We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
Tom Brady is a fortunate guy. At this point in his career, a fourth Super Bowl win seems like cosmic overkill: He already has three championship rings, he's a lock for the Hall of Fame, and he's married to a supermodel who's nearly a billionaire on her own. At the same time, it's impossible not to admire his on-field ability. Brady has crafted himself into the perfect NFL quarterback—accurate, smart, and in complete control at all times. In an era when NFL defenses are more complicated than ever, Brady instantly processes the information thrown at him on every play—Who's rushing me? Who's dropping back? What coverage are they in?—and translates it into action.
How is Brady so good at what he does? Much of it has to do with experience and repetition: He's been throwing passes in the NFL for a long time, with many of the same guys blocking for him, to many of the same targets. Brady isn't so much thinking about what he's doing on the field as he is running the scenarios before him through a brain made expert over time.
Having Bill Belichick as his coach has helped Brady become that expert. But the two of them have had another key advantage this season, one popular at the lower levels of football and now making a resurgence in the NFL: the up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Modern defenses want to match offenses in terms of strength and speed via personnel substitutions. They also want to confuse offenses with movement and disguise. The up-tempo no-huddle stymies those defensive options. The defense doesn't have time to substitute, and it's also forced to show its hand: It can't disguise or shift because the quarterback can snap the ball and take advantage of some obvious, structural weakness. And when the defense is forced to reveal itself, Tom Brady can change into a better play. The upshot of this tactic: Brady, of all people, sees defenses that are simpler than those most other NFL quarterbacks go up against.
Lots of teams, including the Giants, use the no-huddle offense in certain situations. But nobody in the NFL this season deployed the no-huddle more often and more effectively than the Patriots. Given Brady's success this season—not to mention the success of Peyton Manning's no-huddle Colts in past years—I expect the no-huddle offense to continue its resurgence. It's worth pondering, though, why NFL teams have been slow to react to something that seems intuitively to be so much better. Real-life huddles are not nearly as interesting as they are in sports movies, where players frequently debate, bicker, or deliver monologues, somehow within the strict confines of the play clock. Typically the only thing that's said in the huddle is the play call itself. This is part of the problem: In the NFL, these calls are absurdly long. With only 11 players on a side, there is really no reason other than inertia for there to be lengthy, polysyllabic bits of code to convey each player's assignment. But if that's how playbooks are written, then you really can't go no-huddle; it's impossible to shout "Scatter-Two Bunch-Right-Zip-Fire 22 Z-In Right-273-H-Pivot-F Flat" to a bunch of people scattered across the width of the field.
But led by Brady, things are changing. Almost all of the information in the play call above can be shortened to just a few words or numbers, or the relevant information can be conveyed to just the right people: Tell the receivers their assignment, the linemen theirs, and so on. And this is increasingly a necessity given the complexity of defenses: It's a lot easier to complete passes when you have a coherent idea of what the defense is doing. It's this defensive movement that's the difference between quarterbacking in college or the NFL. Pro and college teams run the same coverages and blitzes. There are just exponentially more disguises and variations in the NFL.
None of this is particularly new. In the 1980s and early 1990s, both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills used the no-huddle extensively, and college and high school teams have increasingly moved to no-huddle approaches over the last decade. In his 1997 book Finding the Winning Edge, Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh—whose West Coast offense fueled the growth of complex play calls—predicted that no-huddle offenses using "one word" play calls would come to dominate football. Walsh may have been a bit early, but Brady and Belichick are making his prediction come true.
Then again, while the NFL is a copycat league, not all things are so easily copied. Brady is the perfect no-huddle triggerman, given his experience and ability to process information quickly and efficiently. And few coaches in the NFL are willing to commit to the philosophy as Belichick has. One of the downsides of the no-huddle is that the offense, like the defense, is unable to substitute. NFL coaches love their toys, and they spend a lot of time trying to outsmart each other by creating specific matchups. Belichick, by contrast, values versatility, and he has personnel—particularly his two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez—that allow him to be flexible. Gronkowski, if he's healthy, is a tremendous threat given his ability to decimate defenders on pass plays and as a run blocker. Hernandez, meanwhile, has recently added running the ball from the backfield to his typical repertoire of pass routes.
Belichick's use of Hernandez as a running back is the best example of how the Patriots outflank defenses. With no traditional runner in the game, Belichick can force the defense to substitute to a zero-running-back personnel grouping. Once they're in this pass-centric set-up, he can run the ball with Hernandez anyway. If the defense fails to react, the Patriots can simply drop back and run a pass play. And they can do this all with or without a huddle, and Brady can figure out his next move within seconds, on the fly. This is why opposing defenses hate facing the Patriots offense. If the Giants win the Super Bowl, they'll have earned their rings.