Communication Before the Snap in the NFL, Partially Explained (a.k.a. “Why does Peyton keep saying Omaha??”)

By: Brian Mangan

Ever wanted to know what all that yelling and finger-pointing is that goes on in an NFL game before the ball is snapped?  Of course you do – we all do!  What the hell does “Omaha” mean?  Even Deadspin took a look at the topic last week, resulting in what amounted to a big “we don’t know.

Well, we still don’t know, but yesterday, a redditor named /u/drunkwithanxiety did an incredible job of breaking down the miniature drama that takes place before each play.  Or, as he put it, “it’s like high speed poker and then high speed violence all at once.”

My experience with football was one year of Pop Warner and twenty years of Madden, so I’ll let the expert take it from here:

Typically:

1 – The offensive coordinator calls the plays (some head coaches serve as their own OC’s). If the OC is in the booth, he relays it down to the sideline because the radio communication to the QB is only allowed from the sideline. Usually the QB coach is the relay man. If the OC is down on the field, he speaks to the QB directly.

2 – Everyone wearing a headset talks and listens to each other. The HC is listening and comments (and calling plays if he serves as his own OC.) The other guys are chiming in with whatever they observe and are offering suggestions. Some guy in the booth is tasked with saying to the HC whether or not to challenge a play. All of this is open line (I believe) – so it’s a perpetual conference call.

3a – Huddle talk. A play is called, and often some codes to switch to different plays. Also, the QB will say if (using Peyton Manning as an example) “Omaha!” means something or not. For example, the QB can say we’ll run play X unless I say “eagle” in which case we’ll run play Y. Omaha means the snap count is changed to two instead of one – beware of the hard count.

3b – LOS talk – the Center is calling out the blocking scheme. The QB is deciding, based on what he sees whether or not to go to Eagle, and whether or not Omaha will be invoked. The QB may signal a man to go in motion so he can see how the defense responds (if someone runs with him, it’s man, if not, it’s zone). If he has called “Eagle” then the teams knows to run the play designated Eagle. But the QB could call out “Raptor” which means nothing – he’s just making sure that the defense can’t figure out the code words, or he’s seeing if the defense will change alignment. Even if he has called “eagle” he can then kill it and go back to the original play (usually “Kill! Kill! Kill!”). He can then go to his hard count, which is an attempt to draw the D offsides, but’s it’s also a chance to see how LB’s and DB’s move.

Going through a scenario:

QB calls Play X, Eagle Y, Omaha 4 (X and Y are usually very jargon-y, so we’ll skip that for now) in the huddle.

They come to the line. the Center informs the rest of the line, that the D is lined up in a base 3-4, which due to study sessions previously in the week, means the line will use Blocking scheme A for X or blocking scheme B for Y. Or the center could use a code word to switch up the blocking scheme if it wasn’t covered in the study session. Furthermore adjusts can be made by identifying the “Mike” – the primary MLB. Hence “54 is the Mike! 54 is the Mike!”

Meanwhile the QB decides whether the original play X or the Eagle play Y (and note, they could be other code words that mean specific plays – if the QB says “Hawk” every knows that Hawk is play Z). Let’s say he wants to stick with play X, but he wants to know more about the defense. He calls his WR to go in motion, but then return to his original spot. The defender runs with the motion man. So it’s likely man coverage, at least for that guy. Play X really only works against zone coverage, so he changes: “Eagle! Eagle! Eagle!” The QB pauses and see if the defense changes – they don’t, so he calls Omaha which means we’re going on the 4th hut. “Omaha! Omaha! HUUUUTTTTT!”

No one jumps offside on defense, but two LB’s show blitz. the QB decides they we’re fooled by the count. So now he knows that it’s man coverage with a two man blitz. Furthermore, he might notice that the identity of “Mike” has changed. So instead of continuing the count, he calls (and points) “51 is the Mike! 51 is the Mike!”

The defense now has to decide if knowing that the offense knows it’s a blitz will be too risky, in which case, they can start calling codes, too. They will have codes to switch to a different blitz, change back to base defense, or possibly anything. The d-signal caller now starts yelling (well, continues, as he, like the QB has been calling signals since he saw the O come to the line).

Now the QB has to decide if the D has switched out of the scheme he thinks they’re in, or if it was a bluff, and they’re still gonna do it. So, he starts the count again. “Omaha! Omaha!” – turns the count back to 4.

HUTT-HUTT!!!!

Now the defense may jump again, and the QB will think he’s got them in the man coverage, two LB blitz for real, and so he continues his count.

HUTT-HUTT!!!!

That’s four HUTs so the ball is snapped, and the play has begun.

4 Pointing

Covered earlier, but the QB often corrects the C’s call of Mike (or in some cases has sole authority to decide on who the Mike is). Or if he thinks, based on what he thinks he knows, that, say the SS is on a blitz, he’ll point it out, so his back will know who to look for on the blitz pickup (or the OL will change protection schemes to pick up the blitz themselves.

5 Defense signals. Imagine the whole process in reverse, without access to the snap count. the D signal called gets a call from the sideline (either relayed to him from the sideline, or called by the DC or HC from the sideline). They’ll have one defense called, another to switch to on a code word. They will also have other code words to change to specific other schemes and of course Kill! as well.

As the offense does it’s things, the defensive signal caller tries to glean what he can about the play they’ve called. If the O-line is in three point stances, they may favor the run (or they may be pretending to run and then pass). If they are in a two point stance (standing up, it’s the opposite. The offense alignment may tell the defense what types of plays it can run from that set, so the d-signal caller can remind his teammates either through codes or or through just yelling “watch for the draw!” (for example) directly. Then if the QB is switching things around or pretending to, the d-signal caller can switch things up or pretend to.

The shocking thing about all of this is they either 25 or 40 seconds to accomplish all of this shit. It’s sort of ridiculous – it’s like high speed poker and then high speed violence all at once.

(Link to original thread)

If you are a big fan, have ever played, or are a nerd (I am all three!), you probably knew most of that, but it is an enjoyable read nonetheless.  Later in the thread they discuss the significance of the “Mike”, so, for bonus points:

Defenses often show different alignments to try to confuse offenses. Identifying the Mike tells the O line where their protection scheme is centered. Teams tend to have line block an area and have the back field block potential blitzes. Lines tend to have a slide scheme where the left side of the line slides left to block and the right side blocks right. Identifying the Mike tells the line who to key on when determining their slides. The center, for instance may have been coached to slide either toward or away from the Mike. As for the backs, they are usually assigned to block blitzes from the inside out. So if the back is on the same page as the line, he knows where the line is leaving a gap near the middle, so he can his blocking progressions. Usually it’s block any LB or DB going through the gap. If no one is coming through the gap, block the blitzer coming from the outside. If two blitzes are coming block the guy coming up the middle, since the guy coming from the outside will take a split second longer to get there. If no blitz is coming, run the pass route you were assigned.

Thank you, /u/drunkwithanxiety – based on your upvotes on reddit (in the thousands) you have enriched the experience of many a fan for this Championship Weekend.

If anyone else has additional insight to add, I’d love to hear that too.

Edit:  In browsing the thread discussing the above comment, I stumbled across something amazing: the actual San Francisco 49ers Defensive Playbook from 1992.  This is seriously awesome (and terrifyingly complex).  Go ahead, give it a read.