Chip And the Up-Tempo Movement
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.”
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.”