BY DAN POMPEI-TSN
Jul. 23, 2003 8:53 p.m.
Being dropped into an offensive huddle for the Buccaneers would be like being dropped into a cocktail party in China. Without a translator, you would have no idea what is being said.
Going from Tampa Bay's huddle to the Falcons' offensive huddle would be like going from that cocktail party in China to another in Yemen. Different language, but no more decipherable to those not schooled in the native tongue.
The biggest burden many offensive players carry these weeks is learning a new way to speak. Some, like Denver quarterback Jake Plummer, have switched teams. Others, like Dallas quarterback Chad Hutchinson, have new coaches and/or coordinators. As Browns coach Butch Davis says, "You've been speaking nothing but Spanish, and all of a sudden you're asked to speak German."
When Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson was asked to learn his third offense in three years entering the 2002 season, he did not struggle with knowing the plays. Teams use a lot of the same plays, and Johnson had run many of the plays Jon Gruden uses before the two men began working together in Tampa Bay.
Johnson struggled with the elocution, not the execution. "The toughest thing for me was being able to call the play in the huddle my first three months of last off-season," he says. "It was a challenge until about four or five weeks into the season."
Part of the problem is veteran players often have multiple languages rattling around in their helmets. "Sometimes your mind might go back in time to an offense from two or three years ago," Johnson says. "I've seen it. You have to forget your past systems."
A team's verbiage can be thoroughly perplexing even without brainwave interference from previously learned systems. For instance, when the Bucs call "F Short Fire Pass U Banana Z Over," the "F" indicates the Z receiver will go in motion. But in other Bucs calls, "F" will signify the fullback.
In order to help quarterback Michael Vick be comfortable with the Falcons' offense entering his first year as the starter, coach Dan Reeves simplified the Falcons' verbiage for 2002. The patterns that used to be called "60 2 takeoff, 70 1, 80 6, Shoot," became "216 Shoot." Atlanta receivers used to be designated as 60, 70 and 80. Now, using the aforementioned call as an example, the receiver on the single receiver side knows he runs a "2" route, the receiver closest to him runs a "1," the receiver farthest from him runs a "6" and the running back runs a "shoot."
"It's easier for the receivers and Mike to visualize it as he is calling the play," Reeves says. "The biggest thing for a quarterback is to be able to visualize those things as he calls them. The language last year really helped."
There are two predominant ways to speak offense in the NFL: the Bill Walsh or West Coast language and the Don Coryell language. The Falcons' new language is more in line with the Coryell school, which informs each receiver the route he is to run.
The Coryell language has roots at San Diego State, according to Coryell disciple Al Saunders, the Chiefs offensive coordinator. When Coryell was the coach at San Diego State from 1961-72, many receivers would transfer in to play in his famous offense. He often had to get them ready to play a game in a short period of time. Coryell devised a system in which a receiver could play if he could remember 10 routes and the numbers that represented them.
The beauty of the Coryell verbiage is its simplicity. "The language of our system is what enables us to carry so much volume," Saunders says. Other teams using the Coryell language include the Rams and Dolphins.
The Walsh language is the most demanding because there is more memory involved — one word or phrase tells several receivers what to do. Some of the West Coast faithful have, in recent years, tried to make their language easier to digest.
New Jaguars coordinator Bill Musgrave recalls a play from his days as the 49ers' backup quarterback in the early 1990s as "Change Right Fake 19 W Quarterback Key Pass Right Drag Fullback Slide." Today Musgrave calls the same play "19 W Keeper Right."
"Now, one word tells five guys what to do," Musgrave says. "You sacrifice variations for simplicity."
In the Coryell school, numbers represent pass routes, and names are used for protections. It's the opposite in the Walsh school.
Within each language are many dialects. The Seahawks and Jets both use the West Coast language principles, but Mike Holmgren's verbiage in Seattle is different from Paul Hackett's with the Jets.
The play should matter more than what it is called, of course. But the verbiage offenses use is a factor in its successes and failures. "Offense is a language," Saunders says. "Are you speaking Russian, French or English?"
Sometimes NFL players who have been around a while might not be sure what language they are speaking, and for that they cannot be blamed.