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Genealogy in American Football: The Huddle

Different types and origins

Cleveland Browns Huddle Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

There are certain standards that are a part of every American Football contest.

One is the goalposts. Another is the kickoff. Quite another is the passing game. Players are protected head to knee with padding. And just about every play begins with both sides of the ball getting into a huddle.

Why do players gather together like that? Where did this originate? Why are there different styles of huddles?

The purpose of the huddle is communication. The offensive side of the ball calls the next play, or a combination of plays, with the snap count which is devised to fool the defense who doesn’t know when the ball will be hiked. The defense gathers together and calls formations they believe will either confuse the offense or counter what they believe that side of the ball will do.

A chess match? Yes. But an integral part of the game for both offense and defense.

Call it the “Standard Huddle”? Or maybe “The Huddle”? Perhaps “Huddling”?

There was a time when there wasn’t any play clock. Players had as much time as they wished to hike the ball and begin the next play. At one time in basketball, stalling was a tactic used by quite a few teams. But in American Football in its infancy, this rarely occurred.

To be factual, plays went pretty quickly in the beginning stages of the development of the game itself. In the late 1800s and into the 1900s before the huddle was invented, one form of communication between offensive teammates was signals given by the quarterback as the other athletes would mull around where the ball was placed.

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Teams played two halves of 45 minutes because that is what soccer used, the grandfather sport of American Football. In 1910, this was changed to quarters. There was a running clock with the time kept on the referee’s wrist, another function borrowed from soccer. The NBA adopted a shot clock in 1954 which set into motion the NFL following this trend eventually.

The basic rules of American Football were laid out in 1920. The rules did not regulate the time between offensive plays, but the game was played at a very rapid pace. As one play ended the players would line up and snap the ball again after the quarterback would give out signals or call out numbers.

The huddle was invented in 1894.

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. is a well-known and prestigious school for the deaf and hard of hearing. They had a football team. Their quarterback, Paul Hubbard, would sign his plays in the open using American Sign Language which the defense could not interpret but his deaf players did.

On their schedule were two other deaf college football teams. In those games, Hubbard didn’t want their defense to steal his plays while signing, so he moved his teammates back a few yards and had them form a wall to block the view so that he could sign them behind a barrier. After a few downs, his players would be loosely in formation with holes between them where maybe a defender could steal one of his signs, so Hubbard instructed them “to huddle closer together” without any light between them.

The huddle did not initially catch on as signals were mainly used between plays. There was an unwritten rule that teams did not intentionally stall. But beginning in the mid-1920s, the use of signals began to tail off because the opponent’s defenses would eventually catch on and know what to expect. So, teams began “huddling” in order to speak plays instead of using signals.

This was not an accepted practice and many considered the use of the huddle as a violation of the game’s pace although there wasn’t an actual rule against it. Initially, it was viewed as stalling or a tactic to rest players or tend to their injuries.

There were many test games regarding the use of the huddle. In 1930 it was issued a “rule of thumb” that teams could huddle for no more than 15 seconds. Any abuse of this unwritten rule resulted in a delay of game penalty. A 30-second rule was put into place in 1939.

A huddle is an important aspect of the game. Despite being all alone on the field the players are all together as one unit. In addition to calling plays, the huddle is a place to inspect who is hurt, find out who is tired, and who is angry, a time to place arms on each other, block out crowd noise for better communication, allow players to settle down a bit, and a rallying point for encouragement for what to do next to win the game.

In 1976 the NFL owners adopted a 30-second play clock. Also included in this new rule was the installation of two clocks which were to be installed in both end zones so that each team’s quarterback could view the new play clocks. This was changed to 40 seconds in 1988. More details were added for the game clock. For a normal sequence of plays, the interval between plays was changed from the time the ball was signaled dead until it was snapped on the succeeding play.

The idea behind the play clock was simply to keep the game moving.

No-Huddle Offense

The game of American Football began without any huddles but is a mainstay that as fans we don’t think anything about.

However, in today’s game, the “no-huddle offense” is an attempt to snap the ball quickly without gathering into an actual huddle. The purpose is to keep the defense off-base, tire them down, able to set the tempo of the game, and also so that the defense can’t substitute players.

Often, the quarterback will give an audible at the line right before the snap on what he sees from the defense’s formation. By lining up quickly, the offense threatens to snap the ball at any time which cuts down on the communication allowed by the defense who are stuck with the players they began with on the field. It is a fast-paced offense and requires players who have speed and stamina.

1896 Auburn University (John Heisman far right front row striped shirt)

The “no-huddle offense” was first utilized as a strategy in 1899 by John Heisman while he was head coach at Auburn University. Heisman was known as one of the game’s innovators who was instrumental in numerous changes to the game as it developed from rugby into its own sport. Heisman convinced the rules committee to change the game from two halves to four quarters in order to give players two more breaks.

After Heisman’s death in 1936, the Downtown Athletic Club renamed their prestigious trophy the “Downtown Athletic Club Trophy” to the “Heisman Memorial Trophy” given annually to the nation’s best college football player.

Heisman’s offense has since been referred to as the “hurry-up offense”, HUNH for “Hurry-Up, No Huddle” or from older days, the “go-go offense.”

The earliest rendition that gained national attention was in 1957 when the University of Oregon got rid of the huddle and went with speed because their players were not going to overwhelm anyone but could wear down opposing defenses. Head coach Len Casanova took his underachievers to the Rose Bowl that season.

In the modern era, the no-huddle was first popularized by Sam Wyche, head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1985. He had perfected this offense while he was the head coach at the University of Indiana in 1983. Wyche had realized that he was never going to defeat the better teams in his conference who had more superior athletes. His thinking was to tire out their defenders without the advantage of grouping into an actual huddle.

Green Bay Packers
Coach Sam Wyche
Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Years later, the Buffalo Bills called their no-huddle offense the “K-Gun” which was an offshoot of the offense run by the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. Former Gamblers QB Jim Kelly brought the concept over from Houston to Buffalo when he joined the NFL. The Bills took the no-huddle offense to four Super Bowls.

Sugar Huddle

This is a variation on the no-huddle look. The offensive players will mull around near the line in a small bunch but not back in an actual huddle. They get the play from the quarterback, then line up on the ball and snap the ball all within five seconds. This eliminates the defense from substituting.

This was coined by Wyche while with the Bengals. He called it a “sugar huddle” because the entire process from the previous play to the next play was short and sweet.

Huddle Up

Today, you will see huddles used on the pitcher’s mound in baseball, during time outs at basketball and hockey games, plus volleyball and cricket matches.

The use of the huddle in sports is very important. Its burden is to review the situation and align and plan as necessary to the situation at hand. Huddles are more like short meetings or brief pauses, but neither of these sounds right.

Getting individual assignments can often be the difference between winning or losing. Everyone knows what their job duty is instantly by being connected in the huddle from ideation to implementation.

Its origins came from a problem with the other team stealing signals. Today, it is used to get everyone on the same page from the next play called, to what the snap count is, to calling several plays at once, or to discuss audibles.

And maybe to discuss what “Omaha” really means.