Uptempo Offense Fuels Eagles, Browns—Why Other Teams Should Hurry Up, Too

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 2, 2014

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The NFL's fastest offense met the NFL's slowest offense on Thanksgiving with the NFC East on the line. Chip Kelly's hyper-caffeinated Philadelphia Eagles—no-huddle extremists trying to stay near the top of the playoff chase with backup quarterback Mark Sanchez in shotgun—faced the methodical Dallas Cowboys, who use DeMarco Murray and a deliberate pace to slow games down and take pressure off an improved-but-still-vulnerable defense. It was old-school tortoise-versus-hare. 

Tim Sharp/Associated Press

It was also a mismatch. The hare never slowed down, so the tortoise
never had a chance. The Eagles drove nine plays in three minutes and five seconds for one touchdown. They drove seven plays in a blink over two minutes for a second. In between, the Cowboys lumbered for 11 plays that took 5:46 before punting. The road underdogs with the punchline quarterback pummeled the winded Cowboys 33-10.

The Cleveland Browns entered the season with a journeyman quarterback, a no-name skill-position corps and an offensive coordinator trying to escape his father's shadow. They also had a plan to pressure opponents by shifting into the no-huddle on a situational basis, though neither head coach Mike Pettine nor coordinator Kyle Shanahan was ready for a Kelly-level playbook rewrite.

The Browns have ridden their quickened pace to a 7-5 record. They are a respectable 12th in the NFL in yards per game, despite an offense reliant on Terrance West, Andrew Hawkins and Jim Dray (and others who will never be mistaken for Demaryius Thomas or Rob Gronkowski). The Browns rank eighth in the NFL in total plays, and those extra opportunities helped spur comebacks against opponents like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and New Orleans Saints.

Everyone knows Tom Brady and Peyton Manning love their
turbo-charged no-huddle tactics, and that Kelly is the NFL's radical strategic philosopher. But teams like the Browns are shattering preconceptions about fast-paced offenses, even as they hold back from achieving their full fast-paced potential.

Tim Sharp/Associated Press

An uptempo offense doesn't need a Hall of Fame quarterback or lots of option trappings. It does not have to be pass-oriented. It can make Brian Hoyer or Mark Sanchez look great for long stretches. It can protect leads. It's not just a package or a gimmick. An up-tempo offense can jumpstart the rebuilding process and propel an undermanned team into the playoff picture.

And yet the NFL has been slow to catch on. The league's offensive pace has actually slowed since Kelly stormed the NFL last year. For every team that tinkers with the no-huddle, another either scraps the system after the first setback or digs in its heels and plays football the old-fashioned way.

But the success of teams like the Eagles and Browns, in addition to the usual fast-paced Brady-Manning contenders, sends a clear message: If you want to get better, either on offense or when stopping the league's most dangerous offenses, you had better get faster.

The Fast and the Curious

Football Outsiders tracks offensive pace using a variety of tools, most notably Situation-Neutral Seconds Per Play. The "seconds per play" part is self-explanatory. "Situation neutral" is incredibly important: catch-up fourth quarters and two-minute drills are eliminated, so a team like the Oakland Raiders does not become "fast-paced" just because it is trailing for most of its life. "Situation-Neutral Seconds Per Play" is a mouthful, so let's shorten it to Neutral Pace.

Here are the fastest offenses in the NFL this year, in Neutral Pace:

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The first thing you notice about the table is that the Eagles are in their own stratosphere, running plays a full four seconds faster than even the New England Patriots. The second thing you notice is that most of the teams have winning records. A fast pace is clearly working for them.

Other than those similarities, the NFL's fastest teams have little in common. There are Hall of Fame quarterbacks and Ryan Fitzpatrick-types, coaches from the Belichick family tree and from the more conservative Shanahan genealogy. No one is really trying to "copy" Kelly's Eagles, though that may change now that Sanchez is demonstrating the system's plug 'n' play quarterback capabilities.

Several of the league's fastest offenses are run-oriented, or at least "balanced." The Houston Texans run more than they pass (390 to 363 this
season), which is rare in the modern NFL. The Browns and Baltimore Ravens are built on the old Mike Shanahan zone-stretch chassis. So are the Eagles, though Kelly has buried the principles beneath many spoilers and fins. This year's fast-paced teams are proving that an offense can have the best of both worlds: a fundamentally simple, power-oriented ground game and the ability to both wear down defenders and limit the defense's ability to make adjustments. A veteran Hall of Fame quarterback is strictly optional.

The advantages appear to be obvious, and the transition to a fast-paced offense should not cause massive organizational upheaval. Colleges and high schools around the nation have used no-huddle offenses for years, so players are familiar with having plays relayed from the sideline and getting into position in a hurry. And yet, the average NFL pace of play has slowed down from 29.79 to 30.05 seconds since last year. Teams are not copying the Eagles (and Denver Broncos and Patriots), but heading in a completely different direction.

Some of the slowing is intentional. Just as one team can gain an advantage from hurrying up, another can gain an edge from a slower-paced game. The Cowboys, as mentioned above, keep their defense off the field by ticking 33.31 seconds off the clock between Murray handoffs. The Seattle Seahawks (29th in Neutral Pace), San Francisco 49ers (20th) and St. Louis Rams (31st) all play the football equivalent of a basketball half-court offense, creating the NFC West's signature style of defense-and-field-position football. Different coaches can experiment with the effects of offensive pace and reach different conclusions.

But something else is happening. Teams have found the transition to the no-huddle surprisingly tricky. No one has tried to go all-in like Kelly, and the teams that have opted for the half-and-half approach, like the Browns, have had to overcome some drawbacks.

The Uptempo Lifestyle

The Browns unveiled their no-huddle offense in the second half of the season opener at Pittsburgh. They scored 24 points in a series of lightning drives, turning a 27-3 deficit into a 27-27 tie and forcing the Steelers to kick a last-second field goal to win.

The no-huddle was impressive, but Pettine was not infatuated enough to make a lasting commitment. "It's a weapon," Pettine told reporters.
"But it's not our lifestyle."  

Fastest NFL Offenses
1. Eagles22.309-3
2. Patriots26.449-3
3. Browns26.607-5
4. Broncos28.159-3
5. Bengals28.448-3
6. Ravens28.547-5
7. Colts28.558-4
8. Texans28.766-6
9. Packers29.029-3
10. Falcons29.115-7
Football Outsiders; *

Pettine, like many coaches, likes the ability to downshift into a more conventional offense. That half-measured approach has a downside: When the Browns unleashed their no-huddle to spur a Week 5 comeback against the Titans, Hoyer said, according to ESPN, he was almost too tired to get clear of the rush and complete a touchdown pass at the end of a 10-play drive in the fourth quarter.

The Titans defense was tired too, as Pettine acknowledged. "It's much tougher on the defense," Pettine said. "You'll get some watered-down calls. You can catch them in some base groupings, and you can get them tired." But the risk of an exhausted quarterback—or exhausted 320-pound pass protectors in front of the quarterback—makes many traditionalists leery of completely embracing the no-huddle.

The no-huddle is a lifestyle for Kelly, and everything from the Eagles' practice schedule to the team's nutritional plan is designed to
get everyone from Sanchez and Jason Peters to sometime-conscientious objector Cary Williams ready to snap three footballs per minute. Eagles training camp is unlike any other training camp, from quicker sessions to loud music that simulates stadium noise when players communicate at the line of scrimmage. The Eagles offense is built upon thousands of practice reps without a huddle, which is why opponents have been slow to "figure out" Kelly's scheme: Few other teams practice the no-huddle enough to effectively simulate it for their defense.

The Browns did not make an Eagles-level uptempo commitment at camp, though they emphasized both their no-huddle system and an offensive approach that gets the Browns out of their huddle in a hurry. Other teams that incorporated no-huddle tactics without going "Full Kelly" had varying degrees of success.

The Ravens have shifted gears for several seasons and are comfortable throwing off-speed pitches at the defense. The San Diego Chargers have unleashed a deadly no-huddle attack in certain situations, but multiple injuries at center have forced them to slow things down. The New York Giants talked about the no-huddle all summer, but they rank just 18th in Neutral Pace, and their offense has hardly been a stunning success. Giants training camp, unlike Eagles camp, was entirely conventional except for some extra hurry-up full-squad drills.

The no-huddle fence-sitters often find excuses to bail on the tactic at the first opportunity: We won't be able to kill the clock late in games; it will tire our offense; our defense won't get enough of a break if the offense goes three-and-out in 46 seconds. There is some legitimacy to these arguments, but of course all strategies have weaknesses. Three of the four fastest teams in the NFL have 9-3 records. The fourth is this season's surprise contender. Maybe a deeper commitment to fast-paced football—one that seeps down into the practice schedule and coaching philosophy—is worth the risk of a few winded linemen.

Hurry Up, Before it's Too Late

The Johnny Manziel era is upon us. It may not start on Wednesday—Pettine has not yet chosen his starting quarterback for next Sunday—but it is inevitable. The Browns could seat Johnny Football behind the wheel of a high-speed offense that has defenders gasping at the line of scrimmage, or they could slow things down and see how Manziel looks driving an old-fashioned station wagon of a zone-blocking offense.

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

Which strategy do you think has a better chance of success? Thought so. Manziel executed mostly no-huddle plays in his debut. It was the nature of the circumstances (fourth quarter, trailing big), but it could also have been a sneak peek of what's to come.

Teams that fail to embrace no-huddle tactics and uptempo pacing are leaving opportunities on the table. The next few teams that follow Kelly's lead will enjoy the same benefits that allow the Eagles to beat opponents out of the gate. Defenses will eventually adapt, but until defensive coaches rethink their entire approach (which won't happen while only one team is applying full-time pressure), there will be touchdowns and wins sitting on the table for teams quick enough to grab them.

The Johnny Manziel Browns should make the no-huddle their lifestyle. Dabblers like the Texans should follow suit. Teams on the offseason coaching market, looking for a way to build a competitive offense immediately and get ahead of the NFL curve, should scour the college ranks for their own uptempo philosophers. (Hint: Try Auburn.) 

The traditionalists will still find reasons to slow things down. But eventually, they will notice that both the contenders and upstarts are blowing past them.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.