Quarterbacks getting more control in wide-open NFL
DENVER — This Sunday night collision between the Steelers and Denver Broncos promises to draw the rapt attention of 76,125 inside Sports Authority Field at Mile High, plus roughly 25 million on TVs nationwide.
That's quite the scope for the first week of September.
And yet, of all those watching, even those directly involved, only two sets of eyes can see it all: the quarterbacks'.
They're the ones crouching under center, looking over the line and surveying the scene. They see everything, even what is to come if they read it all right. And if their coaches allow, they earn the license to use that unique perspective in calling their own plays.
As Denver coach John Fox was saying last week, “It's not for everybody. It's not for every quarterback.”
No, but Ben Roethlisberger would love to do more of it.
And maybe no one in NFL history has done it better than Peyton Manning, his Sunday counterpart.
To what end both succeed — Roethlisberger with a new offensive coordinator and playbook, Manning with a new franchise — could dictate not only the outcome of this game but also the direction of their seasons.
Calling for more
Used to be this way all through the NFL. Even Chuck Noll, among the last head coaches to hire an assistant for special teams, let Terry Bradshaw run the offense.
But overhead perches, even radio transmitters for helmets, turned the Xs and Os over to the offensive coordinator in the sky. For a good stretch, especially during the 1990s, Buffalo's Jim Kelly, now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was the only quarterback calling plays.
That's beginning to change. An Associated Press survey of NFL training camps found nine teams — Denver, New England, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, Kansas City, Arizona, Green Bay and the New York Jets — plan to use a no-huddle extensively or exclusively. Most of those teams, by no coincidence, have very good or great quarterbacks.
Roethlisberger falls into the great category by any fair measure and, no doubt as a result, has made clear he'd welcome having more of that license.
He responded favorably again this week when the play-calling topic was raised.
“It would be a lot of fun to do all that stuff all the time,” Roethlisberger said. “But I've been pretty successful with what we've done, and I'm not complaining about the offense that we have or what we've done in the past.”
As it is, Roethlisberger has that freedom in the two-minute drill and the occasional surprise no-huddle drive. That looks to be it for now.
How much new coordinator Todd Haley plans to use the no-huddle will be much more clearly known after this game, though center Maurkice Pouncey acknowledged, “It's in a package we've got. When we're in the no-huddle, Ben goes to the looks he likes, the things he's used to seeing, the best looks for the offensive linemen, and he does an excellent job with it.”
That was evident in the Steelers' third preseason game at Buffalo. The offense slogged along for most of the first half, but when the two-minute drill came with the Steelers starting at their own 2, Roethlisberger ran the no-huddle down the field with robotic precision — 11 plays, including seven passes that covered 92 of those 98 yards — for a touchdown.
Roethlisberger said upon exiting: “I just started calling my own plays.”
Eyebrows, naturally, were raised, especially after Roethlisberger had tossed several verbal jabs at the Steelers over the offseason for changing coordinators and playbooks.
Thing is, even Bruce Arians, the Steelers' previous coordinator with whom Roethlisberger was close, discouraged the no-huddle. Arians explained last season that he had “all the trust in the world in Ben calling the plays” but didn't feel the rest of the offense could keep up.
And Haley this year?
“Ben — I could tell in the spring — he's got his arms around it,” Haley said. “He likes it. You can see his eyes light up when we get into that mode. That's the sign of a great quarterback, at least the ones I've been around. They want it. ‘Give me control. Let me run this thing.' And he has the ability to do it, as he's shown in the past.”
So will Haley allow it?
“Ideally you want the quarterback to call plays. He's shown a propensity to do that at a high level when he's in full control. He's right in the middle and can see what's going on. There's always communication, at least in my experience. You can communicate until there are 15 seconds left on the play clock, give hints and things like that.”
Haley is expected to work from the sideline, as he did in the preseason, so his valuation of Roethlisberger's perspective might be raised.
Manning was asked if Roethlisberger might be a candidate to join the NFL trend in calling his own plays.
“It's hard to speak for the trend,” Manning said. “But Ben's a great player. He's versatile. He can do a lot of things. We know our defense is going to have our hands full with him either way.”
There won't be any “either way” for Manning. From the moment the ink dried on his $96 million deal with Denver, all concerned accepted that his playbook was part of the package.
No way anyone would change that, least of all a franchise run by John Elway, the two-minute master of his generation.
As Broncos defensive tackle Justin Bannan put it, “You don't take away something from a guy who's smarter than everybody else.”
Manning applies that intelligence for hours of video study, then for mere seconds once at the line.
The play, fully scripted or otherwise, will pop into his head. From there, he'll make the signal with a shout, a wave of the hands, stomp of the foot, whatever works in a given environment. He'll also add elements by directing specific players. That could be a hot route for a receiver, a blitz pickup or a revised blocking assignment for a guard.
On occasion, just to keep the defense honest, he'll bark out fake signals that sound similar to ones he's called earlier.
“There's no one else like Peyton,” tight end Jacob Tamme said. “You can't say enough about the way he controls the game out there.”
Yes, there is an offensive coordinator. Mike McCoy runs all aspects of the offense during the week, including designing plays and formations, as well as picking personnel. But it's all up to Manning when it counts. That never changes.
“You're trying to put some pressure on the defense and make them have to hurry up their communication and their calls,” Manning said. “Obviously it's more pressure on the offense, too. There's no time to huddle and sort of breathe. You're staying on the run. You're staying aggressive. You're trying to execute the plays.”
Time to breathe?
Members of the Broncos' offense love to talk about that as it applies to opponents huffing and puffing to keep up.
“We feel like we have a great home-field advantage as far as playing in Denver with the altitude,” tight end Joel Dreessen said.
This preseason presented more challenges than the past for Manning. For one, he has a new cast after 14 years with the Colts. It's not nearly as easy to wing it while learning new names and tendencies. For another, McCoy has worked in wrinkles that compensate for Manning being 36 years old and coming off spinal fusion surgery on his neck. More protection will be offered, including a career-first fullback in a Manning offense.
“That's the one that's going to be really new to me,” Manning said.
Whether something that requires such chemistry can click so quickly remains to be seen.
At least one outsider thinks Manning will adjust just fine.
“He knows the offense,” Roethlisberger said. “He's been in the same offense for a long time. He took a lot of his offense from Indianapolis out there. If you know the offense, then you can call the plays.”
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com. Staff writer Alan Robinson contributed.
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