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Irish Insider: The Q-Gun

Bob Griffin | Saturday, October 7, 2006

Irish coach Charlie Weis arrived at Notre Dame with a playbook as thick as an encyclopedia, four golf-ball sized rings and about 15 years of coaching experience at the professional level.

And given his background, it’s no surprise he introduced the Irish to his version of the no-huddle offense – an instrumental part of his success in New England and something that’s already been a catalyst in the past two seasons in South Bend.

So far in 2006, Notre Dame has used the no-huddle, or hurry-up offense, as a way of catching defenses off guard and allowing Irish quarterback Brady Quinn to settle down and develop a connection with his receivers.

Separate from the two-minute offense, which is also a no-huddle set but has the added immediacy of driving down the field at the end of a half – Notre Dame moves quickly to the line of scrimmage in these formations where Quinn reads the defense and the team works off a limited playbook.

Offensive tackle Ryan Harris described Notre Dame’s no-huddle offense as a slightly slower version of the two-minute tempo, but with the same focus of confusing defenses.

Of course, the two-minute offense has been equally productive, with memorable drives coming in games against Stanford and USC in 2005, and Michigan in 2006 – where the game’s only offensive production came on an eight-play, 72-yard series to end the first half.

But like most things Notre Dame football related – either form of the no-huddle offense simply comes down to execution.

“You just want to make sure you communicate everything to the rest of the team so there’s no one hung out there, just hung out to dry, unsure of what the call is, unsure of what the play is,” Quinn said in his press conference Wednesday.

Sam Wyche, Jim Kelly and the history of the no huddle

Weis did not invent the no-huddle offense, but at the same time, its implementation hasn’t quite existed since the advent of the forward pass. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1980s when NFL teams began using this hurry-up style as a major part of their offensive repertoires.

Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche was the first to use it as a major part of his game plan in the late 1980s. Wyche coached the Bengals from 1984-91 after a 12-year NFL playing career.

His most memorable coaching moment came when he took Cincinnati to the Super Bowl in 1988 against the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers won 20-16, thanks to a last minute drive by quarterback Joe Montana.

But his major contribution to modern football was his recognition that a no-huddle system would eliminate the defense’s ability to make substitutions based on player mismatches.

Wyche also noticed that in a no-huddle system, the defense would become tired before the offense. And of course, given a team’s inability to stop the clock without using a timeout, a defense had more trouble making necessary adjustments.

Wyche’s innovation proved to create major contentions among other coaches who would instruct their players to fake injuries in order to stop the clock. It was because of the no-huddle offense that the NFL made rules to counter its effects.

Teams are now charged an injury timeout when their players are hurt, the injured player is forced to sit out one play before re-entering and defenses are given adequate time to make personnel changes when the offense makes substitutions – mostly because of Wyche’s system.

The hurry-up offense continued to evolve in the early 1990s when Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy took the no-huddle to the next level.

Quarterback Jim Kelly, receiver Andre Reed and running back Thurman Thomas led the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances in the early part of the decade. Their offense, known as the K-Gun, worked many times strictly out of the no-huddle.

Kelly’s efficiency in this set would become one of his most lasting impacts in the NFL.

Weis discussed what made the K-Gun so effective in his press conference Tuesday, explaining the key to an efficient no-huddle offense is simplicity and execution – something Kelly’s group worked to near perfection.

“The biggest problem that coaches have is when they get into a mode like that, they try to have too many plays,” Weis said. “I think the Buffalo Bills back in the K-Gun days with Jim Kelly … but back when the Buffalo Bills were lighting it up going up and down the field, they had about ten plays total.

“That’s all they ran, and no one could stop them.”

Coming down to execution

Weis’ no-huddle works effectively for similar reasons to the K-Gun. The Irish coach understands the importance of simplifying the playbook and relying more on other factors to create an imbalance in the offense’s favor.

“It’s not the amount of plays,” Weis said. “It’s having a quarterback who understands the plays, getting the protection set right, and being able to run it with a sense of urgency because what you’ve done is simplified what the defenses can do because you’re going to get a lot less looks when you’re not huddling up.”

A lot of that pressure rests on Quinn’s shoulders. As the quarterback, leader and signal-caller, Quinn effectively becomes the main factor in making the no-huddle work. He has to be responsible for understanding coverages – just like he would read a regular defense – and then making sure everyone is on the same page.

Of course, Quinn, like he is with most things football related, is calm in these situations.

“We’ve repped it enough in the past, especially last year and maybe even coming into this year, being behind in games, we’ve come into it enough, it’s like riding a bike,” Quinn said. “You don’t necessarily have to work at it all the time. But once you know it’s time to get into that mode you make the adjustment and get out there and start working at it.”

And the two specific situations where Notre Dame moves into the no-huddle entail different mindsets. Not surprisingly, Quinn said the main distinction is the urgency of the situation in the two-minute drill as opposed to the regular hurry-up offense.

“If you’re in a two-minute mode, you have to be aware of the clock [at] all times,” Quinn said. “The down distance, the situation, how many timeouts. You have all different things like that.”

But Quinn is not the only person responsible for making the offense run. The receivers, for example, are instrumental in running precise routes and being on the same page to keep the clock moving and the defense from settling down.

Irish wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, whose pass catching ability and athleticism make him a dangerous threat in the no-huddle offense, understands that the responsibility of ensuring efficiency does not only fall on his quarterback’s shoulders.

“Your responsibility is to be in shape, and get back and make sure you know what you’re doing and get the calls from the quarterback,” Samardzija said Tuesday after practice. “It’s a quick operation and you have to be at the right place at the right time and understand that no matter what happens on one play, you’ve got to [get] back on the next one because they’re going fast.”

Samardzija, who has been the focus of opposing defensive attempts to limit his effect on the field for much of the season, said it’s important to have a smart, veteran group that understands how to work in quick-set offenses. Notre Dame starts seven seniors on offense who are familiar with Weis’ no-huddle.

“We got some older guys that have done it before,” Samardzija said. “I think that it’s something that takes practice and takes time to master, and when you get on the same page like our offense is a lot of the time in the two-minute, the quick-run offenses work.”

K-Gun to Q-Gun?

But regardless of the team’s efficiency running both the no- huddle and the two-minute drill, without a quarterback like Quinn who has distinguished himself as one of the smartest in the game – the offense can’t run as smoothly.

At the end of the day, it’s the quarterback who is responsible for running the offense, delivering the passes and developing communication outside of the huddle.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is an example of an NFL signal caller that currently runs the no-huddle effectively, often calling audibles until the last second at the line of scrimmage.

But on the college level, Quinn isn’t far behind. And his teammates, like offensive tackle Ryan Harris, have the utmost confidence in him.

“[Quinn’s] the best in the country,” Harris said emphatically Tuesday after practice. “Best in the country.”