There aren't many quarterbacks in the NFL that have a trait that's as well known as Peyton Manning's ability to alter plays at the line of scrimmage. These "audibles" have become a Manning staple, and it's always one of the first things that's used to describe him as a quarterback.
The ability to recognize what a defense is showing and then subsequently communicate a whole new offensive play to the other 10 guys on the field is more than just a trait—it's an art.
The defense is doing everything they can to not tip what they're doing, and the offense is doing the exact same thing. It's a chess match played on every down of every NFL game, but it's magnified with players like Manning because of their theatrics. From a pure football-loving standpoint, it's a beautiful thing to watch.
Mike Chappell of the Indy Star has been the beat writer for the Indianapolis Colts since 1989, and he's quoted as saying, "(Manning's) goal isn't to get the perfect play, it's to get out of a bad play." Chappell had a good look at Manning during the 13 years he was leading the Colts from under center. This video gives us a great look at what goes into the verbal and non-verbal communication Manning has with his fellow offensive players.
Obviously, Manning isn't the only quarterback who calls audibles at the line of scrimmage. He's one of the more obvious players in describing what it looks like when a quarterback is calling an audible, but it's necessary for every quarterback to have this ability.
When a quarterback should audible and when he does audible are two entirely different things. As seen in one of the more famous quarterback versus coach soundbites in NFL history, on one side you have Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh and on the other you had head coach Mike Ditka.
The most obvious times you'll see a quarterback make an audible at the line of scrimmage is when the defense is showing a blitz. Sometimes they're actually blitzing and other times they're just wanting the quarterback to think they're blitzing. Either way, it's the quarterback's responsibility to make the correct call before the snap.
If the play call is a seven-step drop and the quarterback is reading blitz, then he's in some trouble. Those longer-developing routes down the field won't do any good if the quarterback is on his back before the receiver reaches the top of his route.
This is where the "hot-reads" come into play for quarterbacks and wide receivers, and it's not necessarily a called audible. There are times in which it's the receiver's responsibility to know if a blitz is being put on by the defense, and if it is, he becomes the "hot route." That means he's running a predetermined shorter route to give the quarterback a quick option to get rid of the football.
Most of the time, audibles are called based on the looks the quarterback is getting from the front seven of the defense. The linebackers may be tipping that they're blitzing or they may be overloading to one particular side. This information has to be quickly processed by the quarterback, who then has to determine whether to abandon the original play completely or maybe just change the protection responsibilities for his blockers.
Former NFL coaches Sid Gillman and Don Coryell pioneered many offensive strategies that are still used in today's passing-game philosophies. They're commonly referred as the "Air Coryell" offense. The two coaches were the first to have receivers run "option routes" down the field, which means they run certain routes based on the looks they're getting from the defensive backs once they're heading down the field.
This allowed the quarterbacks to not have to worry about whatever looks they were getting from the defensive backs before the snap. It put the pressure on the receiver to read the coverage and adjust accordingly.
This means the quarterback just has to worry about the looks he's getting from the defensive players inside the box. That's said as if it's an easy thing.
You ever wonder why certain quarterbacks that had all kinds of success in college just don't work out in the NFL? Sometimes it's due to physical limitations, but many times it's the mental aspect of the game. It's being able to recognize what the defense is showing and to properly adjust your offensive play call to take advantage, or as Chappell said, to simply "get out of a bad play."
As offenses across the NFL continue to adapt and evolve, defenses will have to do the same. We all saw what the read-option did for teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks last season. It's basically taking the pre-snap read from the quarterbacks and minimizing that responsibility, merely having that read come in a more simpler form after the ball is snapped.
The audible will always be a part of an NFL offense's playbook, that much is obvious. A quarterback needs to have options out on the field and the ability to move from a play that could yield a negative result.
But any time you're watching an NFL game and you see the linebackers and quarterbacks walking around and communicating with their teammates before the snap, you know you're watching the chess match in action. But for many, it's not a game within the game—it's simply art.