Before Josh Allen can execute his first play Sunday, he first has to call it.
Sounds simple, right?
Not always, especially for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL.
“I’ve been around some young quarterbacks before, and the play clock – it’s real,” Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott said this week. “To get in and out of the huddle on time is a challenge sometimes for young quarterbacks. Diagnosing where to go with the football, reading defenses, that’s a challenge.”
It’s one that Allen has handled well, which is part of the reason he’s set to make his first career start Sunday in the home opener against the Los Angeles Chargers at New Era Field. McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll have both been impressed by the command Allen has shown in the huddle – the first job of any quarterback.
“He’s smart, but it’s not just being smart,” Daboll said. “You’ve got to work on it. You’ve got to give it to him and he’s got to give it back to you until it becomes second nature.”
In an effort to make things easier for Allen in his first career start, Daboll plans to minimize the verbiage on his play calls, which he admits can get pretty long at times.
“You’ve got to try to do that, particularly for a young player, so that he can get it, say it, get out and go,” Daboll said. “So sometimes you'll just give a couple words. Those words mean a bunch of things, but there's less verbiage, so you put it on some of the other guys. The quarterback just needs to come up and say 'hash mark' or whatever.”
If a play call is particularly lengthy, Daboll may just give Allen a number that corresponds to the play on his wrist band. From there, the quarterback relays it in the huddle.
“Then we break, and I've got to remember what I called,” Allen said. “It's got to go through my mind, and I have to understand our reads on that play. It all happens within 15, 20, 25 seconds.”
Daboll has settled on calling plays from upstairs this season, meaning he communicates with Allen via a radio inside the quarterback’s helmet. The back story of how that line of communication came to be is the stuff of legend. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, legendary Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown was given a radio receiver developed by Ohio inventors John Campbell and George Sarles in 1956. The device was put in the quarterback’s helmet, and Brown was able to relay the calls to him as opposed to sending them in with substitute players.
Brown used the receiver during an exhibition game against the Lions, but the Detroit coaching staff became suspicious because the Browns we’re substituting the way they normally did. Eventually, the transmitter Brown hid behind a wooden light post on the Browns’ sideline was discovered. The Lions used the device for three more games as other teams scrambled to come up with their own systems, but the NFL commissioner banned its use across the league.
That meant coaches had to use hand signals or player substitutions to call plays. That remained the case until 1994, when a new version of the system first used by Brown was approved by the league.
“It's the first time I've been upstairs doing it,” Daboll said. “It really allows you to see the game better upstairs, how it's going, and at times take your emotion out of it – which can sometimes be good and sometimes be bad. But it allows you to keep a clear mind and move on to the next play.”
Daboll is always thinking at least one play ahead.
“So staying on track is really important,” he said. “So when you're on first and 10, you're thinking, 'OK, it's going to be second and 6. I've got a second and 6 call ready’. ... When you go backward, that kind of puts a wrinkle in it. Holding penalties, false starts. Now you're thinking one thing, and bam, you've got to go and get to your other play.”
That’s why Daboll isn’t married to his “script,” a pre-selected number of plays chosen during the week that ideally go in order.
“There are so many different situations that can come up throughout the game,” he said. “Are there times you can stay on a script? Sure. Are there times when you have the game thought out in the early stages, and they come out and do something completely different?
“If it’s the first series and you're saying 'wait a minute here, they’ve got this plan to either take this guy away or they're controlling this at the line of scrimmage,' we're not going to just sit there and say 'well, this was the next play. Let's just run it.' ”
With the play clock being only 40 seconds long, the goal is to get the plan relayed to Allen “as quick as possible, because there are so many things for a quarterback to do at the line of scrimmage,” Daboll said. “Setting the table, motions, shifts, giving yourself as much time as you can to identify pre snap the possibilities that you think it can be defensively.”
Allen calls that “trying to get some answers before the test comes.”
“This offense isn’t easy, the verbiage that we use,” he said. “Sometimes, these play calls can get pretty lengthy, so just getting out there, making sure we have a sense of urgency as we break the huddle and get to the line of scrimmage. The line and I can assess what’s going on in front of us; we can shift and try to tell what the defense is going to do before we snap the ball.”
So what happens (say, in New England) when the headset systems stop working?
“Which always happens inevitably,” Daboll said. “Each week a quarterback has a select group of plays, that if the communication system goes down, that he can just play. Those change on opponent and week-to-week strategy. We don't go crazy because usually it comes right back up. But based on personnel groups and what we have in the game, there's usually no more than probably five.”
Pay particular attention Sunday to how the wide receivers and tight ends get back to the huddle after a play. Even seemingly minute details like that can be important, particularly with a rookie quarterback.
“That way, we can have the maximum time for the quarterback to do the things he needs to do,” Daboll said. “When a situation happens where you go backwards or something happens unexpectedly, you've got to be quick on your feet with your next selection of plays so that the time's not running down and you're not burning timeouts. That's really important.”
Ideally, the Bills get to the line of scrimmage with 15 seconds left on the play call; a target Allen said is “very good.”
“Sometimes people are breaking their huddle at 18 seconds, and everyone gets set around 11 or 12,” he said. “The sooner you can get out there, the better.”
In between offensive series, Daboll will communicate with Allen either over the phone or on a headset.
“I learned a long time ago from a head coach that I worked for that I don't want to hear about halftime adjustments. Our job is to make them as the game goes on,” Daboll said. “So if it's the second series, you don't want to be stuck saying ‘oh my gosh!’ You've got to let the game evolve throughout the first quarter, maybe the second series. See what their game plan is. Some teams do what they do. Some teams change up things. The game takes on a life of its own. They have their plan and you have your plan. There are a lot of different things that go along with that.”
The Bills went to a no-huddle package last week when Allen came into the game.
“That slows things down for everybody,” the quarterback said. “People get to see where the defense is aligned, their front, and what they're trying to do coverage wise.”
Much of that communication will be with center Ryan Groy.
“I think the good thing about us going back and forth at quarterback was they all had the chance to do that with the ‘one,’ ‘twos’ and ‘threes’, them going in there with different lines, different groups,” Groy said. “They've all had that with different people. I think that's the positive in it. It's not like he's been going with the 2s and 3s the whole time, and now he's stuck with the 1s. I think that's the positive from it. We've had a lot of time together. He runs the huddle well. And we're just going to communicate and do what we can.
Groy described Allen’s command of the huddle as “strong” and “nothing to worry about at all.”
“We've just got to communicate and make sure there's no hesitation at all on Sunday,” he said.