Commentary

Say goodbye to the huddle -- speed is key

Originally Published: August 8, 2008
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The huddle, the pre-snap team meeting that has been as integral a part of college football as the hashmark and the good-looking quarterback, has succumbed at age 112 because of a sudden onset of obsolescence.

[+] EnlargeTony Franklin
John Reed/US PresswireTony Franklin's philosophy is that tempo will beat a defense.
Founded by legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg in 1896 as a method to fight crowd noise, the huddle suffered the same fate as the leather helmet and the wishbone offense. The game passed it by.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The above obituary isn't quite true. Yet.

Life is moving at warp speed. Stress levels are increasing. Decisions must be made quickly. You see it everywhere you turn: fast food is faster and news is constantly new. Take a look at basic communication: Letter writing gave way to e-mail, which evolved to become texting, which mutated into the social-networking site Twitter -- whatever can be said needs no more than 140 characters.

There's no time to ponder, to ruminate. Reflection is for mirrors. The evolution of daily life demands that the most critical fast-twitch muscle is the brain.

College football isn't immune from these pressures. The newest trend in the game echoes the speed at which the harried American moves through the day.

The increased tempo, thus far, has been applied exclusively to variations of the spread, which is to college offense what Abercrombie is to high school haberdashery. The spread stresses defenses by forcing them to cover the entire field. "Tempo" -- in the coaching argot it is understood that tempo is fast -- forces the defense to cover an increasing amount of real estate in less time.

Plays are called faster. Offenses rush to the line of scrimmage. Defenses struggle to line up correctly. Tempo leaves no time for a huddle. It leaves no time for much of anything.

What texting has done to the English language -- think, OMG -- fast-tempo spread offenses have done to the playbook. It is leaner and stripped to the basics. The offense doesn't outscheme the defense. The offense wears the defense down.

One of the reasons for the surprising success of both Kansas and Missouri last season -- each finished in the top 10 nationally in total offense -- is that both offenses increased their tempo.

[+] EnlargeDennis Dixon
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesChip Kelly's offense was flying-high with Dennis Dixon leading the charge last season.
At Oregon, second-year offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, one of the most prominent gurus of the faster tempo, believes that his team should be lined up to run a play 22 seconds after the last play ended. When head coach Mike Bellotti hired Kelly a year-and-a-half ago, Bellotti overruled his staff, which didn't want to ratchet up the pace of the offense.

"As a former offensive coordinator, I know the pressure it puts on a defense," Bellotti said. "And just the tempo changes the game, from a conditioning standpoint, a physiological standpoint and a mental standpoint. So I said, 'All right.'"

"There's a saying in sport that fatigue makes cowards of all men," Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said. "I think it's the most true thing in all of sports."

The saying, usually attributed to the legendary coach Vince Lombardi, in fact came from Gen. George S. Patton, who wrote in March 1944, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all. Men in condition do not tire."

The saying is the foundation of the offense that Franklin has installed at Auburn since arriving in December 2007 after two seasons at Troy. The Tigers averaged 67 plays per game in the regular season. Franklin arrived just weeks before the team played its bowl game and installed a stripped-down version of his offense in eight postseason practices.

"That first day of bowl practice we ran four times as many snaps in half the time," center Jason Bosley said. "We were dead. I was thinking, 'Oh, my God. What are we doing?'"

Auburn ran 90 plays and gained 423 yards in its 23-20 overtime defeat of Clemson in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. On a few plays, Bosley said, some Clemson linemen didn't -- couldn't -- get in their stances.

That looked more like a Franklin-coached offense. Troy, which led the Sun Belt with 452.8 yards of total offense per game last season, did so in part because it averaged nearly 81 snaps per game.

"You can be frisky and everything, but the moment you reach fatigue, it doesn't matter. You're dying," Franklin said. "Kind of like the fight with [George] Foreman and [Muhammad] Ali, where Ali set back on the ropes for seven or eight rounds and took the beating. Then all of a sudden, Foreman was dead. His arms were gone, and he [Ali] knocks him out. That's kind of the philosophy of this thing. Eventually, fatigue will set in. Even though it might set in on you, too, because you're playing at such [a] fast tempo, you know what you're doing and they don't."

You can be frisky and everything, but the moment you reach fatigue, it doesn't matter.

--Auburn OC Tony Franklin

The idea of playing quickly hearkens back to Stagg's day. As managing the game shifted from the quarterback to the sideline, as coaches took over play calling and moved players on and off the field as if they were chess pieces, games became longer.

Some schools used no-huddle wisely. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden called it "the Kentucky Derby offense" when quarterback Charlie Ward won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to the 1993 national championship. Bowden would play a role in the rise of the fast-tempo spread offense.

Franklin failed to convince his head coach at Kentucky, Hal Mumme, to adopt the increased tempo for his already high-scoring offense. When Kentucky fired Mumme and the staff after the 2000 season, Franklin couldn't get a job. Desperate for income, he devised an entire offense based on tempo and enrolled in a seminar in Los Angeles to learn how to market it. He made his first sale to a high school head coach in Hoover, Ala., Rush Probst.

Hoover won four consecutive state championships and became the subject of "Two-A-Days," a reality show on MTV. It's safe to say the offense worked. Soon, Franklin was selling his system to dozens of high school head coaches. He lost track of how many state championships it won.

"Somewhere between 13 and 15," he said.

Tempo is nothing more than the latest offensive weapon in the battle over which side dictates the action at the line of scrimmage. The beauty of a faster tempo is that once it's established, the mere threat of it works. Just because the offense lines up fast doesn't mean that it has to snap fast. There are other advantages to be gained.

"We can get to the line, get set and see what the defense is doing," said center Jon Cooper of Oklahoma, which will quicken its pace this season. "Instead of the defense watching us and our personnel, we get to see their personnel they're bringing in."

Bosley, the Auburn center, pointed out that unlike the receivers and the backs, who are more likely to shuttle on and off the field, the offensive line is out there for every quick snap. He played last season at 291 pounds. He began August workouts this week at 278. He said he feels quicker and stronger.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesYou'll see less of this when Oklahoma takes the field this season.
To prepare the Tigers, Bosley said, conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall limited the time between sprints and gassers this year to 27 seconds. Yoxall studied video to determine the average time between plays. That should prepare Auburn for the advent of the 40-second clock, an NFL rule adopted this season by the NCAA.

The change from the old rule, in which teams had 25 seconds to run a play after the referee gave the "ready to play" signal once the ball was positioned at the line of scrimmage, has forced more teams to adopt a faster tempo. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, whose Sooners are in the midst of a transition to a faster tempo, said he made the decision in part because of the 40-second clock.

"I think it's going to be an issue," Stoop said of the clock. "We don't have transmitters in helmets [as NFL quarterbacks do]. The offensive coordinator can't just call something to the quarterback and then it's out there. The coordinator calls it, the offensive coach on the field signals it, the quarterback processes it and gets it to the rest of the offense. Now you're going to the line of scrimmage. That clock is going down. So it's an issue we're all going to have to manage."

Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville believes his team reacts more quickly to the game with the faster tempo, much in the way that a quick-working pitcher keeps his fielders on their toes.

"They concentrate better. They're having more fun. They're more involved as a team," Tuberville said. "I really like the attitude of our team. It's the way we practice. They are focused more. They'll get bored because it's not quite as complex in some areas as the West Coast [offense]. Getting bored sometimes is good. It means it's simple."

Franklin pleads guilty to being unable to win the chess game with a defensive coordinator, but wants to change the game from chess to tag.

"I know that I'm never going to outthink those guys, and I know I'm not as smart as a lot of guys are. If I can take the game out of my hands, where it's not me trying to be smarter than the defensive guy, it's just me trying to get lined up, play fast, get a few plays, but try to do them really well, then I got lot better chance to be successful."

[+] EnlargeDeAndre McDaniel
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesBy the end of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Clemson defense was spent.
In fact, Franklin said, if he sees a bad play forming, say, the defense loaded up on the side he wants to run it, he calls the play anyway. Just rip the bandage off quickly and get it over with. Why?

"Well, because my belief is eventually, the tempo will win," Franklin said. "It may not win early but eventually it's going to win. Because eventually, what's going to happen is one, they're not going to get lined up properly. Two is that they're not even going to get their hands on the ground sometime before we run a play. If that means that I have to have three or four really bad plays in a game, that's OK.

"If you think about it, how many times do you have an extremely complicated NFL offense that has six shifts and motions before the snap, with these geniuses, and they run it and they lose two yards. I could have done the same thing in a lot less time. I've always thought I'm as smart as them. I'll just lose it faster."

The ramifications of a faster tempo are felt well beyond the two teams. Auburn's sports information director Chuck Gallina runs the crew that keeps statistics at Tigers home games. Keeping up with Franklin's offense, he said, is unlike anything his crew has ever attempted.

"We were slap worn out by the end of the spring game," Gallina said. "It was crazy."

That's what the faster tempo has wrought. When the 2008 season begins, enjoy watching the teams that huddle. It might be your last chance.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com