It's the Little Things That Count

By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

Joe Bugel has spent the bulk of his professional life in the NFL attempting to perfect a mathematical formula generally considered impossible to anyone living outside the closed, precise society of offensive football coaches. For 30 years, Bugel, the Redskins' assistant head coach-offense, has tried to take three seconds and transform them into an eternity.

Expanding time is extremely important in the ferocious but increasingly sophisticated NFL, where throwing the ball has never been more perilous. Since entering the league in 1975, Bugel has seen the rugged confrontation between offense and defense -- once built primarily on muscle and machismo -- evolve into what he sees today: an intricate but no less physical game of spy versus spy, complicated by the speed and talent of the players and the high technology and information available to the coaches.

When Bugel compares the minuscule amount of time a quarterback has to act with the daunting checklist of responsibilities -- the quarterback must determine if the defense is playing zone or man, if it is blitzing or back in coverage, then successfully discover its weakness before taking a vicious hit -- his lined face curls into a hard, weathered smile, one eminently respectful of the high degree of difficulty involved.

"Three seconds." Bugel purposely isolates the words, allowing them to sow the appropriate metaphor. It is barely enough time for him to recite his birth name, or read a short sentence at a normal pace. Yet despite the seeming impossibility of the task, Bugel also shows the healthy admiration he has for that elite group of quarterbacks for whom an amount of time insufficient to complete insignificant daily tasks is somehow more than enough for them to totally obliterate the best-prepared defenses in the NFL.

"It is amazing how as a quarterback you'll recognize a defensive back lined up at 11 yards and then 10," said former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who was the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXI after the 1986 season. "A change that slight can only be picked up through tremendous repetition, because the alarm goes off, and then you say to yourself, 'This is too easy.' "

With the Redskins opening the season tonight against Minnesota at FedEx Field, much of the team's success will be predicated on the ability of the quarterbacks -- Mark Brunell, Todd Collins and Jason Campbell -- to execute Al Saunders's precise, timing-based offense, one that remained cloaked in the preseason. While Brunell is a veteran who has shown his ability to execute and read a defense, it will be of particular importance when gauging the progression of Campbell.

Over the past few weeks, Redskins players and coaches have analyzed the action that comprises those initial seconds just as the ball is snapped from a variety of viewpoints -- the quarterback, linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks -- to provide a perspective into the cat-and-mouse game of reading a defense: what occurs just before and when the ball is snapped, what elements of the defense will tell the quarterback what to expect and what signs within the defense its coaches and players are trying to hide.

And perhaps most importantly, the quarterback must master the part of the game that can't be found on the chalkboard, learning what Redskins offensive coordinator Don Breaux calls those "poker twitches," the most simple human tics -- a nervous twitch or a predictable coach who blitzes when he's angry -- that can give away even the most complicated defensive scheme.

"Sometimes, it's just the way you line up. If you're in a stagger stance, they know something is fishy. If your fingers are moving and you're bouncing around. They know you're coming," said Redskins outside linebacker Marcus Washington. "Quarterbacks are smart. The defense can definitely give things away if you're not on it."

It is a high-tech, high-speed game of football espionage that resembles both chess and poker all executed in less time than Bugel can say "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," the place of his birth.

"Three seconds back there is all you get," Bugel said one steamy day at Redskins Park. "Three seconds, or you're a dead pigeon."

The Chess Match

Over the decades, the ability to read and decipher a defense, both before the ball is snapped and in the seconds afterward -- when a quarterback's per-play lifespan is best measured by a stopwatch -- has always separated great quarterbacks from the mediocre. But inside the broad rubric of "reading a defense" lies a staggering degree of complexity. First is the quarterback's ability to master his own offense.

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