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Joe Flacco was reenergized in December when new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell allowed him to start running the no-huddle. Flacco felt that would help him make better decisions, giving him a longer time to survey the field before the snap; and the no-huddle prevents defenses from substituting liberally. As Carroll says, "Why huddle anymore? You save 15 seconds not huddling. Time for more plays."
The no-huddle was on full display when Tom Brady toyed with the respected 49ers defense in their December game. In a 19-minute second-half span, Brady orchestrated four touchdowns drives, with 18 no-huddle snaps out of 35 plays. (An average game has about 65 offensive plays per team; the Pats ran 92 that night.) By the time the fourth series was climaxing, at San Francisco's 11-yard line, the Niners' defense was gassed. At the line, with no pressure from the play clock, Brady held the defensive linemen in their stances for eight or 10 seconds. He called out, "Whiskey! Whiskey! ... Hold up! ... Orange! Orange! O.K., orange! ... HEY GO!" At that, defensive tackle Ricky-Jean Francois jumped offside, giving the Pats a free five yards. On the next play Brady ran the ball to the one, and as soon as the official spotted it, he quick-snapped, with at least four Niners defenders milling around the center, not set. Brady spun and handed to Danny Woodhead, who went in untouched for one of the simplest touchdowns of the year. Brady's no-huddle had given an exhausted defense no chance to get ready.
• Now that Wilson has played so well as a rookie, the small quarterback may not be an outlier much longer.
At a joint Super Bowl appearance, Drew Brees, 6 feet, and Wilson, 5' 107/8", stood next to each other. One advantage Wisconsin offered Wilson was one of the biggest offensive lines in college football—the better for him to prove to NFL scouts that he could throw over and around trees in front of him. In his one season with the Badgers, Wilson had just three passes batted away.
When the Seahawks' offensive staff studied Wilson before the draft, they were impressed by his Brees-like calm and field presence. General manager John Schneider asked offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell what concerns he had about Wilson other than his height. "I got nothing," Bevell told him. It turns out height should not have been a concern at all. Wilson was fourth in the NFL in passer rating, at 100.0, and 20 NFL quarterbacks had more balls batted down than Wilson's seven. Seems the handwritten signs Wilson placed in his room in high school for motivation helped. One of them, parroting what a friend told him, read: YOU'RE TOO SMALL TO PLAY AT MIAMI.
The pistol and other option offenses are changing the league.
It used to be, ideas would trickle down from the NFL to colleges and high schools. Now they're trickling up. Eight years ago Nevada coach Chris Ault, desperate for any offensive innovation to help him win, installed the pistol, which sets the quarterback back four yards from center. (Hence the name—it's half a shotgun.) Ault immediately liked it because the quarterback got the ball earlier, pass rushers weren't accustomed to aiming for a quarterback so shallow in the pocket, and the QB could operate a regular running game out of the formation because the back is set where he would be in most formations.
But the key to the pistol's success was the ability of the quarterback to run with the running back, with the ball stuck in his gut. Maybe the quarterback would release the ball to the back, maybe he'd yank it back and run himself, maybe he'd throw it. This season Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan adopted the pistol on the fly, installing pieces of it throughout the season. And the 49ers used it between some and a lot every game. The misconception is that the pistol means the quarterback runs the ball 15 times a game. Sometimes he does. (Kaepernick ran for 181 yards and threw for 263 to beat Green Bay in the playoffs.) But sometimes he lets the running backs do the work. (Frank Gore ran for two touchdowns and LaMichael James for one to beat Atlanta in the NFC title game.) "You need an unselfish quarterback who can run, throw and know when to hand off," says Roman, the Niners' offensive coordinator, "and we've got one."
Kaepernick was a late bloomer, and only Nevada offered him a football scholarship. When he arrived on campus in 2006, Ault had the pistol humming. Kaepernick added the dimension of being able to throw the deep ball well. That's a big deal. Most option quarterbacks are great on the run but spaghetti-armed when they try to throw deep. Kaepernick had a 94-mph fastball—an arm good enough for the Cubs to draft him in 2009. He transferred that to football—and still had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Nevada.
"In the last few years," Ault says, "more and more teams began showing up on campus, checking out our offense. And a couple of years ago Greg Roman came." That was in the spring of 2010. Roman, then Stanford's offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh, thought the pistol was intriguing even for a pocket quarterback with average mobility, like his guy, Luck. Roman installed the pistol and used it sparingly in Luck's final season. San Francisco drafted Kaepernick in the second round in 2011, but it wasn't until this past off-season, when the Niners' coaches (Roman among them) had a chance to see him run the pistol in practice and briefly in some games, that Harbaugh had the guts to yank the efficient Alex Smith and let the dynamic Kaepernick play. The rest is Super Bowl history.