How the Cincinnati Bengals Changed NFL History: The No-Huddle Offense Turns 25

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How the Cincinnati Bengals Changed NFL History: The No-Huddle Offense Turns 25
(Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Thanks to the Buffalo Bills, the no-huddle offense is in the limelight again.

Two months ago, ESPN and several other outlets reported that new Bills offensive coordinator Turk Schonert was busy installing his version of the no-huddle for the upcoming 2009 season.

The announcement came at the perfect time because unbeknownst to many, the high-flying no-huddle offense will be celebrating it's 25th birthday this year.

It all started on December 29, 1983, when the Cincinnati Bengals announced the hiring of a new head coach, Sam Wyche. 

Midway through the 1984 season, his first in Cincinnati, "Wicky Wacky" Wyche (as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called him) had a revelation as he watched his team prepare for a third down and long situation. The coach couldn't understand why anyone with half a brain would let the defense sub out slow linebackers for speedy nickel backs.

"We're going to go back here and [huddle] for 20 seconds and let them get all of their best rushers and best cover people in?" Wyche posited in a November 2008 interview with the Roanoke Times. "And [then] we're going to line-up and do exactly what they thought we'd do—throw the ball."

Wyche knew there had to be a better way. So the mad scientist in him began experimenting.

First, the Bengals started running a basketball type huddle from the sideline. During timeouts, 15-20 players would huddle around Wyche listening for the next play. As soon as the referees whistled the ball in-play, 11 players sprinted to the line of scrimmage.

This strategy made sure the defense didn't have time to match up with the Bengals personnel on the field.

It wasn't long before the No Fun League put a hamper on the Bengals brilliance by limiting the tactic.

Next up, the team developed what was known as the "sugar huddle," it was given this mouthwatering moniker because it was supposed to be "short and sweet."

At the time, most teams were spending about 20 seconds in the huddle, the Bengals cut that down to five. The short-lived sugar huddle proved to be to the forefather to the now-famous no-huddle.

The no-huddle, like most great inventions, was born out of necessity. Wyche needed an offense that the NFL wouldn't punish, "They changed [the rules] every week for almost four years," Wyche says of the NFL. "Every week they had a different rule, I'm not exaggerating, it was so frustrating."

In 1986, Wyche brought Bruce Coslet to Cincinnati to coordinate the Bengals offense. With Coslet's help, Wyche was going to turn the no-huddle into something of legend.

One of the main reasons Wyche brought in Coslet is because they were both disciples of Bill Walsh. Both had been around for the advent of the "Cincinnati Offense" (Later dubbed the West Coast) and both had creative minds when it came to exploring the nuances of what you can and can't do with an NFL offense.

Boomer Esiason, who would benefit from the no-huddle's success as the Bengals quarterback, said on America's Game: The Missing Rings, that he saw the roots of Coslet's and Wyche's brilliance, "We took Bill Walsh's 49ers West Coast [offense], very cerebral system, to another level of thinking, it was remarkable."

As the Bengals headed to Pittsburgh for week six of the 1986 season, talk of the no-huddle hit a fever pitch. The Bengals went into the Monday Night showdown at 3-2, but in those three wins, they had scored a remarkable 36, 30, and 34 points.

"We've had more success with it then people realize," Wyche said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before the game. Many outside observers however, claimed that the offense seemed to confuse the Bengals more then the opposing defenses, but Wyche would have none of that talk.

"We actually know what we're doing," Wyche said at the time. "Sometimes we use it to keep personnel off the field, sometimes to change the tempo of the game, and sometimes to force defenses out of a certain coverage."

He also mentioned a few more reasons why he likes it, "It's a different wrinkle, it's something we give people that they don't see every week and it's difficult to practice against."

Although the Bengals would win the week six battle with the hated Steelers, they would fall just short of the playoffs, finishing the season 10-6.

After the team's first 10-win season in five years, Wyche and Coslet both felt they had a potential success on their hands with the no-huddle.

However, since the team was only employing the offense for less then 50 percent of their plays, most coaches were convinced that it wasn't the no-huddle that was causing the Bengals success. Ere-go, no one copied it.

In 1987, the no-huddle was on the verge of extinction. Thanks to a player's strike, the Bengals had to use replacement players for three games. Wyche wasn't about to teach an impossibly complicated offense to scabs, so he didn't.

Once the strike was over, the Bengals went into a free fall and they finished the season 4-11.

Everyone in Cincinnati thought Sam Wyche was done and that his pink slip was in the mail. But Paul Brown, one of the game's earliest innovator's and the Bengals owner, decided to give Wyche one more chance. And his huge risk paid off.

The no-huddle made it's name as the Bengals made their Super Bowl run during the 1988 season.

No team had an answer for the no-huddle. The Bengals jumped out to a 6-0 start while averaging 28.5 points per game.

The team would finish the season 12-4, lead the NFL in scoring and take home the AFC Central Division title.

However, during the playoffs, a controversy reared it's ugly head thanks to the no-huddle.

Before the AFC Championship game between the Bengals and Bills, Buffalo Head Coach Marv Levy made it apparent that he had a problem with the Bengals offense. "When you break the huddle—and I know he's not huddling so maybe it's hazy—they are not to come out with 12-13 players on the field," Levy told the Toledo Blade four days before the game.

Levy thought the Bengals were skirting the rules. There was talk that a Bills player would go down injured after every play to slow the game down so that the Bengals couldn't run their beloved offense. The Seahawks had used the legal tactic, with no success, in the prior week's divisional playoff game.

As Levy continued to draw attention to the situation, tension grew. The day before the game, the New York Times interviewed Tony Veteri, then an assistant supervisor of officials. Veteri told them the Bengals weren't breaking any rules, "When there's no huddle, it's okay to have more than 11 players on the field as long as they're off before the ball is snapped or before the clock runs down."

Veteri would also add, "We would never, never interfere with this game, as far as a new interpretation [of the rules]."

Veteri's words would prove to be anything but prophetic.

Two hours before the AFC Championship was set to kickoff, the league office called the Bengals and told them if they went no-huddle, they would be hit with a 15-yard flag every time it happened. The Bengals won anyway 21-10.

Wyche told Sports Illustrated after the game, "The heck with them, we play by their rules and we still beat them."

It took Wyche four years to perfect it, but it paid off with a Super Bowl run.

Levy would take the no-huddle offense he hated (probably because he didn't think of it), modify it into the Jim Kelly led K-Gun, and go to four Super Bowls with it.

And don't think Wyche didn't notice what Levy did, "Marv Levy's headline is that 'The No-Huddle is No Fair,' and the next year they're running it and actually the next year is when they 'invented' it," Wyche said in America's Game: The Missing Rings.

As Buffalo looks to implement the no-huddle in 2009, Wyche will surely be wishing success upon the Bills, mainly because Schonert, the Bills offensive coordinator mentioned earlier, was the back-up quarterback on Wyche's 1988 Bengals team.

As a result of the no-huddle, the NFL was forced to change several rules: If a player goes down injured, he must leave for the following play. Also, in a no-huddle situation, the defense is only allowed to substitute if the offense does.


In the coming weeks, look for How the Cincinnati Bengals Changed NFL History, Pt. 2: The Zone Blitz and How the Cincinnati Bengals Changed NFL History, Pt. 3: The West Coast Offense.

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