by Keith Aksel
Few offensive strategies have posed as many long-run problems for football defenses than the “hurry-up” offense. The tactic seems straightforward. By allowing offenses to run up to the line of scrimmage without delays that usually come with huddling, defenses are unable to easily substitute personnel to match the offensive formations, and cannot coordinate assignments as effectively. Keeping the defense off balance thus allows offenses to exploit mis-alignments and build and maintain momentum from play to play.
From high school to college and into the professional ranks, the hurry-up offense has come to be regarded as a silver bullet of sorts for offenses at different times at all levels. The concept has been around as a part of permanent offensive game plans for a generation, but somehow the hurry-up gets treated like a new piece of football technology every time a new team employs it on a regular basis (calling it “tempo” seems to the hot term for it today). The birth of the hurry-up as we know it, demands our attention to uncover the reasons why it works across times and across levels of competition.
Although college coaches have been credited with utilizing some form of a hurry-up concept for a century, the system as we know it became a permanent offensive tactic under Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche in the 1980s. He credited the birth of the hurry-up to his yearlong stint in 1983 as the head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, where he sought a method of keeping more talented teams from the Big Ten’s elite programs off kilter. Although he was unable to translate the system to wins in Bloomington (he was 3-8 at Indiana), a seed had been planted for further development of the system in the pros. Once he took over the Bengals in 1984, he found success with the hurry-up at the professional level. Wyche noted in a 2015 interview with Sports Illustrated that the hurry-up was a weapon deployed at will in Cincinnati: “We would go fast and then slow it down, then we would go fast, fast, fast for a couple—and then slow it down so they didn’t know what was coming.” With the cerebral and quick-thinking Boomer Esiason at quarterback, and a bevy of skilled backs and receivers, Wyche used his hurry-up tactic to take Cincinnati to Super Bowl XXVII, where they lost a close contest to San Francisco.
It is important to note that the variations of the hurry-up matter, and that Wyche’s method was its own animal (a black and orange striped tiger, if you will). In Cincinnati, he emphasized a sort of randomness about when and where to deploy the hurry-up. Some downs he didn’t direct the team to use hurry-up at all. In fact, there are entire series in which the Bengals avoided using it. The key to the Wyche system was surprise, and his deployment of it reflected this unpredictability in his play calling.
Today the hurry-up can look very different than the version Wyche employed. The typical college football team that uses the hurry-up often will not utilize the same element of surprise as Wyche did. Instead, today’s teams seem satisfied knowing that their opponents know the hurry-up is coming and use it on every down. When that happens, offenses will usually receive signals by turning their heads to watch their coaches on the sideline while they are at the line of scrimmage (anyone who has watched a football game in the last five years knows what I’m talking about). Some would say that the element of surprise is gone in this deployment of the hurry-up, but it represents many elements of the tactic nonetheless: eliminating the huddle and dictating game pace.
The long-run effects of the tactic are perhaps more diffuse depending on the level of play. The NFL has not seen as a great a proliferation of the hurry-up in recent years (Chip Kelly’s stints with Philadelphia and San Francisco are exceptions), and defenses are usually good enough to deal with it when it is employed. Truly great quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning found success employing the hurry-up using audible pre-snap checks at the line of scrimmage. This method seems to be useful, although not quite the Wyche approach. College defenses have a much more difficult time adjusting to the hurry-up even today, thanks to lower-quality defensive depth and the odd inability for any college defense to cover tight ends effectively on a consistent basis. In other words, college football seems to be more skewed toward offenses to begin with than the pros, and the hurry-up just makes it that much worse for defenses.
In whatever form it presents itself, the hurry-up continues to work its magic against defenses that don’t have the time substitute and align themselves. Deployed in the correct down and distance contexts, it is likely that the tactic will endure long term, even just as a two minute drill to facilitate a game winning drive. Sam Wyche, who today has gone underground as a quiet retired NFL coach, deserves his place among the game’s great innovators for incorporating the hurry-up into modern football as we know it.