During his first position meeting with the Chiefs, rookie quarterback Aaron Murray remembers hearing his new teammates recite a long, random mishmash of words that sounded to him like plays, but almost couldn’t be because of their impossible length.
“They’re all talking about plays and it sounded like (a foreign language),” Murray remembers now with a chuckle. “I mean, they’re speaking and they’re calling these plays and I’m like, ‘I think they’re like messing with me right now, trying to scare me.’”
Nope. Murray would soon learn that the 15-word plays his teammates were casually discussing were actual components of coach Andy Reid’s West Coast playbook, which sometimes features verbiage complicated enough to temporarily stun even a 10-year veteran like starting quarterback Alex Smith.
“There’s times I’m in the huddle and I might go, ‘Alright, listen up for the call here fellas,’ and they know it’s gonna be a doozy,” Smith said. “We’ve got ‘shift to halfback twin right open, swap 72 all-go special halfback shallow cross wide open.’”
To be clear, Smith — who broke into a wide grin when he finished reciting the play — would never give up any strategical aspect of Reid’s playbook.
But the example conveys the essence of a play that Reid might call, and why playing quarterback in the NFL is about far more than possessing prototypical height or having a strong arm.
A sharp mind — or at the very least, a good memory — is required simply to cleanly recite the call (which conveys the personnel group, formation and play) and get the offense to the line of scrimmage quickly.
This, offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said, is a reality across the league, regardless of scheme.
“The terminology isn’t the same across the league, but the length of the terminology, the huddle calls, (are),” Pederson said. “Teams are calling two and three plays in the huddle, so there’s more time spent communicating in the huddle because the quarterback is giving maybe two or three sets of instructions to the team.”
But tempo has consistently been an important aspect of Reid’s offense. With a 40-second play clock, there’s simply no time for the quarterback to go stuttering through the calls in the huddle, lest he risk a momentum-killing delay-of-game penalty.
“It starts with the quarterback,” Reid said. “That’s the important part. If the quarterback can spit it out, normally the rest of (the play) goes OK.”
If the quarterback doesn’t, things can turn sour in a hurry. Take, for instance, the amusing video from NFL.com in which former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden absolutely eviscerates his young quarterback, Chris Simms, for being unable to repeat a complicated play call quickly or cleanly.
Smith, Murray and fellow backup Chase Daniel say they’ve all watched that scene and found it humorous.
They can relate.
“Oh yeah, I’ve had a few of those,” Murray said, shaking his head. “This one time … I pretty had to tell every single receiver exactly what to do, but I couldn’t picture it in my head. I was trying to memorize what Coach Pederson was saying in my helmet and I was lost.
“It took my like three of four times to get in and out of the huddle ... before I finally got it. That was during OTAs. I probably got like two penalties for delay-of-game. I’m not gonna lie.”
Murray’s fellow quarterbacks — all of whom were in Murray’s shoes last spring, when Reid began installing his complicated playbook as a first-year coach — couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight.
“Oh, it’s hilarious,” Daniel said with a laugh. “Especially in OTAs, you give him that long call, and he’s walking up to the huddle, and he turns around and he’s like, ‘Wait, what?’ And Doug’s like, ‘Alright,’ and he (tells him) two or three times.”
Occasional stumbles aside, Murray — a fifth-round draft selection out of Georgia — is ahead of the curve when it comes to picking up the verbiage, which isn’t a given considering how the college game has trended away from pro-style offenses.
“In college now, you’re seeing so much of the spread and hurry-up stuff where they’re just using the one-word, two-word plays,” Pederson said. “We can do that, we have some of that, but we also need to be in the huddle and learn how to take a snap from under center and execute from there.”
That learning is a process. Smith, who has played for four head coaches and eight offensive coordinators in 10 years, says spitting out the plays can vex a young quarterback who feels pressured to earn the respect of more-seasoned teammates.
“It’s hard because you’re almost your own worst enemy,” Smith said. “It’s one of those things where you stress over it, you think about it too much and it can just be a compounding problem.
“When you step in the huddle as a quarterback, you’ve gotta have that something about you where you step in and show you know what you’re doing. You want to show that you handle the situation, you know?”
The Chiefs’ quarterbacks get a script of each day’s plays one day in advance, which allows them to spend a night practicing complicated calls in hopes of avoiding any Simms-esque scenes on the field.
“I’ll have my wife quiz me,” Smith said. “She gives me a part of a play and I’ve gotta be able to give the rest of it, and I’ve got to know the play and personnel and stuff like that.”
Second-year quarterback Tyler Bray — who teammate Anthony Fasano quipped gets all the tough calls from Reid and Pederson — is a big-armed prospect who spent last season on the practice squad as he learned Reid’s offense. There were questions about his maturity and decision-making, but he uses the same tactic Smith does when it comes to calling plays.
“Sometimes, on the phone with my fiancé, I’m giving her the plays,” Bray said. “She has no idea what they mean, but I’m just working on calling them.”
As for Daniel, he believes he gains an advantage by not looking at the script the day before.
“You’re not gonna know the script in-game, right?” Daniel said. “We might look at it right before we go out to practice if we have any stuff we haven’t done for five or six days but I don’t necessarily like (to know) what’s coming.”
In fact, Daniel said that straight memorization has gotten him to the point where he can finish some of Pederson’s calls before the offensive coordinator even finishes saying them.
That’s Murray’s goal, and he has come a long way from being the rookie who couldn’t believe his ears during that first positional meeting with the Chiefs.
“There have been a couple (calls) like that,” Murray said. “I’m telling you, when I get it without having to stutter or anything like that, it’s a great feeling.”
Can you be an NFL quarterback?
Here are four play calls from NFL Films segments in which former Tampa Bay and Oakland coach Jon Gruden was wired for sound. Gruden’s playbook bears some resemblance to Andy Reid’s, as both are descendants of the Bill Walsh-Mike Holmgren coaching tree and pupils of the West Coast Offense — which is known for complicated verbiage. Can you read each play out loud once, memorize it and repeat it cleanly?
1. Pass 94 punch x deep cross
2. Trips left 73 Reno halfback slow screen right
3. West right tight, f left, 372 y stick, z spot
4. Green right x, shift to viper right, 382 x stick lookie