Chip And the Up-Tempo Movement

Foles Steelers
Bill Walsh
predicted the up-tempo movement in his 1997 book titled, Finding the Winning Edge.

In a chapter called “Determining the Future Dynamics of Offense in the NFL,” he envisions a league where teams only huddle when the clock is stopped and use single-word audibles to call out a play.

The quarterback will look to the sideline the instant the whistle blows on the previous play to see which personnel combination is entering the game. The designated coach indicates the formation to the quarterback and whether he should audible his own play or will receive a play call from the coach. All of these steps will occur without a huddle.

The movement is upon us.

Chip Kelly’s Eagles are most closely associated with tempo, but there are a growing number of teams across the NFL that have it as a featured part of their arsenal, including the Patriots, Broncos, Ravens, Bills, Packers, Dolphins, Lions, Texans and Giants.

This coaching staff is quick to remind you that this is not a new concept, pointing to Chan Gailey and Jim Kelly’s Bills as proof. And that’s true. But never has it been used this much league-wide.

Why now? Is there something that is driving this trend, or is it more random?

“No, I don’t think it’s that random,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “I think there are advantages to it and evidently other teams and offenses, offensive coordinators, see some of those advantages and are trying to do it.”

“The farther back you go, the more you know that all of this was happening [before],” added Billy Davis. “Chip is doing it at a different pace because it’s what he lives in, and I think people are feeling the stress. That’s what happens. The head coach sits there and listens to the defensive coaches say, ‘Oh my God, this is so hard, this is so hard’ and then goes to his offensive coordinator and says, ‘Hey, let’s run some of that. Those guys are almost crying over there. Let’s put some of that in and stretch them out.’ That’s what happens.”

Applying Pressure

Cary Williams detailed what that stress feels like.

“When you’re tired out there, your mind is racing, your heartbeat is up, you’re already nervous because you don’t want to screw up, you don’t want to mess up anything. You want to make sure mentally that you’re there. It’s tough to get back and look at the sign, get the call in the huddle and come back out there because guys are already lined up and ready to go,” he said. “It kind of shortens your window. So it kind of makes you a tunnel vision guy, and you can’t be a tunnel vision guy when you’re playing against this offense. You’ve gotta be able to see everything because there may be some clues that can help you in that particular play. It’s all about getting your focus back. Some defenses can do it, some defenses can’t, and [the offense] exposes those things.”

The veteran defensive back hit on several of the key elements of the up-tempo attack. It is used to tire and disorient the opponent. The idea is that you as an offense are accustomed to regularly operating at that pace and the opposing defense is not, so they will theoretically wear down before you do. And it forces defenses to be simple. They will often play their default defense and will deploy a lot of man coverage because it cuts down on the level of confusion while trying to get set pre-snap. Just go with what you know. Identify your guy and cover him.

“It takes a lot of coordinators and it takes their call sheet and it narrows it down,” said Davis. “What you’re afraid of with that tempo is you’re going to have errors. You don’t blitz as much, you play some base coverages because you want your guys to get lined up quickly and communicate, and you don’t want to beat yourself.”

It also limits the amount that a defense can substitute.

“What the league has become clearly is situational defense, both based on down and distance and personnel,” said Greg Cosell. “Defenses now are not 11 to 12 guys. Defenses can be 15 or 16 different players that play meaningful snaps. What you do when you speed up your offense is prevent substitutions for the most part. You freeze the defense.”

The advantages are clear and numerous. So why isn’t everybody doing it?

The Breaking Point

When Tony Dungy was with the Bucs, he did an extensive study on how his Tampa 2 defense was impacted by the amount of snaps it faced. What he found is that his unit’s ability to do their job dipped significantly once they hit a specific number.

“There’s a certain breaking point in any defense. The breaking point is over 65 plays,” said Herm Edwards, who was an assistant under Dungy in Tampa from 1996-2000. “For any defense. You don’t want to get into those numbers.”

The Eagles climb into those numbers routinely. Davis’ unit faced the most snaps in the NFL last season at 1,150. That’s an average of 72 per game.

“That’s not good,” said Edwards. “You don’t want that. When we were at Tampa – now, we played a different type of offense, obviously – we never got to 1,000. We were about 850. We never wanted to get into the 60s and the 65s. If we got to 70, we were in trouble because we were worn down because we weren’t a big defense. We were a fast, penetrating defense.”

The Eagles’ defense is built a bit different. And it is trained day in and day out to be able to handle a heavy workload. Still, it is a big challenge.

“It’s not easy already to defend in this league. It’s not easy to necessarily to be a defenseman [opposite] this type of offense,” said Cary Williams. “You can be out there for a nine-play drive and create a turnover and the next thing you know, 45 seconds to a minute [later], you’re right back out there. It’s hard. But I think we’ve got the guys in this room to get the job done.”

There is also the question of longevity. As Edwards points out, a player in his defense faced maybe 300 less snaps a year than a regular on the Eagles’ ‘D’ did last season. Add that up over three seasons, and that’s like an extra year’s worth of mileage. No problem for a young player, but how about for someone like DeMeco Ryans, who played more snaps than any other linebacker in the league? Or Connor Barwin, who played the most snaps out of any 3-4 outside linebacker? The high number of snaps isn’t all related to tempo — issues getting off the field on third down were a major culprit last season as well — but it’s a part of it. Whether it’s because of total number of plays or the lack of rest between series, you are putting a strain on your defense, and that strain has residual effects.

“You have to look at the whole team. The game is not played in a vacuum,” said Cosell.

The design is not without its flaws. But the benefits up-tempo can outweigh the disadvantages – assuming, of course, you can run it effectively.

“[C]ertainly it limits some of the things a defense can do. But it limits some of the things an offense can do too. It’s a tradeoff,” said Belichick. “Maybe they’re doing less, you’re doing less. Can you execute at your pace better than they can execute at that pace? That’s really what it comes down to. If you can get your team to the point where you can, then it’s an advantage. If you can’t, then I’m not sure what the advantage is.”

Where the Eagles Have the Upper Hand

The Eagles have shown to this point that they can run it effectively. Part of the reason for their success is that there is an organization-wide commitment to it. Practice is high speed. Meetings are high speed. The offense does not run but exists at up-tempo during the week. The defense, in turn, must do the same. There is a difference between using speed and having speed as a core part of your identity.

“I think that you are going to see people playing faster but not nearly as fast as we’re playing,” offered tight ends coach Ted Williams, “because you have to embrace that totally.”

The Eagles’ consistent use of up-tempo can also serve as a deterrent to other teams flirting with the idea of deploying it against them.

“I’ll be surprised if anybody tries to tempo us,” said Davis. “And the reason they won’t tempo us is what it does to their own defense. You know Chip is going to tempo their defense. We actually get the opposite. We get teams that try to come out and run more to get the clock off to keep their defense rested before they have to come back out. If they try to tempo us and leave their defense on the sideline for just a couple seconds, we’re prepared for that, we practice that every day, we know it can be three-and-out or three-and in, we know we can have a half a sip of Gatorade and, ‘Hey, defense is back up!’ It goes fast. If they do that to us and we get a quick three-and-out and they’ve been on the sideline and they do it a couple times, their defense is in harm’s way in a big way now. I hope Jacksonville tempos us. I hope some teams tempo us because it’s the only thing we know.”

Because of the regular exposure, Davis’ group is more prepared for tempo than most. He does not need to stay vanilla when the offense pushes the pace because his unit is constantly practicing at that speed and is accustomed to moving from one call or formation to the next on the fly.

It’s Evolution, Baby

Kelly hates labels. That applies across the board, including when it comes to his offense being branded exclusively as a tempo offense. He says that the pace at which they practice is more about getting his players reps, and insists that he is not concerned with number of snaps played in the game.

“Part of winning the game is managing the lead when you’re in the second half of the game and you have a three touchdown lead. You don’t want to run plays at 15 seconds a clip because you’re putting their offense back on the field,” he said. “That’s the point I’ve always tried to make and I don’t know why it doesn’t resonate is we never led the country in offensive plays nor did I ever care to lead the country in offensive plays. We never even looked at that statistic. We’re always, how many points per possession, how many points can we score in a game and is it enough?”

To Kelly’s point, the Eagles finished 13th in offensive plays per game last season with 1,054 (an average of 66 per game).

If it is efficiency he is after, then he is probably happy with these numbers from last season: Sporting charts tracks points per minute. The Eagles’ offense was second in that category (1.05) behind only the Broncos. They were the clear leaders in points per minute differential, which takes into account how their opposition fares in that department against them.

“The perception that we’re going to run 90 snaps a game, and that we want to run a million plays, has never been any part of our philosophical discussion,” said Kelly.

The Eagles don’t constantly operate at warp speed, but they’re in that gear often and can stay in it as long as necessary because of the way they train. Bottom line, it is a big part of who they are. Whether Kelly likes the label or not, he is at the forefront of an up-tempo movement that Bill Walsh forecast some 17 years ago.

The reason why it’s spreading now?

“Success,” said Ted Williams. “In the old days, the NFL was a walking and talking kind of process. There wasn’t a whole lot of hurry up and get to the line of scrimmage. We’ll get there when we get there and we’ll play hard when we get there.

“I think the success that people like Chip are having and other offenses are having, you’ve gone from huddling to no-huddle to tempo. You see the evolution. It’s going and going and going because you see that, hey, it doesn’t allow every defensive coach to get all his calls in, it doesn’t allow every defense to line up and make all the checks, it doesn’t allow for guys to rest. Get up and go, get up and go, get up and go. Eventually that wears on you.”

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  • knighn

    Stay healthy, offense. With the new focus on defensive penalties the Eagles are really going to need you!

  • Cranky Caucasian

    This was a great read. Thanks.

  • jpate

    Great Article.

    And boy Bill Welsh was just on an another level of football genius.

    • Clyderightside

      Yeah, genius enough to steal from Paul Brown and Sid Gillman. :)

  • PaoliBulldog

    D coordinators have two choices: (1) figure out how to make substitutions between plays, which is tough because they will have just a few seconds to assess the situation; or (2) put backups in for a series and let the regulars rest.

  • Chip

    Bill Walsh is amazing. Almost as amazing as Sheil and Tim.

  • Excellent article. Great work!

  • Mr. Wu

    “I hope Jacksonville tempos us.” haha gotta love that

    that was a nice read Tim!

    • sorry wu, just saw this! well played

    • John E. Zang

      They’re more like a Ford Tempo.

  • “I hope Jacksonville tempos us. I hope some teams tempo us because it’s the only thing we know.”

    calling you out, Gus! Sconces is rubbing off on the coaches

  • Amar, CB who bought in

    Great article. Got even more respect for Bill Walsh.
    I hope we can keep the coaching staff intact for the next couple of years.

    • jmmgarza

      Bill Walsh did not have a salary cap. He bought some great players. Too bad his ego got in the way when he gave the Cowboys Charles Haley and Deon Sanders. (is that how you spell their names?) Shifting the dynamic of both teams. As a ‘Niner fan … a sad day.

      • Dan

        Bill Walsh didn’t give Haley and Sanders away to the Cowboys. He was retired from pro football. That was the George Seifert/Carmen Policy regime.

  • Rockedupeaglesfan

    I like reading Cary talk X&Os. It shows that he’s more than just a fiery competitor. He’s a smart player, who gets the most out of his talent. Sometimes it’s picking up cues from the offense, and sometimes he ramps up the passion to bring out his best. He may not be a superstar, but he seems to squeeze every drop of ability out of his game.

    • NickS, Combine Warrior

      There were no Xs & Os discussed by Cary.

      • Rockedupeaglesfan

        I guess I was just referring to how he discuss some more nuanced aspects of the game then just “setting the tone .”I think he did a good job of letting the reader know what it feels like to face that type of tempo.

  • Bird of Prey

    Tim, Thanks for mentioning the K-Gun offense. That is what this offense reminds me of the most. If you look at the similarities between the Birds and the old Bills, Kelly was tall, and made quick reads and decisions at the line while having a great versatile RB Thurman Thomas, spreading out the D a good TE and Great receivers. I wished we had their Offensive Coordinator, because as much as I love Buddy, Offense was pretty far from his concerns. Just imagine Randal running the spread option in his prime, Carter and Quick as receivers, Jackson and Byars as TE’s(yes Keith was a better TE than RB). The only question was RB, but it would have been just incredible, that D combined with a spread offense. This is the most fun I’ve had in years watching this team.

  • Kleptolia

    Really good write-up, Tim.

  • Kev_H

    I think it’s just a natural evolution away from huddles toward a more continuous game.

    • Johnny Domino

      It might just end up like rugby has been for the last hundred years.

      • Kev_H

        That’s how it should be. Plan during practice- play on Sundays. No huddles, no time outs, heck no platoons (offense, defense, special teams).

  • Explorer51

    Not a knock on AR but was there ever an article written about him and his philosophy that just made you want more? I know he was an early believer in the pass, pass, and more pass version of the WCO, which seemed innovative at the time even though he had no WRs (TO excepted); but what seemed like innovation became predictability combined with the stubbornness of the no-run offense.

    Who can predict if CK will win a Supe or two? In the meantime, it is going to be fun to watch him evolve as long as he’s here.

    • PhillySean

      Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but going from AR to CK feels like going from checkers to chess.

      • Jason

        Then you weren’t or you don’t remember the early 2000s

        • PhillySean

          The fact that Andy Reid’s Eagles once actually had a running game doesn’t change the fact that going from what had become a stale and predictable system to the Chip Kelly era felt like going from chess to checkers.

          • Jason

            So you are evaluating a guy that was here for a decade, with one that has been here for one. Shocker, the new stuff was new.

      • paul from nc

        Absolutely, Andy was a great planner. Give him time to hash and rehash, and he would figure it out. Hence his after bye week record.
        Kelly, on the other hand is quick minded and adapts on the fly. Although there were a couple of fubs last year. ( rules and when to slow down or not)

        How many times did the Eagles change a game plan at half time when things didn’t work? Plus Andy couldn’t run a 2 minute drill and now we run it all game long. Much more fun and exciting to watch.

        • PhillySean

          The Hedgehog and the Fox.

    • jay ray

      He had “no WRs” because his philosophy was you didn’t need an elite WR to run the system. Just need a bunch of guys who can run good routes and catch the ball. Dink, Dunk, Dink, Dunk, take your shots where you can, and open up the run game. His emphasis was on the line play. Give the QB enough time to throw and he’ll find a target. The screen game during his tenure speaks for itself. Everybody rips Andy for not drafting WRs, but nobody ever gives him credit for RBs – Westbrook and Shady. They can run AND catch, which was very much suitable for Reid’s version of the WCO.

    • A Roy

      Let’s not reinvent too much. Andy’s WCO worked pretty well when he had the three headed monster of Staley, Westbrook and Buckhalter. It’s when they got older and Mornhinweg came on the scene that it went pass-pass-pass.

  • Andy

    Upvote for using a Pearl Jam lyric in the sub-headings of this story.
    I’m excited to see a new level of tempo out of the offense this year but hope we don’t end up breaking down our own defense as mentioned in the article.

  • lhill

    We bank on the psychological effects to the defense. Our method against teams who were very stout in the front seven was the ball went left to right early and often in the first quarter. Why? We wanted the big uglies to get tired chasing down screens. Even if the screens are not effective early, they will be later. Because they had a Four-fold effect. It got the ball out of the hands of the QB quickly. It got the ball quickly into the hands of someone could do something with it. It prevented the rushers from impacting the QB. The larger goal was to slow the rush down so that when we wanted to throw the ball down the field, we got very little rush. This proves to be a successful strategy today.

    Further, tempo simplifies the game for the QB. This is a much overlooked benefit. The field and decision making is simplified. 2 high, or 1 high, Middle of the field open, or middle of the field closed. We use specific concepts to take advantage of the field. Moreover, we determine numbers within the box and run the ball where those numbers are favorable. Tempo allows the QB to make decisions quickly and to make a successful play. The downside for the defense is that tempo cuts communication off from the defensive coordinator and the defense on the field. As a High School Coach, this often pits the defense on the field vs. the Offensive Coordinator. The play caller on the field vs. the play-caller in the booth.

    Lastly, we realized that tempo allowed us to throw the ball down the field without a strong pass rush at the end of the 2nd quarter, and the end of the 4th quarter. Sometimes in the middle of the 3rd quarter we knew the game was over because the defense was too tired. This was the effect that we saw versus the Redskins last year. Although, Chip to the gas off the pedal.

  • anon

    great article!

  • Amar, CB who bought in

    Do read:

    How Stanford Stopped The Oregon Offense IIvia @Fishduckdotcom

    • Kleptolia

      Yep. This.

    • Dominik

      Really interesting. On the other hand, you couldn’t expect Chip just dominating the Seahawks or the Niners, could you? If you play a top 5 Defense, the Offense won’t put up 40 points. Too much individual talent on the opponent’s side.

      On the other hand, the Niners or the Seahawks won’t torture our D like the Broncos did last year. That’s the trade-off in the Salary Cap age, it’s nearly impossible to have a top 5 D and a top 5 O.

  • joeblow

    Damn, Tim good article.


    The dolphins ran over 90 plays against the cowboys the other night. Lazor was really influenced by Kelly and it’s crazy considering the others who taught him before Kelly.