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Bills May Not Huddle All Year

Aug 12, 2009 – 9:03 AM
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Dan Graziano

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Trent EdwardsPITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Hall of Fame weekend in Canton was all about Buffalo Bills history, and so it was only fitting that the team took the field for the game Sunday night and ran a no-huddle offense, just like they used to do it when Jim Kelly, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas ruled the town.

Thing is, though, it wasn't a tribute. The no-huddle is the offense the 2009 Bills are planning to use all year. They used it in minicamps, and they've used it throughout training camp. Sunday night, they showed it off for a national TV audience, and their internal reviews were pretty good for an opening night.

"I liked our tempo," offensive coordinator Turk Schonert said. "I actually thought a couple of times, we were on the ball and ready to go and the officials held us up because they were slow marking the ball. The thing we've got to get better at is communication."

Schonert repeated that last word many times in discussing the no-huddle concept with FanHouse on Tuesday. Communication breakdowns cost them on several plays. The thing can't work without good communication among all the various parts of the offense. That's something that has to come with time and practice, which makes it a good thing that the Bills have four weeks left before the regular season starts.

"Communication's at a premium all the time," rookie guard Eric Wood said. "And we've all got to get used to it -- listening to each other, listening to the calls from the sidelines, listening to the quarterback because the quarterback can trump anything at any time. You've got to pay attention."

They're all learning on the fly, and together. It's a complex experiment designed to take advantage of the things this offense does well and possibly hide some of its weaknesses as a desperate franchise tries to end a 10-year playoff drought.

Here's a look at the way the Bills' no-huddle works with respect to each basic element of the offense:

The Quarterback

This is the most important part of the whole thing, as Wood pointed out. It's also the biggest question mark. The Bills are strong at receiver. When Marshawn Lynch returns in Week 4 from his suspension, they'll be strong at running back. They're weak on the offensive line and they're...well, they don't know what they are at quarterback. Trent Edwards is supposed to be good, but he really hasn't had any sustained success yet piloting an offense at the NFL level. He's going to sink or swim in this one, and the team along with him, which is why they're pumping him up.

"You've got to have the right quarterback," Schonert said. "And we definitely believe we have the right quarterback."

Edwards said he's enjoying running the no-huddle because being in two-minute-drill mode all game forces him to have a short memory and get over his mistakes quickly. But he also says it can be frustrating.

"You can tell the play four or five times, and if one guy doesn't hear it, it messes up the whole play," Edwards said. "So you really have to make sure you're doing everything you can to make sure you communicate what the play is and what the situation is to everybody."

Now, are those mistakes simply the cost of doing business in the no-huddle? Is it possible that the no-huddle, by its nature, will create situations in which somebody doesn't hear the call and the play fails as a result? Or can Edwards and the Bills, with enough work and practice, reach a point where they do it all perfectly?

"I like to think that we can," Edwards said. "But there are going to be times when it's hard and somebody just blows an assignment. The good thing is, with the no-huddle, you get to go right back out there and try it again."

The Receivers

To hear Lee Evans tell it, the biggest change for Buffalo's receivers won't have anything to do with route-running or what types of plays are called. Their biggest adjustments will come after the play is over.

"A lot of it is just being able to keep up the tempo," Evans said. "You know, we're all the way downfield when the play ends, we've got to hustle and get back there to the line of scrimmage right away so they can call the next play. That's going to be the biggest thing for us, is keeping up with it and not lagging in between plays."

Buffalo's wideouts should be up to the task. With the addition of Terrell Owens (who missed Tuesday's practices with a toe injury) to a group that includes Evans, Josh Reed, James Hardy and Roscoe Parrish, the Bills can legitimately claim to have one of the best groups -- if not the best group -- of receivers in the AFC. And that's saying something when one of the teams in your division has Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Joey Galloway.

"When we ran it in Cincinnati, we had speed all over the place," said Schonert, who as the Bengals' backup quarterback in the 1980s teamed with players like Chris Collinsworth and James Brooks. "I feel like we have the kind of talent here that can take advantage of this if we get the communication down."

The Running Backs

What changes for the running back in the perpetual no-huddle scheme? He has to pay more attention. To everything.

"It's just real important that you know the kind of personnel the defense has in the game and how they're lining up," said Bills running back Fred Jackson, who's likely to start the season as the primary ballcarrier with Lynch suspended. "Normally, somebody else will just tell you. But when you're at this tempo, we really have to recognize on our own what the defense looks like."

The keys, Jackson said, are to be alert and to seek and get help. Again with that word -- communication.

"The quarterback is helping us, the offensive line is talking to us, so there's a constant chatter between everybody to help each other know what's going on," Jackson said. "That's the trick, to help each other out."

The Offensive Line

For all of the talent they have at the skill positions, the Bills are likely to go no further than their offensive line takes them. And that's scary, because their offensive line might as well be five guys with question marks on their backs instead of numbers.

"We've got an offensive line that's playing together for the first time, and that's part of the equation," Schonert said.

The Bills expect to start rookies Wood and Andy Levitre at the guard positions, with Langston Walker moving to left tackle to replace the traded Jason Peters, free-agent addition Geoff Hangartner taking over at center and Brad Butler at right tackle. They say the biggest thing for an offensive line is chemistry and familiarity with each other, and this line doesn't have that. What it has is youth, energy and -- it hopes -- potential.

"The most important thing for us is, we've got to get in shape and be the best-conditioned offensive line in the league," said Wood, the former Louisville center the Bills selected in this year's first round, who's learning the ins and outs of the guard position even as he learns the no-huddle offense. "We've got a smart, hard-working group of guys, and that's generally what you want out of your offensive line."

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Buffalo Bills head coach Dick Jauron speaks to the media about Terrell Owens' injury after an evening practice at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. Owens missed practice Tuesday and is day to day because of a sprained toe. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)
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    Buffalo Bills head coach Dick Jauron speaks to the media about Terrell Owens' injury after an evening practice at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. Owens missed practice Tuesday and is day to day because of a sprained toe. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)

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    Buffalo Bills head coach Dick Jauron speaks to the media about Terrell Owens' injury after an evening practice at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. Owens missed practice Tuesday and is day to day because of a sprained toe. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)

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    Buffalo Bills head coach Dick Jauron speaks to the media about Terrell Owens' injury after an evening practice at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. Owens missed practice Tuesday and is day to day because of a sprained toe. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)

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    Denver Broncos rookie quarterback Tom Brandstater, front, joins quarterbacks Chris Simms, center, and Kyle Orton in taking part in drills at the team's NFL football training camp at the team's headquarters in Englewood, Colo., on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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    Dallas Cowboys cornerback Alan Ball is shown during training camp in San Antonio, Texas, Tuesday August 11, 2009. (Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

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    Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber is shown at practice during training camp in San Antonio, Texas, Tuesday August 11, 2009. (Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

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    Dallas Cowboys offensive linemen Marc Colombo and Flozell Adams arrive at practice during training camp in San Antonio, Texas, Tuesday August 11, 2009. (Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

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Theoretically, if you have fast, plentiful options at receiver and you believe in your quarterback's ability to call the play and take advantage of a confused defense, running the no-huddle could take some pressure off an inexperienced offensive line. Theoretically.

"And only if they can communicate," Schonert said, pivoting to his redundant but crucial mantra. "If we're not getting our calls in on time and people aren't where they need to be, that doesn't help your offensive line at all."

Which is why Schonert said he's loving the fact that Buffalo gets an extra preseason game this year. The game Sunday against Tennessee was, he said, invaluable because to that point the no-huddle offense had only been practicing against Buffalo's defense. Playing different teams, even in preseason, allows Schonert and his offensive players to see how different defenses will react to what they're doing, so they can adjust their plans and schemes accordingly.

"There were a couple of times when you saw, it really worked," Schonert said. "The second play of the game, everybody on their defensive line is standing up, looking around, waiting for somebody to make a call and tell them what to do, and we get T.O. open for a (16-yard) gain. And after the play, you see them all yelling at each other because they didn't get their calls in on time."

A dream come true, and the express purpose of the no-huddle offense.

Now, the question is whether the Bills -- a team that's going to have to take some chances if it wants to contend in the AFC East -- can really make it work over a full season.
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