Red Zone

Here’s what happens on the sideline, in the huddle and in the QB’s headset before the snap

What’s Alex Smith hearing before he breaks the huddle?
What’s Alex Smith hearing before he breaks the huddle?

This is a general outline of how the Chiefs call plays. The following events can occur on a faster or slower timeline, depending on how long it takes coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to settle on a play. The situation matters, too — during a two-minute drill, all of this is accelerated.

(This story is part of The Kansas City Star’s Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)

0:40 — The previous play just ended, and Reid begins looking at his multilayered play-call sheet. Depending on the situation, he’ll fire off the next call immediately or take a few extra seconds to settle on it.

“You’ve got to know the situation you’re in and what flow the defense is in,” Reid said. “It depends on where you’re at in the game … there’s a guessing game, a chess match, that comes with it. But normally it’s pretty smooth. You don’t have a lot of time to do it, so it’s got to be smooth.”

0:35 — Reid selects the play and calls it to Pederson, who twice relays the call — which is often lengthy — to the quarterback, Alex Smith, who has a headset embedded in his helmet.

The Chiefs also make personnel substitutions at this time. “That’s the very first thing that happens,” quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy said.

The backup quarterbacks — Chase Daniel and Aaron Murray — are watching the defense closely to see how it chooses to match up against certain personnel groups.

“Chase and I are looking for personnel, who they’re bringing in when we’re subbing in guys,” Murray said. “So if we’re subbing in ‘Zebra’ personnel, are they bringing in nickel (personnel)? Are they bringing in dime personnel? Who’s covering who?”

0:30 — Only one coach can communicate with the quarterback. In the Chiefs’ case, it’s Pederson. And the quarterback can only hear that coach.

But the Chiefs’ backup quarterbacks also listen to Pederson’s call and can relay information to Smith, through Pederson, if something is amiss. For instance, some play calls are dependent on which hash mark the offense is on. And on the very rare occasion the play call is off, they can spot it and correct it.

“There were a couple of times last year where Chase was like, ‘Hey, we’re on a different hash,’ ” Murray said. “Maybe the coaches couldn’t see as well what hash we were on.”

0:28 — If the quarterback’s headset isn’t working for some reason, Daniel — who is almost always standing near Pederson — is charged with audibly relaying the play to Smith.

“Sometimes, if the microphone isn’t working for some reason, I’ll go out and run tell Alex,” Daniel said. “Fortunately we haven’t had to do that (much) but we’ve had a couple of times where two or three plays have gone out and I just literally ran out or Doug just went out and told Alex the play and he ran back into the huddle. It’s like old-school high school stuff.”

0:25 — The quarterback relays the play to his teammates in the huddle.

“I’ll give any last-minute reminders to guys, and I’ll call the play once or twice, depending on the play clock,” Daniel said, now speaking as if he were Smith.

0:22 — The huddle breaks with the goal of being at the line of scrimmage with 15-20 seconds left on the play clock.

“To be able to get to the line of scrimmage and re-ID everything and get everyone set to go, (that’s) ideal — you don’t want to feel rushed,” Murray said. “We want to be as fast as possible … If we have a couple of plays called, (you) make sure we get into the right play, so the faster we get up there, the better. Sometimes it takes a little longer. Sometimes the plays get a little lengthy in verbiage.”

0:18 — Once at the line of scrimmage, the quarterback begins his scan of the defense, making his presnap reads and hoping to get tipped off about what might be coming.

“You’re looking anywhere from the defensive line to the linebacker alignments to the safety rotation,” Daniel said, again speaking as if he were the on-field quarterback. “It’s Football 101. Your film study during the week really helps you, so you’re not having to spend a long time on the field thinking about what they’re going to do. You hope to have it down to one or two things they’re going to do.”

0:15 — The microphone in the quarterback’s helmet goes dead until the end of the next play.

0:10 — The quarterback snaps the ball around this time, give or take a few seconds. The backups again watch the play closely, gathering information they can share with Smith at the end of the series.

“We’re looking at the what fronts are doing, determining certain blitzes, certain coverages … if they’re bringing a certain blitz, make sure it’s getting picked up,” Murray said. “After the series, we’ll huddle, watch the film, say, ‘They’re bringing this versus this front, so this is how we’re going to handle it.’ It’s a never-ending chess match.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to Follow him on Twitter @TerezPaylor. Tap here to download the new Red Zone Extra app for iOS and Android devices.


▪ Quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy: His biggest responsibility is making sure that, coverage-wise, the quarterback is throwing to the right spot. “Most of the time, you don’t have time to talk about that unless there is a scenario where you say, ‘Hey, why did he make that throw?’ ” Nagy said. “I’m up there to be able to give them a bird’s-eye view of, ‘Hey, this is what I think he saw.’ ”

▪ Spread-game analyst Brad Childress: He’s tasked with identifying the coverages and defensive fronts, but Nagy says he does a little bit of everything and brings another pair of experienced eyes up top.

▪ Wide receivers coach David Culley: He’s looking at the receivers and the coverages they are facing.

▪ Assistant offensive line coach Eugene Chung: He’s keeping an eye on the offensive line, watching closely for trouble blitzes or stunts.


▪ Head coach Andy Reid, who relays plays to offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, standing nearby.

▪ Pederson relays the play from Reid to the quarterback on the field.

▪ The quarterback in the huddle, through a headset in his helmet, can only hear Pederson, but everyone else can hear each other. “Coach (Reid) and Doug are doing their thing, so for us, it’s a lot of listening,” Nagy said. “If he’s looking for an answer, we give him the best answer we can.”

▪ All the backup quarterbacks, who are looking at the defensive coverage and reaction, are next to Pederson on the sideline.

▪ Running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, tight ends coach Tom Melvin and offensive line coach Andy Heck are all on the sideline with their position groups.