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Cowboys Offseason Moves: More No-Huddles for Tony Romo?

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Lately, I've been leisurely leafing through last season's game books, and one previously overlooked nugget repeatedly caught my eye: the no-huddle offense.

More often than not, the no-huddle offense is used by NFL teams as a "hurry-up" in an effort to speed up the game as time is running out and get quick scores at the end of a half.

But the no-huddle doesn't always have to be about snapping the ball faster. Arguably, the biggest advantage of the no-huddle is the threat of snapping the ball quickly, which takes away the ability of the defense to substitute players, forces the defense to simplify and allows the QB to get a long, hard look at the defensive formation. Some teams will delay snapping the ball for quite some time after they've lined up, using the time to adjust their formation, blocking assignments and plays to what the defense is showing.

The Cowboys went into a no huddle offense 30 times in 6 different games last season. They ran the ball three times and the NFL scorekeepers recorded 27 pass attempts. That's almost a whole game's worth of pass attempts and therefore warrants a closer look, so after the break we'll look at those pass attempts and the no-huddle in a little more detail.

The no-huddle in 2009

Tony Romo had a passer rating on his 27 no-huddle pass attempts last season of 111.5. That is the fourth best value in the league among all teams who had a minimum of 20 attempts out of the no-huddle. Only the Colts (123.1 rating, 64 pass attempts), Redskins (119.4, 26) and Steelers (116.8, 39) were better. Arguably, a lot of the Cowboys' no-huddle pass attempts came against prevent defenses, but so did the no-huddle pass attempts for most other teams as well.

That 111.5 is an impressive number. So why didn't the Cowboys use the no-huddle more often? First, let's look at when the Cowboys used the no-huddle.

Wk 1: Bucs
Wk 3: Panthers Wk 7: Falcons Wk 10: Packers Wk 13: Giants
Wk 14: Chargers
No. of no-huddle pass attempts 1 1 1 13 7 4

Even the casual observer will notice that the bulk of no-huddle plays came in the three losses in the second half of the season. In fact, of the 27 pass attempts, 24 came either in the fourth quarter (21) or in the two minute warning (3) when the Cowboys were in desperation mode and trying to score to save the game:

Vs Packers: About 10 minutes left in the 4th quarter. The Packers have just scored a TD to move the score to 17-0. The Cowboys whip out the no-huddle on two consecutive drives. The first drive starts at the Dallas 23 and the Cowboys march down the field almost at will, only to have a pass intended for Jason Witten intercepted at the one yard line by Charles Woodson. On the next and final drive of the game, starting at their own 37 yard line, the Cowboys break out the no-huddle again, again march across the whole field, and this time score a touchdown on a nine yard pass to Roy Williams. Too little, too late.

Vs Giants: Down 17-31 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys again resort to the no-huddle. On the first drive, the Cowboys fail to convert a 4th and 2 on the Giants 35 yard line. On the next and last drive, the Cowboys start on their own 39 yard line and no-huddle their way to a 22-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin with one minute left to play.

Vs Chargers: The Chargers just scored a field goal to make the score 20-10 with 2 minutes left in the 4th quarter. Dallas get the ball on their own 14. Four no-huddles and a total of nine plays later Patrick Crayton scores on a 9 yard touchdown pass. Game over.

Last season, the Cowboys used the no-huddle almost exclusively in end-of-game situations in which they were trailing and needed to score in a hurry. But isn't there an opportunity to use the no-huddle outside of (with the benefit of hindsight:) "garbage time"? The no-huddle requires experienced players and a good knowledge of the playbook and offensive schemes to work. Think about it this way: Every single starter on offense (barring Dez Bryant who may potentially become a starter later in the season) will be entering at least his third season with the Cowboys in the same offensive system. This is a very experienced offense, one that should be experienced enough to run the no-huddle more often if they want to.

The case for and against the no-huddle

The no-huddle offense can wear down defenses if executed successfully. But if you go three-and-out, the only defense you'll be wearing out is your own.

Defenses that like to rotate players in and out of the game are forced to simplify their game plan as the no-huddle can take away the ability of the defense to substitute players. When caught off guard by the no-huddle, defenses are more likely to call timeouts or get a penalty for having too many men on the field. But since the heyday of the no-huddle offense, first with the Bengals in the late 80s and later with the Bills in the 90s, defensive coordinators have learned to game-plan for it.

Another great advantage of the no-huddle offense was articulated by the New York Post, who only half-jokingly claim that the no-huddle offense is the best thing to happen to football on TV:

Consider the Colts' no-huddle act on Monday night: With Peyton Manning immediately bringing the team to the line, ESPN's announcers could not analyze, let alone over-analyze, every play; there was no time for crowd shots, promos, text-message polls, sideline interviews, stat graphics, blimp shots, Chris Berman.

The no-huddle forced ESPN to stay on the field, specifically the part where the football was. Imagine that! The no-huddle makes better TV because it makes TV better!

The no huddle in the NFL today

The no-huddle never has been used widely at the NFL level, but there are a couple of teams that used it quite frequently last year: 27% of the Browns' offensive plays came out of the no-huddle, the Bills ran 21.3% of their plays out of the no-huddle and the Ravens turned to the no-huddle on 17.4% of their plays. The success of the no-huddle varies widely as you can see in the table below (hat tip to BTB member Fan in Thick and Thin for providing the play-by-play data):

No huddle offense by NFL team, 2009 (click column header to sort)

Team Total Plays
No-huddle plays in % of which 4th Q & 2 min warning in % Passes in % Passer rating
Rush YPA
Browns 971 262 27.0 31 55 74.3 4.1
Bills 911 194 21.3 30 58 68.5 3.9
Ravens 1014 176 17.4 17 47 91.4 4.7
Colts 980 86 8.8 28 74 123.1 2.3
Panthers 1023 82 8.0 54 71 57.4 7.2
Chiefs 1019 72 7.1 42 75 82.3 4.3
Eagles 975 61 6.3 34 61 52.4 4.8
Lions 1037 61 5.9 77 84 75.0 6.4
Patriots 1076 60 5.6 55 80 82.5 3.0
Bears 971 49 5.0 37 65 69.1 4.9
Dolphins 1088 54 5.0 74 85 85.3 6.3
Steelers 1014 50 4.9 48 78 116.8 4.2
Giants 1017 44 4.3 80 75 84.9 8.4
Cardinals 985 41 4.2 68 98 66.0 5.0
Seahawks 1045 43 4.1 63 77 70.1 4.9
Jaguars 1010 39 3.9 85 67 92.9 2.9
Falcons 1048 34 3.2 38 68 44.8 3.5
Bucs 961 31 3.2 94 81 45.3 4.0
Raiders 944 29 3.1 93 76 94.5 5.3
Cowboys 1020 30 2.9 83 90 111.5 3.7
Jets 1030 30 2.9 50 53 99.0 4.1
Redskins 970 27 2.8 93 96 118.4 16.0
Titans 990 24 2.4 88 96 65.9 9.0
Rams 998 16 1.6 75 94 8.8 0.0
Vikings 1054 12 1.1 83 83 43.3 2.5
Chargers 972 11 1.1 64 100 144.3 - -
Packers 1042 10 1.0 90 100 71.7 - -
Bengals 1011 7 0.7 57 86 95.1 1
Broncos 1032 7 0.7 100 86 69.4 - -
Saints 1032 5 0.5 80 80 135.4 3
Texans 1043 4 0.4 100 100 88.5 - -
49ers 939 2 0.2 100 100 158.3 - -

Mo' no-huddles or no no-huddles?

Should the Cowboys use the no-huddle offense more? Should Jason Garrett use it as a change of pace play throughout the game, and not just as a hurry-up offense when time is running out?

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