It's the Little Things That Count
In the Cat-and-Mouse World of the NFL, a Quarterback's Success Depends on Recognizing the Bait

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.

On the Redskins, where the development of Campbell is perhaps the greatest key to the team's next few years, quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor said creating a system for throwing the football into the teeth of the defense is based first on the quarterback building an almost subconscious familiarity with the dense Redskins offensive scheme.

"The number one, most important thing for the quarterback is to know our offense. We spend the vast majority of our meeting times talking about what our routes are, what our reads are, and our progressions. We spend a lot less time on what the defense is doing," he said. "If a guy's progression on a certain pass play is to throw an out route, to a hook route to a check down to the [running] back, the defense might play cover-2 so the corners will take away the out route. It might be bump-and-run or man coverage to take away the out route. It could be an off-technique corner who reacts quickly and takes away the out route, or the receiver could fall down.

"But the most important thing for the quarterback to know is that I can't throw the out route. I have to go to something else."

Secondly, a quarterback must learn the schematic triggers that exist within every defense, the telltale clues that will tell him how a defense plans to attack him. The first area within a defense a quarterback monitors is the safeties. The position of the safeties can initially tell a quarterback if a defense is protecting against the deep pass or bringing a blitz. This is where the spying intensifies. It is where poker and technology meet: both sides viewing film of each other during the week. While under center, about to snap the ball, the quarterback must decide if he can trust his eyes or if he is staring directly into a bluff.

"You look at the depth of the safeties, the width of the safeties, the eyes of the safeties, everything. What safeties try to do is make him see all those things at the last second," said Steve Jackson, the Redskins' safeties coach who played nine years in the NFL. "Those triggers are the things that guys are looking for. The quarterbacks want the safeties to get out of their stances early, to do the little subtleties to try and get you to show them the things that they want to see.

"The good quarterbacks are the ones that have confidence in their reads. They believe what they saw is actually what they're seeing. The bad quarterbacks are the ones that panic, that read at the last second, and end up throwing interceptions."

Simms says the alignment of the defensive line is perhaps equally important. A defensive line shifting to one side, followed by the linebackers and safeties doing the same is the football equivalent of a quickly darkening sky.

"Look out when guys aren't spacing the field evenly, because defenses like to be balanced so they can better cover the whole field," Simms said. "If guys aren't spacing the field evenly, look out. Trouble is on the way."

The Poker Twitch

The spy game continues in the film room, where each team has compiled video of its opponents' tendencies. To Simms, the combination of studying the physical flaws and nervous habits of his opponents and experience is when a quarterback begins to grasp the intricacies of his craft.

"As you get better, you get good at reading body language," Simms said. "You see the safety faking the blitz, starting and stopping and starting and you know no way is he blitzing. Then you see the guy who's standing so still he's trying not to give it away and you say to yourself, 'That's pitiful. I know you're blitzing.'

"Those are the good times. The bad times come when deep down there is a lack of belief in your own talent, whether it's something in the way your body is feeling, or you're not playing well, or your team might not be very good. It's hard to be a good reader if you're saying to yourself subconsciously that you have to be quicker because you're afraid of getting hit. That leads to tremendous errors."

Simms recalled the years with the Giants when his offensive coaches would show him video of players whose twitches, stances, and finger-waggles gave their intentions away.

"They'd hand me the film and say, 'Look at so-and-so. He's giving it away 100 percent,' " Simms said. "I wouldn't believe it and then it would be true, and I'd be saying to myself 'This is too good.' So just by studying mannerisms, there'd be five, six or eight plays a game where I knew exactly what to do because someone gave away his habits."

Death of the Pre-Snap

Because defensive players are so talented that they can be positioned in one stance only to quickly reposition themselves once the ball is snapped, coupled with the use of film by defensive coaches to hide their defensive alignments, Bugel does not believe the pre-snap read to be as effective as it was a decade or so ago. Redskins cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray agreed, adding that "the more a player can do, the more risks he is willing to take, the more we can teach him."

"It all depends on what the coaches are teaching. Is it a safety read? Is it a corner read? Does the linebacker tip it, does the D-line stance give it away?" Gray said. "And I think you get to that and you mature as a quarterback and you get to that. As a quarterback, the first basic is two-high safety, single-high safety, this is what our protection is, and then the smarter guys keep learning. They keep asking, who's giving me the tip-off?"

Both believe the era when a quarterback could gain a true pre-snap read has been lost to progress.

"They hide it so well. When the ball is snapped, that's when your reads come into focus. You'll pick out one guy, whether it's the weak safety or strong and whatever he does you have to react to that," Bugel said, "And that ball has to come out within three seconds or, like I said, you're going to be a dead pigeon back there."

If Simms believes studying human nature is the best way to discover the giveaway movements, Washington does not disagree.

"It's something you have to learn, learn, learn. I don't remember what coach said it, but he was talking about Phil Simms," Washington said. "He said that when he first got in there, it looked like there were 15 guys out there. And as he learned it and learned, it was like there were, like, eight or nine."

The Cornerback

Once the ball is snapped, another poker game begins. Redskins left cornerback Shawn Springs, who earned a Pro Bowl selection in 1998, calls his space on the field, "The Island." It is a common term for cornerbacks, who are pitted against wide receivers in the most high profile, often one-on-one battles on the football field.

While Springs believes a quarterback can learn a few things before the play begins, for him the action begins immediately after the ball is snapped. "You have to make everything that's in the scheme look the same, but for most veteran quarterbacks, they know. There isn't any tricking them," Springs said. "For me, I try down the field to bait them into different things, show them one thing once a play has started, and then show them something else. Maybe I'll show outside leverage pre-snap, and then do the opposite to bait them into different throws because I have a play I might have a bead on, so now I can show them something where I can bait them in. That's when you get them."

When Springs says "outside leverage," he means positioning himself into making the quarterback believe he is trying to prevent the receiver from running an outside route, toward the sideline. It's an attempt at a trap, he says, because his real purpose may have always been to move inside to take away a slant or other inside move.

"Once the ball is hiked, then you start moving," he said. "That's when it begins. It's a chess game completely."

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