. On occasion our center waits in his stance, eyes up, waiting for the official to set the ball down so he can snap it. We use a quick “Down, set, hit” cadence and just about the time the defense starts to time it up and get an advantage we use our tempo call for “no play” and watch them hand us five yards on an offsides penalty. Attempting to call a new defense each play is possible, but risky and it usually results in confusion. It’s not odd for us to run more than 70 plays in a game. If you’re thinking “They must be Air-Raid and throw lots of incompletions every game” you should know that twice this season we ran the ball over 60 times. We’re like a living video game when it comes to this statistic. Also, our pace is so fast I can keep it very simple. I have called inside zone read over 30 times in a game multiple times.
Installing the Quack Attack
If memory serves me correctly I first watched that Malzahn video in the winter of 2007. After seven years of running along the path towards Tempo Calls or the Quack Attack here are some keys to installing it in your program.
1. Choose your formation wisely
Obviously, when you’re operating exclusively from one formation you had better choose that formation wisely. As a true spread option team for years we used what we call “Open”. Trips to the field and an X to the boundary. Our back offset from the shotgun based on the play call. This formation allowed us to throw quick screens to either side, run inside zone, inverted veer, and speed option and provided the opportunity to get four receivers into our passing game concepts on the field side.
This year, because we were much deeper at the running back position, we ran exclusively from what we call “Twins.” Twins to the field and an X to the boundary. We had one running back on either side of the QB. Obviously, we weren’t able to get four receivers into our passing game concepts, but we were better able to seal the edge and run some stretch plays where we option the nose tackle or inside backer.
The key to our successful transition from one formation to the other is that we haven’t changed our schemes. We remain a true triple option team in our new formation. Some of the angles and techniques we employ to execute the triple option have changed, but the schemes are the same. Example: in the past we threw a bubble screen for our third option in the zone read. This year we pitched it to the second back who is looping into position from the backside.
Earlier I mentioned that when we installed our first packaged play we started with 11 vs. 1. If you’re going to operate at the tempo we do you need to install the tempo in 11 vs. 0 time. We often use 11 vs 0 as conditioning and routinely do it to this day. Here’s how we do it:
We line our varsity up on the goal line in our base formation.
As the offensive coordinator I stand on the sideline and call a play using our Quack Attack words.
As the varsity executes the play one of our assistants sets the ball for the ready on the 5 yard line at a random location between the hashes.
As the team finishes the play the linemen find the ball and begin yelling out which side is the wide side of the field “Right, right, right” or “Left, left, left.” This sets the strength of our formation.
I call the next play.
The next play is executed as our assistant coach spots the ball on the 10 yard line.
We repeat this all the way down the field.
When the varsity gets to the 20 yard line the JV start on the goal line and two more coaches call the plays and set the ball.
Our Varsity kids always run one play every 15 seconds and occasionally they are able to get down close to one play every 10 seconds.
We use this drill frequently at the end of practice and it doubles as both a time to get comfortable with our tempo and conditioning. We almost never go this fast during team time. We slow down and teach the finer details during team time.
3. Chose your tempo/Quack Attack words wisely
Make sure none of them rhyme or sound similar or in any other way could be confused for one another! Early on in our transition we ran a play in practice and it looked like no one was on the same page. When I asked what the problem was I realized half of them thought we said one thing and the other half thought we said another. I said, “O for crying out loud. They rhyme don’t they?! Ok, I’ll change that.” I’m thankful we learned that lesson in practice and not in a game.
4. Have an offensive system not a bunch of plays
Operating at this tempo works best when you have a system of offensive concepts that compliment each other and fit together. It doesn’t matter if you’re Wing-T, Spread Option, or Air Raid, you have to have a system. Every play must be called on purpose and with a purpose. As the game progresses defenses will make adjustments and you had better have the perfect answer to their adjustments within your system.
Responses To Common Questions
Do you really operate exclusively from one formation?
Yes. At our level of football we can get away with it because many players play both ways and defensive coordinators don’t have the time to install all the bells and whistles they want to. If I coached at a bigger school or at the college level I’d probably have up to 5 formations at my disposal, but I think I would stay in the same formation every series. One series we might use our Open formation exclusively and the next series we might use our Twins formations exclusively. Remember, the distinctive advantage we have is an unparalleled tempo. Changing formations during the same possession would slow us down and kill our advantage. So, the way to get more complicated and put more pressure on a defense is to use different formations every series, but stick with the same formation for an entire series.
Having said that, I’m not convinced you’d need more than three formations. We create a lot of misdirection and miscommunication with 1 formation and a handful of concepts. I believe adding 2 more formations and 2 more handfuls of concepts would be sufficient at almost any level.
2. Don’t your guys get tired? Don’t you worry about being able to sustain the pace for an entire season?
No. In fact, we jokingly keep track of the cramp count. Younger players who don’t play as much often keep track of how many times our opponents cramp up. It’s not odd for us to win the count 7 to 0. We see our tempo as our #1 advantage over anyone. We know that if we can get to the 5th or 6th play of a drive the defense will get tired and give up a big play for a score. We know that if we are within two scores at halftime we will have a chance to win the game because teams often fall apart physically in the second half. We feel like our tempo is not only sustainable, but it actually prevents injuries. Over the course of a season our offensive guys take very few big hits because the defense is simply too tired to bring it!
3. It sounds great for you, but I don’t think it fits our system.
I think you can be a wishbone, triple option guy and employ this tempo to your advantage. We happen to be riding the trend of spread option football that is often associated with no huddle, but that’s just a coincidence. In fact, I think the wing-t or a wishbone, triple option offensive system would be absolutely devastating at this tempo. I think it works regardless of your system.
4. What if you’re playing a team that operates at a similar tempo? Haven’t you lost your advantage?
First, I’ve never coached against anyone that can truly match our tempo. Second, in the end the game is usually won by the team with more talent and/or the team that is better coached. I can’t do much about the talent (we don’t recruit) but I can make sure that I coach my guys up. Our tempo is just one of many things I try to do well as a coach.
5. With so few concepts installed, aren’t you worried the defense can account for all your “answers” and leave you high and dry with nothing to call?
Yes! And there have been times when I felt stranded and without an answer. Having said that, however, those have been the times when our system has grown and matured the most. One of two things has always happened. 1. Upon reviewing the game I recognize I could have called this or that concept and probably been just fine. 2. A new concept is born and the new concept is often so ridiculously simple and easy to install it leaves me wondering “Why hadn’t I thought of that before?” Thus, in the short run we lose a game because the system came up short, but in the long run the system becomes even more difficult to stop.
Also, I dare you to DVR Oregon (or a high tempo team) and actually count the number of different concepts they run. Trust me, it’s not very many. They go fast and they execute really well. The key to their offensive success is tempo and solid execution. It’s not complexity.
If nothing else, I hope this post stirs your thinking and encourages you to ponder what it would be like to commit fully to this type of tempo. I welcome any questions and feedback in the comments thread or you can connect with me on Twitter @KurtEarl14 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.