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The essence of the new NFL was distilled in a cartoon on Sunday afternoon. Late in the third quarter of the Eagles' 24--23 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens at Lincoln Financial Field, Philly wideout DeSean Jackson zipped down the right sideline and hauled in a beautifully thrown 49-yard pass from Michael Vick.
As Jackson celebrated with an emphatic first down gesture, the scoreboard played a video of what appeared to be the Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote in his dust. But it was Jackson's image that filled the screen, along with the caption RECEIVERUS FASTUS GAME-BREAKERUS.
The joke delighted the home crowd of 69,144, and it served as a reminder that speed is the NFL's ultimate game changer—in more ways than one: Had the Eagles not called a timeout after the play, fans might not have seen the clip. Both teams ran no-huddle offenses for much of the game, leaving little time for anyone to catch his breath, much less enjoy a video.
More than ever, the NFL tempo is breakneck, making defenses scramble to keep up. To varying degrees the no-huddle was used by 15 teams in Week 1. By Sunday that number had risen to 20. "You typically have to score a lot of points to win," explains Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, "and a lot of offenses are calling three or maybe even four plays, [then picking one] depending on what they [see] from defenses."
The no-huddle can differ from the two-minute drill, which is used to conserve time and move the ball quickly late in a half or when trailing big. But it's not a reinvention of the wheel—Bengals coach Sam Wyche rolled with the no-huddle in the mid-1980s, and Bills quarterback Jim Kelly pimped out its rims in the '90s.
Its advantages are numerous. The ball can be snapped quickly to exploit defenses that aren't set. Quarterbacks can line up early and bark false cadences, forcing opponents to betray blitzes and coverages. By pushing the pedal, offenses limit defensive substitutions and exploit mismatches. And by heading straight to the line rather than burning time in the huddle, quarterbacks can read defenses while a coach in the booth shares his bird's-eye view in the QB's helmet earpiece. (The connection turns off with 15 seconds left on the 40-second play clock.)
The cumulative effect? "A defense starts to break," Eagles center Jason Kelce says. "They lose their legs and the integrity of their gaps. They're more often out of position."
Baltimore used the no-huddle almost exclusively in its season-opening 44--13 win over Cincinnati. Joe Flacco played a little more than three quarters and completed 21 of 29 passes for 299 yards, two TDs and a 128.4 rating.
But the scheme requires clear and audible signals from the quarterback, and that's where it can run into trouble. In Philadelphia, where the crowd was so loud that Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda often had to look over his shoulder and tap the center's butt when Flacco was ready for the snap, Baltimore's no-huddle lost its effectiveness. Flacco hit on just 22 of 44 passes for 232 yards and a 66.8 rating. "No-huddle does much better at home stadiums than away," Kelce says.
Vick benefited from that home advantage. In Week 1, operating primarily out of a regular set, he led the Eagles to a 17--16 last-minute win in Cleveland. But he took a beating: two sacks, 11 knockdowns. On Sunday, using the no-huddle against the league's top-ranked defense, Vick suffered just five combined sacks and hits. When he scored the game-winning TD on a one-yard plunge off left tackle with 1:57 to play, his legs were fresh.