Chow focuses on speeding up offense

Instead of trying to win another championship at USC, offensive coordinator Norm Chow decided to test his skills in the NFL.

Updated: August 17, 2005, 2:41 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Just four days shy of his professional football debut, Tennessee Titans first-year offensive coordinator Norm Chow was asked, following practice Monday, about the biggest adjustment he has had to make in his new job.

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TitansHow is Steve McNair adjusting to the offensive changes? Who'll start at cornerback? Those are just a couple of the things Len Pasquarelli touches on in his observations from Titans camp.
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And, please, a reporter begged, don't fall back on the hackneyed speed-of-the-players reply that everyone uses to describe the differences in the two games. After all, Chow was told, he has seen plenty of speed in three-plus decades, especially in the Pac-10, where he helped lead Southern California to consecutive national championships.

After considering the question, Chow, who was hired to revamp an offense that had grown stale and reenergize quarterback Steve McNair, did not disappoint.

What is it that most worries Chow heading into Friday night's preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

"Dealing with the clock, I think, that's been the biggest adjustment," said Chow, long regarded as the college game's premier coordinator and now, at age 59, preparing for his first taste of the NFL. "The ball goes out of bounds, or there's an incomplete pass, they wind the [play] clock right away. And they don't stop the clock [in the NFL] after first downs, either. The first few times in practice, I was thinking about what play to call, and you look up, and the [play] clock is running. For a guy like me, who wants to get [his team] out of the huddle quickly, it's a little bit of an adjustment."

Rest assured, Tennessee fans, if clock management is the lone concern for Chow in his maiden NFL season, the new offense should have few problems. Chow is all about time and tempo and pace.

One of the priorities he has most stressed since being hired by head coach Jeff Fisher in February, replacing coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who moved on to the New York Jets, is quickness into and out of the huddle. He wants McNair to ideally have the offense at the line of scrimmage with 20 seconds remaining on the play clock, so there is ample time to make presnap reads, perhaps audible, and to prevent defenses from being able to make late adjustments that force offenses into disastrous plays.

Chow has even changed the snap-call from the standard hut to go. Still one syllable, but a quicker syllable. Because for Chow, it's all about being quick, getting off more snaps, creating more scoring opportunities. Tick, tick, tick.

Ironically, only the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos clicked off more offensive snaps in 2004 than the Titans, who had 1,053 so-called "ball control plays." And, truth be told, watching portions of two practices on Monday, the pace of the Tennessee offense did not appear as up-tempo as expected. But the players, and especially the key offensive veterans, insist the tempo has been increased.

Drew Bennett
Wide Receiver
Tennessee Titans
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Rec Yds TD Avg Long YAC
80 1247 11 15.6 48 288
"Things just feel faster," said Drew Bennett, whose breakout season in 2004 has combined with the cap-related release of Derrick Mason this spring to elevate Bennett into the lead wideout spot in an offense that will need some of its young wide receivers to quickly emerge as playmakers. "While it's an offense that makes a defense think you're doing a lot of different things, you really aren't. Some things have really been streamlined."

That is, indeed, part of what has made Chow's offense so successful at the college level; his résumé includes 32 seasons with stints at Brigham Young, North Carolina State and Southern Cal, three national titles, three Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, and top-10 statistical rankings in 15 of the last 21 seasons. In the Chow offensive design, the calls are more player-friendly, relatively facile, and not overly mentally demanding.

McNair, who is healthy again after a difficult '04 season in which a sternum injury kept him out of eight games, is seemingly reinvigorated by the challenge of assimilating a new attack-mode offense. "It's come a lot easier than I thought it would," he said.

Chow is not surprised by that.

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  • In comparison, his offense is a quicker-read paradigm than what Heimerdinger had, and the ball should come out faster because he wants McNair to essentially get it to the first open receiver. The progressions a quarterback has to read are far fewer, and the options available to the passer should be more immediately discernable. And it's not as if Chow is trying to force some kind of gimmick offense into the league, as Steve Spurrier did with his ill-fated Fun-and-Gun experiment in two seasons with the Redskins.

    "It's based on the theory that, whatever decision the defense makes, it will be the wrong decision," said former NFL quarterback Gifford Nielsen, who played for Chow at BYU. "There's something to counter whatever the defense does."

    Nielsen said he has no doubts the Chow offense will succeed in the NFL. A man not given to hyperbole, Chow didn't disagree. It's not that Chow believes he has created the all-time offensive panacea, just that he feels his offense can counter the defense's ability to take away a team's top receiving threat, and that it translates well to any level of the game. In his offense, every receiver should run every route as if he is going to get the football because he might.

    The offense developed by Heimerdinger evolved in recent years into one that was almost too vertical at times. It was heavy on three-wide receiver sets and made little use of the tight ends or running backs as receivers. Chow wants his tight ends and backs to combine for more receptions than his leading wideout. His goal is to have those players total, say, 100 receptions among them, while his lead wideout catches maybe 70-75 balls. The key is to spread the ball around and, of course, to do it quickly.

    "In this league, if the defense says, 'OK, we aren't going to let you throw the ball to that guy,' it can pretty much do it," Chow said. "It can make things difficult. That's why we aren't going to hold the ball. The reads are boom, boom, boom, throw it. It's not nearly as complicated as people want to make it, you know? I mean, look, football is football."

    It is that simplicity that, in part, drew Fisher to Chow when Heimerdinger bolted to the Jets for a contract that reportedly pays him seven figures annually. There were some in-house candidates as well, and Fisher considered some assistant from other clubs, too. But he knew from everything he had heard about Chow that the longtime college coach was the guy he wanted.

    His only concern was reservations Chow might have about making the jump to the pro game after having rebuffed a few feelers in the past. And those, said Fisher, were quickly resolved.

    "Look, I love [Heimerdinger], I always will, and we'll always be close friends," Fisher said. "I'm grateful for everything he did for this franchise. But change isn't always such a bad thing. And when you're forced to make change, you maybe want to take a look at something different. The thing is, Norm isn't so different in what he does that it's going to be hard to accept. In fact, ask guys, and they'll tell you they've already bought into it."

    At the same time, Chow, arguably one of the oldest rookie assistants in the recent history of the NFL, has embraced the opportunity to roll out his offense onto a new stage. Chow could have stayed at Southern Cal, Fisher's alma mater, and maybe won another national title. But as he noted, that would not have gilded his résumé anymore than it already is and, nearing age 60, he wanted to finally scratch the NFL itch.

    Certainly, of all the new assistants in the NFL, definitely of all the coordinators, Chow will be the most heavily scrutinized. While he has a lot of friends in the league, coaches with whom he has shared concepts and ideas for years, there are also skeptics. But that wasn't going to dissuade him from making the move when Fisher offered him the job and a new challenge.

    "I guess maybe," Chow said, "I was looking for the one more challenge late in my career. And it has been challenging. But I think, on the whole, it's going OK."

    Now, if he can just master the NFL play-clock, things might go even better than that.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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