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Coordinated Bedlam: Is the No-Huddle Worth It?

In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts ran 61 no-huddle plays, a quiet number compared to earlier expectations (specifically after its success against Green Bay). While mastering a hurry-up offense with regular starters is tricky, doing so behind an o-line less consistent than the judging panel for American Idol is next-to impossible. Andrew Luck’s passer rating in no-huddle situations was 6 points lower than his average – 70.1 vs. 76.5 – the run game put out exactly the same production as usual (3.9 yards a carry), and even against Green Bay, Indy only ran six true no-huddle plays*.

Watching the Colts hurry plays last season typically lead to anguished face-palming, groaning, and after a few errant passes, phrases I cannot with a good conscious reproduce. Despite Peyton’s proficiency at it, Indy running a no-huddle in 2012 was bad luck.

That may or may not have been a pun.

With a track record like that, most people would put the no-huddle option in the truck, only to take it out in cases of emergency and Kansas City – which, after Foxborough, the Colts tended to do. Still, after looking back at it from a different angle, some things started to jump out. For instance:

Andrew Luck’s passer rating in the no-huddle, over the first nine games, was 58.9, while going 11/19 for 139 yards and an interception. Over the next nine games, including New England, his stat line read 12/19 for 141 yards, a touchdown, and a pick – or a passer rating of 81.25. A little better, right? On top of that, the two teams to pick him off were New England and Tennessee, both of which seemed to excel at that last year (5th and 7th in the league for interceptions). Luck also somehow succeeded in completing over 60% of passes with a YPA of 7.4, both better than his yearly totals, despite most no-huddle plays coming in high pressure situations; 62.3% of no-huddle plays came while behind, with 71% of those coming in the second half, often times setting up comebacks.

“Okay, what’s everyone thinking? Quick pass? Am I doing this right?”

Again, the biggest disappointment was against New England, in which the Colts tried seven plays to the tune of 25 yards and an interception. At the end of the first half, down by seven, Luck – with one timeout – tried to hurry up the offense, resulting in a disorganized mess that ultimately killed the drive and lead to a missed 58-yard field goal; later, they tried to hurry a run with Donald Brown that lead to a 2-yard loss (and Luck fumbled on the ensuing play). In the fourth, Luck threw a pick in the no-huddle with 2:25 to go, despite being down by 25 points; why were they trying to rush things? More importantly, why was nothing working? Spoiler: Coby Fleener.

Against New England, Luck – without Fleener – relied on Reggie Wayne in no-huddle plays, and the Pats shut it down by putting everything into stopping the veteran wideout. This was smart; through the first ten games, Wayne and Fleener had been targeted in 12 of 19 passing plays, with the last seven divided up between Avery, Hilton, Allen, and Moore. By nailing down Wayne, New England knew that Luck would be forced to work outside his comfort zone; the result was a crushing loss. The bright side was Dwayne Allen, who had two catches (while running no-huddle) for 26 yards, thanks to mismatched coverage. Allen took over after Fleener’s injury, as he and Wayne got 11 of 19 throws in the final half of the season.

And now, both TEs are healthy, and Luck’s comfortable with Allen just as much as he is with Fleener. Scary.

Even Andrew Luck is a little scared.

What does that mean for next year? Well, hopefully it means Indy can be less predictable. In 2012, Indy passed the ball 38 times and ran it 22 times in no-huddle (and on one play, got penalized. I can count to 61, thanks very much). In shotgun, Indy passed the ball 29 of 29 times, because Vick Ballard rarely runs out of shotgun. In a normal set, they ran 68.7% of the time (22 of 32). Hence, it was easy to guess Indy’s play at the line; there was no point in stopping the run on shotgun plays, because there wasn’t going to be one. Period.

Back to Ballard. The rookie RB ran 211 times last season, and only 10 were out of shotgun; in comparison, now recruit Ahmad Bradshaw ran 50 of his 220 carries from shotgun (22.7%). Although he wasn’t often employed in no-huddle situations, because New York doesn’t do no-huddle – New York used it all of 15 times last season – Bradshaw is the perfect back for it; he’s a good blocker, runs in any set/formation, and is a decent passing option. Over six seasons, Bradshaw has been targeted 174 times for 132 catches, for a 75.9% completion record. Over the last six years, Adrian Peterson has 177 catches on 249 attempts (71.1%), and he was the league MVP last year. Now, imagine either of them with a half-decent quarterback …

(… Eli, better than Peyton … why are we still talking about this …)

Having two healthy, starting tight ends will cause constant mismatches down short, and Bradshaw/Ballard will often be left with a linebacker; with Ballard averaging 8.9 yards a catch last year and Bradshaw at a respectable 8.2, any reliability will go straight into first downs. Last season, Luck targeted his RBs in a no-huddle five times, resulting in four catches for 24 yards. Better: Luck was only forced to scramble once while in no-huddle last season, and wasn’t sacked at all despite having a porous front five. Working Ballard and Bradshaw into the passing game will only force defenses to play more carefully. Heck, if everyone manages to stay healthy/not busted for PEDs, it will not be possible to adequately cover every weapon Indy has.

“Hey coach! Notice how physically able to perform I am?”

And now, things start to click. Indy dismantled the NFC North last year with the no-huddle, beating Minnesota, Green Bay, and Detroit in last minute, hurry-up heroics. Against Minnesota, they used the no-huddle once to keep the Vikings on their heels; the drive resulted in a 30-yard TD to Wayne. They used it against Green Bay, four times in a single drive: 4-yard TD. Against Detroit, Luck worked Indy out of a two-score deficit late, largely thanks to a no-huddle drive that ended in a 40-yard TD to LeVon Brazill. Fun fact: when Indy went no-huddle more than five times in a game, they went 4-1.

This season, Indy stands to have a better o-line, a more developed quarterback, and more chemistry between players than last. Don’t expect them to match Miami’s 232 no-huddle plays from scrimmage, or Denver’s 11 no-huddle touchdowns (I wonder who their quarterback is), but it is likely that Pep Hamilton will eventually decide on trying it. There might be mistakes. At some point, television remotes will become airborne. Still – if only for those late-game, gut-wrenching moments – the no-huddle works, and in time, will work for Andrew Luck’s Colts.

 

*All stats amassed by manipulating NFL gamebook data in Excel; I had a complete recount of Indy’s play-by-play, so by isolating the no-huddle plays, I was able to work out most statistics independently. By 'no-huddle', it's not referring to hurry-up plays – of which Indy ran substantially more – but rather, of plays independently called at the line of scrimmage.

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