Book Excerpt: Newton's Football

Book Excerpt: Newton's Football
Book Excerpt: Newton's Football
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Guest Column by Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez

In Newton's Football, journalist Allen St. John and former Yale professor Ainissa Ramirez explore the unexpected science behind America's Game. (Our own Danny Tuccitto also contributed to the book as research assistant.) Whether it's Jerry Rice finding the common ground between quantum physics and the West Coast offense or an Ivy League biologist explaining -- at a granular level -- exactly how a Big Mac morphs into an outside linebacker, Newton's Football illuminates football -- and science -- through funny, insightful stories told by some of the world's sharpest minds.

Football Outsiders is proud to present this excerpt from the ninth chapter of the book. Please click on the Amazon link within this article to order the book for yourself!


Sam Wyche knew he was onto something when he saw the way Renaldo Nehemiah was breathing.

“Jeepers, Skeets, I thought you were some kind of world-class athlete? Here you are breathing like a racehorse,” Wyche said to Nehemiah, using the wide receiver’s nickname. Wyche was the passing director of the San Francisco 49ers, and Nehemiah was not only one of the fastest players in the NFL, he was also an elite track athlete, a former Olympian, and a multiple world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles.

Nehemiah turned around and looked Wyche straight in the eye. “Sam, the reason I’m breathing heavy is I just ran 60 yards as fast as I could run it.” Nehemiah took one more breath and added, “If you give me about four more seconds, I will be breathing through my nose again.”

“It immediately clicked,” Wyche recalls. “If I could get practice at a tempo where my team is recovering in eighteen to twenty seconds, and my opponent has been practicing all week at about a minute a play, and I snap the ball at about twenty-two to twenty-three seconds, I am playing against a slightly fatigued team on play number two. On play number three, they’re slightly more fatigued. And pretty soon chronic fatigue sets in and they start tapping the side of their helmets saying, ‘Get me out of here. I need a break.’ You are now playing against a lesser opponent. You are gaining an edge.”

Wyche understood the importance of that encounter with Nehemiah and the epiphany that stemmed from it. But he didn’t act on this revelation, at least not right away. Wyche wasn’t coaching the 49ers; Bill Walsh was. San Francisco had already established a dynasty based on Walsh’s state-of-the-art West Coast offense. So Sam Wyche filed that moment away.

But in the fullness of time, this casual encounter between a coach and a player on the practice field on an otherwise normal afternoon would be the act that would introduce chaos theory to professional football.

* * * * * * * * * *

The idea behind the huddle -- game planning during a scheduled break in the action -- can trace its roots to the innovations of Yale coach Walter Camp, who introduced play calling at the end of the nineteenth century. In its earliest days, football was based on free-flowing action with few breaks, much like modern soccer or rugby. Camp’s rule changes broke the game up into discrete “plays,” which borrowed from baseball’s more deliberate, episodic pacing. The plays may have lost something in terms of continuous action, but they gained something too. A playwright would understand that the plays were similar to scenes in a play, each with a conflict (To pass or not to pass? That is the question) and a resolution (Incomplete, third-and-7).

But a scientist would understand that the extra time between plays provided the opportunity to analyze the effectiveness of each effort, echoing the way that a researcher, or an inventor like Thomas Edison, runs a trial and then parses the results. Improvisation gave way to deliberation.

The huddle worked at another level as well. It established clear communication among the players on the offense so that they could execute their plays with precision. The huddle sacrificed the element of surprise in favor of predictability.

Until Sam Wyche came along.

A couple of years after watching one of the world’s fittest athletes huffing and puffing between plays, Wyche became the head coach of his own team. The 1984 Cincinnati Bengals were very much the opposite of the 49ers. They were on a downhill slide since meeting San Francisco in the Super Bowl three years earlier, and their offense was particularly problematic.

So one day during training camp at Wilmington College, Wyche was reminded of that moment with Nehemiah and decided to try something. In the middle of an otherwise typical practice, Wyche called a “nickel period,” where the Bengals offense would run a series of long third-down plays—from third-and-6 up to third-and-10— while the team’s defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a Hall of Fame player who would later become the defensive coordinator for a Super Bowl–winning Pittsburgh Steelers squad, practiced his nickel defense, which swaps out a linebacker for a fifth defensive back.

“If it is third-and-8, everyone in the stadium knows you are going to pass,” Wyche explains. “So the defense brings in their best upfield pass rusher instead of the slow, run-stopping nose tackle. They take out the heavy-legged middle linebackers and put in another defensive back or two, and now they have got all their good cover people in and their pass rushers in. They know we are going to pass. And sure enough, we do. And sure enough, they win a percentage of the time. I said, ‘This is stupid.’ ”

Wyche realized that one small thing ceded a huge tactical advantage to the defense: the huddle. So Wyche then called a “move the ball” period, in which the offense and defense would go at each other under game conditions.

“We’d simulate another first-and-10, then a second-and-8, then a third-and-8,” Wyche recalls. “I told my offensive guys, ‘When we get to the third down, we are not going to huddle up. We are going to run this play. You offensive guys understand that? And don’t say anything to your buddies on defense.’ So we did that. Dick starts to substitute, and we would run up to the line of scrimmage, snap the ball, and throw it down the field to an uncovered guy. Dick is screaming and hollering, ‘You can’t do that!’

“ ‘Let me explain something to you, Dick. You can do that.’ ” And all afternoon, the Cincinnati offensive players would rush back to the line of scrimmage like they had a plane to catch, then take advantage of the mismatches that were created when LeBeau’s defense had to scramble to make substitutions on the fly.

What started out as a way to shake up a dull training-camp practice—and to provoke a reaction from Wyche’s uptight defensive coordinator—evolved into a full-blown strategy.

The no-huddle—or the hurry-up, as it’s sometimes called— wasn’t invented by Wyche. It was a tool that was used by every team when trailing at the end of a close game. But it was a tactic of last resort, and other coaches would never consider using it all the time, any more than they’d start a game with an onside kick.

Wyche reinvented the huddle, and instead of circling up eight yards behind the line of scrimmage, his offense would confer right by the ball. “We called it a sugar huddle,” he explains. “I said ‘Guys, I want you to get close to that line of scrimmage, kind of sugar up like you would to your sweetheart.’ So the center only has to take one step, and he’s at the line of scrimmage. The quarterback just has to turn around, and he is standing on the center.”

And on most plays Wyche went even further and tossed out the huddle altogether, which yielded more than just a chance to keep the nickel defense off the field. “Most teams work at about one play per minute in practice. Well, in the no-huddle we wanted to get five plays every two minutes,” Wyche explains. “That would be our pace and we could do it in a game.”

As a journeyman quarterback fighting for his job -- and sometimes his life -- Wyche had learned to watch the defenders for small clues as they lined up across from him.

“The defense talks to you with their body language,” Wyche explains. “If you see a defensive back bending at the waist, he is probably playing zone. If you see him bending at the knees, crouching straight down where he has got to chase a guy all the way across the field? That means he is playing man to man.”

Wyche knew he was onto something when he saw how his own defensive backs were standing as the offense threw play after play at them.

It’s all in the thumbs. When a player is feeling good, rested, and ready for the next play, Wyche explains, he stands up straight in a posture with more than a little Superman-style swagger: hands on hips, fingers across his belly, thumbs pointing back. But when a player is tired, his posture changes dramatically. He hunches over, looking toward the ground, fingers down almost on his butt. And his thumbs? They’re pointing forward.

“It tells the offense they are wearing down,” Wyche says. “And as soon as you see it, speed it up, cut another couple of seconds out.”

When Wyche saw his first-string defenders sucking wind and his world-class defensive coordinator struggling to keep the right players on the field, he knew that he had stumbled onto something. His no-huddle offense was an innovation that would take his Bengals all the way to the Super Bowl and leave them one miraculous Joe Montana drive short of a championship.

What exactly did Wyche stumble onto? In a word, chaos.

What exactly is chaos? We all instinctively understand chaos, at least as it relates to a junk drawer or a seven-year-old’s birthday party. But in science and mathematics, chaos has a more precise definition.

Here’s how Edward Lorenz, the creator of the Butterfly Effect, defined chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.

To put it another way, chaos is about how small things can have big effects. And few people in the world understand this more deeply and with more nuance than Stephen Wolfram.

Described as “the Bob Dylan of physics,” Wolfram was a member of the first class of MacArthur Fellows, winning the so-called Genius Grant in 1981 at the age of twenty-one, along with heavy hitters like Stephen Jay Gould, Derek Walcott, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Robert Penn Warren.

And the Dylan comparison is an apt one. Wolfram sports an oversized personality, and trying to pigeonhole him can be an exercise in futility. Wolfram was doing cutting-edge work in particle physics as a teenager, then suddenly shifted his attention to the more practical—and populist—work of developing a computer algebra system called Mathematica. He spent a decade working on a book called A New Kind of Science which tackles the biggest questions in science. He argues that an understanding of simple computational systems can lead to a new and deeper understanding of biology, chemistry, and physics. On the other hand, he admits, somewhat sheepishly, that he’s collected more data on himself—tracking every- thing from keystrokes to heartbeats—than any other human being has.

The English scientist’s ideas are compelling because they’re at once mind-bogglingly complex and captivatingly simple. “Wolfram goes on to explain that by applying a single key observation—that the most complicated behavior imaginable arises from very simple rules—one can view and understand the universe with previously unattainable clarity and insight,” wrote Steven Levy in a Wired magazine profile of Wolfram. “The idea of complexity arising from simple rules—and that the universe can best be understood by way of the computation it requires to grind out results from those rules—is at the center of the book. The big idea is that the algorithm is mightier than the equation.”

Wolfram admits that he knows almost nothing about American football—and apologizes for it—but he does understand complex systems and is happy to share his insights.

“The knob of chaos theory,” he says, “is the dependence on initial conditions.”

In explaining the hidden power that can be unleashed when you make even the smallest changes in those all-important initial conditions, Wolfram comes up with a delightfully outrageous analogy that would fascinate both a small child and a physics postdoc.

“Take flipping a coin. The reason that flipping a coin leads to what seems like random outcomes is a little subtle,” says Wolfram. “If you had a machine flipping the coin and the machine was nicely calibrated, it flips the coin, the coin spins around 15 times or something, and it always lands the same way up. The laws of motion for the coin are always the same, and if you flip the coin the same way, it will always land exactly the same way up. The reason why it seems kind of random is that when we flip the coin, our brains and muscles aren’t that precise. We think we’re flipping it the same way, but if we flip it just a tiny bit harder, it’ll turn one more time in the air and come up on a different side. That uncertainty in our initial condition, which we as humans generate, makes it seem like a random process.”

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It’s a lot like Edward Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect, where the tiniest disturbance in the atmosphere can cause a tornado halfway around the world.

It’s also kind of like Wyche’s no-huddle offense.

With Wyche’s groundbreaking offense, there was no actual change in the plays the Bengals’ offense was running. They were still using the exact same pass plays and running plays in a similar ratio. By shortening or eliminating the time between plays, Wyche was changing the framework within which those plays were run. Or, as Wolfram would say, the initial conditions of the play.

And, as Wolfram would have predicted, that small change had profound and unexpected consequences. What had once been a given -- that there would be a predictable gap between plays -- was suddenly up for grabs.

Wyche tinkered with every aspect of the huddle. He would sometimes bring his entire team -- not just the quarterback -- to the sidelines to discuss the upcoming play. It looked a lot like a timeout in basketball, with the advantage being that every player would now hear about the play directly from Wyche or his coordinators. It also had a few subsidiary benefits, allowing players to get some quick medical treatment, like bandaging a cut or fixing a minor equipment malfunction like a broken chinstrap.

At other times, the Bengals would put 12 or 13 men on the field when the ball was being spotted, and then get down to the required 11 by having the extra player or players run off the field just before the snap. “When there’s no huddle, it’s okay to have more than 11 players on the field as long as they’re off before the ball is snapped or before the clock runs down,” Tony Veteri, the NFL’s assistant supervisor of officials, told The New York Times at the time. Since the offense controls the timing of the snap, there was little danger of the Bengals getting caught with too many men on the field. But this tweak had defensive coordinators pulling their hair out; the uncertainty prevented them from making substitutions, because they risked a penalty for having too many men on the field when the Bengals snapped the ball.

Like so many innovations, the no-huddle wasn’t an immediate success. In its earliest iterations, the very changes designed to keep the defense off balance instead kept the offense off balance. And the beginning of the 1987 season was disrupted by a players’ strike, making it exactly the wrong time to introduce an intricate new offense.

But eventually the Bengals stopped outsmarting themselves. Young Boomer Esiason replaced Ken Anderson as the Bengals’ quarterback and he embraced the system wholeheartedly. The no-huddle required him to memorize plays by the dozen, with nothing more to help him in a game situation than a quick glance over to Wyche or his assistants.

Esiason could throw to a collection of receivers who were flexible enough to work within the system’s framework. “We had kind of the perfect storm,” Wyche explains. “We had a tight end named Rodney Holman, who was as good a receiver as most wide receivers. So we did not have to take him out when we wanted to throw the ball. We had a running back named James Brooks from Auburn, who was a good receiver down the field, so we did not have to take him out and put in an extra wide receiver. So we could break the huddle after second down, we could go right to the line on the third down and be in a spread formation—which is four wide receivers, two on each side—with our tight end being spread on one side and our running back being part of the spread on the other side. It gave the defenses a lot of problems because they had to go out and cover people with linebackers, and they could not run with them.”

In this way, the no-huddle represented a profound reimagining of the game. It was forward-looking, but in many ways it also represented a nod to the past. The nonstop action of the no-huddle evoked the continuous action of football’s earliest days. And by depending on a cache of versatile players to play a variety of roles, the no-huddle was a throwback to the days before specialization took over the game.

It worked. It gave the Bengals short-term benefits in terms of personnel mismatches—a fleet wide receiver on a lumbering linebacker or a burly tight end covered by a tiny cornerback. But unlike many game-planning advantages that depend solely on the element of surprise—and hence tend to lose their edge the more they are used— the no-huddle actually worked better when the Bengals needed it most. As the Bengals moved toward the opponent’s red zone at the end of a drive, the defense was sucking wind more desperately than they had at the beginning of Cincinnati’s possession. By the fourth quarter, the opponent’s legs were even more leaden—and defenders more apt to give up the big play—than they were in the first. The no-huddle strategy proved more effective late in the season, as Cincinnati faced teams depleted by injury and players battling long-term fatigue.

“It became an offensive strategy,” Wyche recalls. “Just like sending a man in motion or playing two tight ends or playing four wide receivers or taking the quarterback out from center and going to the shotgun.”

From the Book, NEWTON’S FOOTBALL by Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez Ph.D. Copyright (c) 2013 by Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.


4 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2013, 1:20pm

#1 by Sifter // Dec 17, 2013 - 1:52am

Interesting stuff, thanks for putting it up. Always thought substitutions could be exploited well with the no huddle, and having 12 or 13 guys on the field, but not in the huddle, is one way. Staying a down ahead as well. If you realise the D always swaps personnel on 3rd down, then always go no huddle for 3rd down and see what they do. Do they sub to passing personnel on earlier downs? Or stick with the base and hope for the best? Mismatches are bound to happen when you virtually control their substitutions.

The only real sticking point is being fit enough to run no huddle a lot. That's why I think Chip Kelly is on top of things at the Eagles, they've been trying to scientifically improve their diets, practice routines etc. trying to get that fitness edge on opponents.

Points: 0

#2 by panthersnbraves // Dec 17, 2013 - 9:34am

I watched my sons HS Football team do it every play, but they take the fitness edge even further - Offensive Linemen will run down-field following the play. It puts them in great position if there is a fumble, but that is a side benefit.

Since they run down the field with the play, they can line up as the Referee is spotting the ball. They drop into their stance, and wait. The skill players turn towards the sideline where there are two coaches using hand signals for plays (one is a decoy). As the Receivers and Backs get into position, the QB calls out the Oline blocking/protection scheme. It is a matter of just a few seconds between plays, and it wears down the opposing Defense considerably.

Since they practice at that speed all the time, it makes a big difference.

Points: 0

#3 by MJ_Halevi (not verified) // Dec 17, 2013 - 1:12pm

Interesting OLine tactic. (I note that as a former OLineman, when your team breaks a long play its your job to run towards the ball and try and pick up an extra block downfield) This strat it will be way more fatiguing to OLineman. Much easier would be to get to the line, drop to a 2pt when the QB gets there, and a 3 pt on 'down' or whatever word 1 is. I would also note that this is a tactic for a larger HS team--midsize HSchools play their best lineman ironman style given that massive talent dropoff between the starting lineman and his backup; small highschools will often be forced into much of their team playing ironman ball.

Not all HS teams can pass (mid-size High Schools outside of areas with year round 7-v-7 often have no QBs worth throwing)--for the highschools that are almost all running teams with slim playbooks this could also be a solid tactic.

Points: 0

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