It became a running joke last year when the microphones on the field repeatedly picked up Peyton Manning barking “Omaha” at the line of scrimmage during a Denver Broncos game.
The call became so synonymous with the quarterback that Manning can now be heard yelling the catchphrase in commercials. After the Broncos beat the Patriots in the playoffs last year, the Omaha Chamber of Commerce tweeted a video of Manning yelling the phrase against a backdrop of the Nebraska city’s most popular destinations.
It was funny to everyone else. It was not a joke to the New Orleans Saints. Like every other team in the NFL, they pay close attention to every word muttered by quarterbacks each Sunday, the rhythm and tempo in which those words are strung together; and they log those findings in a database.
This is an issue teams have been dealing with for the past few years. In 2011, after years of having officials wear the microphones, the league began placing them on guards or centers for the benefit of the television production. The result made it easier for fans at home to hear what quarterbacks are saying at the line of scrimmage and makes them feel closer to the action.
It’s no surprise that teams began having members of the staff watch games and document these cadences in an effort to gain an edge. But Saints coach Sean Payton said he believes this is one area where a team can gain a significant edge if it uses the information properly.
With Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons carrying big playoff implications, you can be sure the Saints will spend time studying Matt Ryan’s cadences, and that the Falcons are doing the same with Drew Brees.
“It is significant,” Payton said. “That is much more significant than what we are discussing in regards to get-offs and not so much the live (calls). There are some things to that, but the tempo of the cadence, how it sounds when the play is changed. That is different now. That is something we are adjusting with. Everyone has to.”
How can that edge be exploited? If a defensive player knows when the ball is going to be snapped, he can start moving without committing a penalty a little bit sooner than he could if he’s waiting to see the ball get snapped. The difference measures out to fractions of a second, but those fractions of a second can mean all the difference between getting to the quarterback or being blocked out of a play.
The key to finding those advantages is not to focus in on the words. There are meaningful things being said at the line of scrimmage. Most of it, however, is gibberish or changed often enough to make sure defenses can’t figure out the calls. What teams are paying more attention to during broadcasts is how the words are being said.
Every team likes to operate with a rhythmic cadence that allows the offensive line to time things and come off the ball as a single unit. There are different variations of these cadences used through the game, such as double counts, to make it difficult for defenses to get a feel for the rhythm at which the offense is operating.
“When cadences are broadcast, it allows the same thing for the defense,” Saints backup quarterback Luke McCown said. “They get to time it up, they get to figure out the rhythm of it, then it comes as a disadvantage to us.”
It seems like the easy fix would be to switch things up once it becomes clear the defense is able to time things, but it’s not that easy.
“You start changing it up too much and your tackles are a little slower than your guards or center coming off the ball,” McCown said. “That hurts your pass protection and run game. The point is to come off as a group every time. You start changing it up too much and you run the risk of coming off on different levels.”
Payton said he believes the best time to study a team’s cadences is during national broadcasts when a team is at home and there isn’t much crowd noise for the offense. The Saints might as well be coming off a nationally televised home game since nearly everything Brees said in the second half of Monday’s 31-15 could be heard clearly on the broadcast.
The good news is that he wasn’t doing much talking. On most plays, Brees only identified the middle linebacker and the ball was snapped about 4.5 seconds later. On a few other occasions, he audibled out of the play by yelling, “Kill, kill, kill.” There isn’t much to be gained there.
A week before, against Carolina at home, Brees used a few different cadences. One signified a quick snap. There are a few others he used that were barked in different rhythms. These are the plays teams will key on. Countless time will be spent trying figure out the timing of each cadence so the defense can gain a fraction of a second.
When asked how he protects against this, knowing that defenses are trying to solve the puzzle and time the snap, Brees answered how you would expect someone protecting a secret would.
“I think everybody kind of has their own spin on it,” Brees said. “Everybody does something different, but at the end of the day, you can change it up, you don’t give up the same thing every time.”
In other words, “kill, kill, kill.”