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THE SILENT Treatment

Sept. 02, 2013
Sept. 02, 2013

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Sept. 2, 2013

LEADING OFF
THE MAIL
NFL PREVIEW 2013
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THE SILENT Treatment

Domes and the ever-growing cacophony of 12th Men everywhere turned play-calling into a leaguewide nightmare. Then a wise old man came up with an innovation that changed the game: He told his quarterbacks to shut up

YOU MIGHT not expect a long-retired, much-dinged, memory-impaired NFL quarterback to recall the details of a single play from 27 years ago, but when I began describing the one that interested me to former Browns play-caller Bernie Kosar, he interrupted me. "Unfortunately, I can finish this story, but go ahead," he said. "I'll be nice and pretend like I don't know. I could claim, 'Hey, I've had concussions; I don't know what you're talking about.' But ... go ahead."

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 2013 issue

Kosar is a boisterously cheerful man who has had a rocky time in retirement. He has weathered a widely publicized bankruptcy and struggled with memory loss, a consequence of the many concussions he suffered in more than 130 pro games. He starred in easily a half a hundred more as a Pennsylvania high schooler and then as quarterback of the Miami Hurricanes. That means he took thousands of snaps. Some went well; some went badly. Most were unmemorable. The one I was asking about was a cock-up.

It came in the final, futile series of the Browns' 1986 division playoff loss to the Dolphins. It happened in the Orange Bowl, where Kosar had led the Hurricanes to a national championship two Januarys before. The Browns were a big surprise that season. Under Kosar, then a rookie, they squeaked into the playoffs and on this day stunned the heavily favored Dolphins by jumping out to a 21--3 lead. Miami's defense stiffened, however, and its offense scored three unanswered second-half touchdowns. With less than two minutes to play, the Dolphins led by three points.

Kosar had one last chance. Seventy-five thousand Miami fans, whipped to a frenzy by the Dolphins' second-half heroics, were doing their best to flatten the Browns' offense with sound, and they seemed to be succeeding. Then, when every down and every second mattered, the Browns squandered a play. It wasn't a game loser; it wasn't even the critical play in the drive. But it hurt. Inside that cauldron of noise, Cleveland's deafened offense was trying something new, a silent snap count, the brainstorm of the Browns' offensive line coach, Howard Mudd. Kosar didn't have much choice. He could not make himself heard even when he lined up over the center and barked the snap count at the top of his voice. So he was back in the shotgun formation, 10 feet behind the center, orchestrating the play with his feet. He lifted his right foot to signal wide receiver Glen Young to go in motion, but as Young trotted across the backfield, center Mike Baab prematurely snapped the ball. Maybe Kosar had gotten his footwork wrong, or maybe Baab, peering back through his legs at the world upside down, with a hulking, ferocious defender poised to run him over, had misread his cue. The ball hit Kosar and fell to the turf. The Browns came up with it, but they had lost a big chunk of precious time, several yards and one critical down. Cleveland managed several more plays, even made a big first down, but the clock ran out before the team could get in position for a field goal.

"I still remember it like it was yesterday," says Kosar. "I was sick over it. I'm still sick over it."

Baab and Kosar still don't agree over who was at fault, and all these years later they still jocularly point fingers at each other, but both know that the overriding reason, one that no self-respecting NFL player would dare float as an excuse, was noise. The old 12th Man.

THE FIRST use of the term 12th Man in football came in 1912, in an alumni publication of the University of Iowa, and referred to the intangible contribution of fans to the school's team. Texas A&M has formally trademarked the term. But in the NFL, around the time of Kosar's disaster in Miami, crowd noise had become something more than emotional support. It had started messing with outcomes.

Howard Mudd played guard for the 49ers and the Bears from 1964 through '70, when the league was really taking off, and he doesn't remember ever having any trouble with noise. But during the '70s the volume grew and grew and grew, in step with the league's skyrocketing popularity. By '85 the sound level in stadiums routinely topped 100 decibels, about what you hear sitting astride a revving Harley-Davidson or operating a table saw. In other words offensive linemen, who must brace to meet the mad charge of locomotive pass rushers, could no longer hear the quarterback calling for the snap of the ball.

While this might seem a small thing to someone who has never experienced it, it was a nightmare for blockers. Why not, you might ask (and coaches implored), just watch the football? When it moves, you move! Isn't that what defenders have to do? But this advice was of little help to offensive tackles. Pigeons may be able to see separate things out of each eye, but human beings cannot. An offensive tackle, at the far end of the interior line, cannot watch both the ball and the pass rusher who is preparing to flatten him. When he can't hear, he has to watch the ball, which means he has to turn his head, which means he's doomed.

Jeff Saturday, the Colts' two-time All-Pro center, says that crowd noise was an occasional problem for him in certain stadiums during his college career at North Carolina, but it became a constant problem when he turned pro in 1999. "In the pros the game is so much more advanced, with all the calls and checks and changes at the line of scrimmage, that verbal communication is at a premium," Saturday says. "If linemen can't hear, they don't have a fighting chance."

"When we would go to Seattle, in that dome, it was a tremendous problem," says John Alt, an offensive tackle for the Chiefs from 1984 through '96. "It took away a lot of your offense. You couldn't audible the way you normally would. And for those of us playing tackle, well, you've got a defensive end running forward [at a ridiculous speed] while you're trying to block him a half-second late running backward. The line coach would be yelling, 'Watch the ball! Watch the ball!' But you just couldn't do it."

Alt was not alone. Tackles failed a lot in their mission starting in the mid-1980s, which meant quarterbacks were getting creamed in the backfield with regularity. Kosar jokes about it, but his memory loss bears witness. Over two decades, from 1980 to 2000, it was open season on NFL quarterbacks; the average number of sacks per team spiked as high as 46.9 in the mid-'80s. Everyone knew where the point of weakness was. Stranded in the din at either end of the interior line, tackles struggled to do the impossible. Those years produced seven of the league's top 10 alltime sack leaders: Bruce Smith (1985--2003), Reggie White ('85--00), Kevin Greene ('85--99), Chris Doleman ('85--99), Richard Dent ('83--97), Lawrence Taylor ('81--93) and Leslie O'Neal ('86--99). The three others in the top 10—Michael Strahan ('93--07), John Randle ('90--03) and Jason Taylor ('97--11)—overlapped that period. The most likely reason for the great blossoming of pass-rushing skills in the last two decades of the 20th century was crowd noise.

Players, coaches and NFL officials tried all sorts of remedies—to no avail. Rules permitted only the quarterback to communicate by radio with the sideline, but the league tried outfitting offensive guards with speakers in their shoulder pads to broadcast the snap count to the tackles. Didn't work. They tried fitting tackles with hearing aids designed to filter out background noise. Didn't work. They tried having the center bark out the count. Didn't work. They tried amplifying the snap count with speakers at the 30-yard lines on both sides of the field. Didn't work. They tried having the linemen hold hands. Didn't work.

Players experimented with their own approaches. I was covering a game in Buffalo's Rich Stadium in 1990 between the Bills and the Eagles. In a scene recounted in my 1994 book, Bringing the Heat, the Eagles' giant right tackle, Ron Heller, a brick wall on most occasions, was getting scorched by Bills defensive end Bruce Smith, and midway through the game Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan benched him. The exasperated Heller confronted his quarterback, Randall Cunningham, on the sideline. "Look, Randall, I can't hear you out there," he said.

To Heller's amazement, Cunningham explained that despite the din, he was deliberately not raising his voice on the snap count. Someone had told him that was the way to capture another person's attention. "I'm using my soft voice," he said. The infuriated tackle had a few choice words for that theory, delivered loudly enough to be heard over the din. In short: Didn't work.

Then, around 1998--99, something made the problem go away. That something was the silent snap count. Its first master practitioners were Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday and the Colts. Its architect? The man who had experimented with it during that ill-fated Browns game in '86, the man Manning calls "a philosopher of football, an honest-to-God guru": Howard Mudd.

HE COACHED for eight NFL teams over five decades after he stopped playing. When he retired in 2009 from the Colts, with whom he had his greatest success, Mudd was feted as an NFL great. Manning pulled out all the stops. He had a commemorative video made, gathering old footage from NFL Films and testimonials from Mudd's former playing and coaching colleagues and setting it all to some of Mudd's favorite Simon and Garfunkel music. Manning mounted and framed three jerseys signed by some of the game's greatest names. It was all presented to the coach at a private dinner attended only by Manning and the Colts' offensive line. "It was like attending his own funeral!" Manning says. A few weeks later Mudd came out of retirement to coach for the Eagles.

Manning called him. "I want all that stuff back!" he said. "Hell, Howard, when you retire you're supposed to stay retired!"

Mudd coached for two seasons in Philadelphia. He recently retired for the second time—"for good," he tells me. To see him today, at 71, with hips and knees so battered that he walks hunched over a cane, you would never guess that in his prime he was a giant. He was 6'6", weighed more than 250 pounds and made three trips to the Pro Bowl. He is a member of the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1960s. But as the body fades, it reveals mind; Mudd aged from Yeti to Yoda.

"Coach Howard is a true student of the game," says Saturday, who worked with Mudd during most of the center's 13 years in Indianapolis, "and he is one of those guys who has played at a high level, so he respects the athleticism on both sides of the ball. For example, if you were beat on a play not because you did something wrong but because the guy opposite you just beat you, Coach Howard rarely had an issue with that. He knew how good the guy on defense was. But he also believed the mental aspect of the game wasn't just some abstraction. He preached that the better prepared and focused you were, the more you could 'slow the game down,' as he put it. I found that to be true."

WHEN THE Eagles coaxed Mudd back, they gave him an electric cart so he could maneuver around their practice fields. He looked hobbled, but he was still as tough as jerky. His wide, round face was rimmed with a full white beard, and his thick brow could still clench his whole face into a fist, but the look was deceptive. Mudd is less tough than clever. He has a hair-trigger sense of humor and a quick and playful mind. He is also startlingly blunt and utterly without pretense. He is at work on an instruction book for blockers with the terrific working title, S--- That I Know Works. Kosar recalls, "Coach Howard wasn't just stubborn and physical like many football coaches are, banging their heads against the wall all the time. He tried to be creative. And this silent count, it was one of the things he really believed in."

As Mudd remembers it, the league brought the noise problem on itself. He noticed it while coaching for the Seahawks in the late 1970s and early '80s. The team played in the Kingdome, which, because of its concrete structure, seemed to retain sound even more than other roofed stadiums. When the home fans' deafening cheers sowed confusion in enemy offenses, the team did things to encourage the crowd: It broadcast chants over the loudspeakers and promoted the antics of a beer-vending unofficial cheerleader, Bill Scott, who became famous as Bill the Beerman. Opposing teams began preparing for the Kingdome by blasting noise from loudspeakers on the sidelines during practice.

Soon teams throughout the league were imitating the Seahawks. Bill the Beerman went pro. He toured other stadiums, teaching new crowds the finer points of pumping up the volume. And fans loved it. When they forced the visiting team to waste timeouts and botch offensive plays, they realized the fantasy of every fan who has ever donned a team jersey. They were in the game. They were the 12th Man! The league loved it too. It was fun, and it created a nice incentive to buy tickets and actually attend the games, which were increasingly available on TV.

Offensive coaches hated the noise. In 1981, in what can only be described as an act of deep hypocrisy, Seahawks coach Jack Patera did something about it. Seattle was scheduled to play Green Bay at Lambeau Field, where the Packers had enthusiastically embraced crowd noise as a weapon. Mudd was Patera's offensive line coach and at that point had no answer to the noise problem. So Patera dusted off his NFL rule book and found a 1956 stricture that no one ever recalled using. It said the referee had the power to stop the game if the quarterback could not make himself heard over the crowd. "Well, piss on it," Patera told his young quarterback, Jim Zorn. "What we are going to do is, I do not want you to snap the ball if you can't hear."

On game day the crowd was predictably deafening, so Zorn did as instructed. "I stood there while the 25-second [play] clock was ticking," he recalls. "If the crowd was loud, what I had to do was turn around and look at the referee. And the referee would judge whether or not it was loud enough. I turned around, and the ref stopped the game. He came and stood over the ball and tried to quiet the crowd down."

This had a predictable effect. "The crowd got louder," says Zorn. The ref waited for the fans to tire out and then signaled for play to resume, but every time Zorn approached the center, the noise kicked up once more. This happened over and over, until the delay stretched to 27 minutes. A scandal. It messed with the most sacrosanct feature of Sunday-afternoon football: the network programming schedule. In short order the ref was feeling a lot of heat. He turned it on Zorn.

"Eventually Mr. Official, he's saying, 'Hey, you've got to help me out here,' " the quarterback says. "And the players want to play, you know what I mean?" Zorn found himself very much alone at the center of the field. "I guess if I had been a little bolder or more devious," he says, "I might have said, 'Let's try and take this thing to the max.' " He folded.

"I just tried to be as loud as I could be," Zorn continues. "And I've got a pretty big voice. But with some of these crowds, the linemen just couldn't hear."

Clearly, the crowds were not going to back down. When Mudd left Seattle to help coach the Browns in 1983, he noticed that Cleveland Municipal Stadium had a large decibel meter on its scoreboard, which only encouraged the crowd to yell louder. By '89 the noise problem was so out of hand—quarterbacks kept getting injured, and offenses had had enough—that the league at last stepped in. NFL Rule 4, Section 3, Article 7, Paragraph 13 ("Obvious inability of the offense to hear team signals due to crowd noise") was amended, installing a nine-step procedure so complex that it would have done U.N. arms negotiators proud. The new instructions said, in essence, that the ref could stop the game if the stadium was too loud, and after a series of warnings he could penalize the home team one of its timeouts. When all the timeouts were gone, he could assess five-yard penalties until the crowd backed off.

And it worked—except it didn't. Bengals coach Sam Wyche thought the rule was absurd, and he had his quarterback, Boomer Esiason, put it to the test in an exhibition game that year in the New Orleans Superdome. The crowd noise wasn't even that bad, but at Wyche's direction, Esiason complained, the ref stopped play, and when the warning went out over the public address system, according to Sports Illustrated pro football guru Paul Zimmerman, "the decibel level [went] up by about 200 percent." So the ref threw the flag and subtracted a Saints timeout. The crowd roared all the louder. When New Orleans's timeouts were gone, the ref assessed a five-yard penalty, and finally the disgruntled crowd obeyed. Play resumed.

It proved to be a Pyrrhic victory. Football fans around the country erupted in protest. "Next day everyone who ever wrote a high school editorial was at his typewriter," Zimmerman wrote, "firing away about the high-handed NFL dictating to the fans who spent their hard-earned money on a ticket about when they could or could not make noise. There were cries of fascism from the left wing press." The league backed down.

"The rule was too complicated," says Joel Bussert, the NFL's vice president of player personnel and football operations. But that wasn't really it. The rule was universally unpopular. "We saw in that exhibition game that the crowd didn't care if the Saints kept their timeouts or not," says Bussert. "They lost all three timeouts! It was good sport. Everyone was having a good time. So the rule just disappeared by acclamation at the league meeting." Didn't work.

So linemen continued to flounder, and defensive ends continued to chalk up Hall of Fame sack totals. Various teams began experimenting with a silent count in the shotgun formation, but it was very limiting. Quarterbacks didn't like using it; they couldn't change the play once the team broke its huddle, and there was confusion when they signaled for receivers or running backs to go into motion. Mudd, who left Cleveland to coach in Kansas City and then went back for a second stretch with Seattle before joining the Colts in 1998, was convinced that the silent count could work. He was haunted by a conversation he'd had with a fellow Seattle coach, the late Andy MacDonald, who said he had spent some time early in his career coaching at a school for the deaf in Michigan.

"Wait," Mudd said, "they had a football team?"

Assured that they did, Mudd asked, "How do they coordinate the offensive line for the snap?" If a deaf team could launch a play in silence, why couldn't an NFL team?

After years of trial and error, of ill-conceived high-tech solutions and rules changes, here was the elegant answer: timing. Instead of having the quarterback call out the count, he handed the responsibility to the center. He simply tapped the center on the butt when he was ready to receive the ball. The center then lifted his head to look squarely at the defensive player in front of him, signaling to the line that the silent snap count had started. He and the linemen would then count to themselves, "One-one-thousand," and the center would snap the ball.

It was so simple, it was beautiful. As soon as the center lifted his head, the other linemen could turn their heads toward the defenders, count one-one-thousand and go. To mix things up, the rhythm of the silent count was varied. In the huddle, the center was instructed to snap either one count after the signal or two. Football being the ultimate macho sport, the code became c--k for one and balls for two.

Mudd had been around the NFL long enough to know that a new idea, even a great one, would be a hard sell. Football is a conservative sport. "It was like suggesting a different route home to someone who has been commuting the same way for years," Mudd says. "They'll say, 'I don't want to go that way.' "

At first Mudd's teams practiced the silent snap count reluctantly and used it sparingly, so the timing of the offensive linemen was off as much as it was on. But by the time Mudd started working with Colts linemen in 1998, charged with protecting Manning, the league's No. 1 draft pick, he believed the silent count was more than just expedient. It was actually a better way to snap the ball.

What convinced him was left tackle Tarik Glenn.

A COACH WITH a great idea is nothing without a great player. Glenn was the genius Mudd had been waiting for. "He was the best," Mudd says. "The best ever."

A first-round draft pick in 1997, Glenn spent his first year discovering that blocking NFL defensive ends was hard under ordinary circumstances, but when he couldn't hear, it was nearly impossible. Manning arrived the following year and was understandably frustrated when defensive ends kept hitting him like freight trains from his blind side. Mudd remembers hearing the quarterback chew out Glenn on the sideline during one game and stepping up to defend his tackle. "Tarik can't hear you," Mudd told Manning.

"Well, he should be able to hear," Manning complained. "It's not that loud."

"That's bull----," Mudd said.

"Well, [tackle Adam] Meadows can hear!"

"You are not in charge of deciding what Tarik can hear and what he can't hear!" Mudd told him.

Mudd prevailed on his skeptical coach, Jim Mora, to let him drill the players on the silent count at every practice. If deaf kids could do it, Mudd told the players, pros could too. And he was right. In time Manning became a fervent convert.

"I was wrong, and Howard was right," Manning says. "It was my responsibility to make sure all the linemen could hear me, and it was especially difficult for us because we were using a no-huddle offense most of the time. The silent count solved a lot of problems for us."

The Colts got good at it. Glenn got very good at it. He learned to coordinate the count with the swivel of his head. It was like a dance move. "It made a huge difference," he says. "It gave me time to face the task at hand. It's all about timing, and pretty quick I could just feel it." In fact Glenn started getting off the snap so fast that refs flagged him, claiming he had jumped too early. Mudd defended him. "He would send a man to the league office and have them review it," says Glenn. "After a while they started to see that I wasn't offside. Coach Howard didn't just come up with the silent count, he sold it, to the team and then to the league."

Soon Manning and Saturday were using the silent count for every snap on the road, and they even used it in their own domed stadium when things got too loud. Manning by then was famous for gesticulating and shouting instructions from the backfield before the snap of the ball. With the silent count he didn't have to worry about inadvertently triggering—√† la Baab—the snap. Once he had things set the way he wanted, he would tap or signal Saturday, and the silent count would take over. "He could also do more to manipulate the defense with his leg, given that they had to anticipate the snap so much more intensely," the retired center recalls.

Manning noticed another advantage. "Our timing got so good with it," he says, "we were getting fewer offensive penalties on the road than at home." The silent count was not just a remedy for the noise problem; it was also a secret weapon. During Mudd's 12 years in Indianapolis, his offensive line allowed fewer sacks than any other in the NFL, even though Manning's offense relied on passing. The Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007.

IN THE highly competitive world of the NFL, anything that works is quickly adopted leaguewide. As Mudd recalls, the first team to pick up the silent snap count after Indianapolis was New England. Then Pittsburgh. Coaches would call Mudd to ask about the count. That put him in a tough spot, because the Colts had come to regard it as a prized secret.

George Sefcik, the Falcons' offensive coordinator, called after Indianapolis gave his team trouble in the Georgia Dome in 1998. "Are you guys using a silent count?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Mudd.

"Well, how do you do that?"

Mudd was torn between his loyalty to the Colts and the kinship he felt with other longtime pro coaches—and he was damn proud of what he had done. "O.K., there's a rhythm that the center has after the quarterback taps him on the ass," he told Sefcik. "You guys will have to figure out the rest. I don't feel comfortable telling you every little part of it."

The Falcons figured out enough to use the count against the Vikings in the cacophonous Metrodome in the 1999 NFC title game. "My gosh," Sefcik told Mudd afterward, "that is the most incredible thing."

Some found it hard to believe how often the Colts used the snap. Mudd got a phone call one day from Juan Castillo, who was then coaching the offensive line in Philadelphia. "I know you do the silent count on every snap, right?" he said. Mudd confirmed it.

"Well, Brad Childress [the Eagles' offensive coordinator, Castillo's boss] doesn't believe you do it every snap."

"You have that son of a bitch call me," said Mudd, "and I'll tell him."

Today every team in the NFL uses the silent snap count. Many centers signal its start by turning their heads to the side once or twice, but the basics are still the ones Mudd put in place in 1998 with the Colts.

MOMENTS OF true vindication in a man's life are rare, but Mudd's came at a 2006 meeting of the NFL Competition Committee. He had been asked to attend as a consultant on a proposed rule change having nothing to do with the silent snap count, but during the session then Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, whose entire career as an NFL defensive coach (1985--94) had been square in the sack-happy era, launched into a sustained objection to the growing use of the silent count. Fisher complained that the count was giving offensive linemen—here it came—an unfair advantage! When the center lifted or turned his head to signal that the silent count had begun, Fisher argued, he violated the rule against linemen moving before the snap of the ball.

"The rule says that the center has to come to a complete stop for a full second before the ball is snapped," said Fisher. He went on about it for some time, making the same point: It wasn't fair!

Eventually Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, an old offensive coordinator, started chuckling. "Jeff, when are you supposed to go on defense anyway?" he asked.

"Well, they are drawing us offside, and they are not supposed to," argued Fisher.

"Jeff, when are you supposed to go on defense?" Holmgren repeated.

"They are not coming to a full stop!"

"Jeff, when are you supposed to go?"

Finally Fisher conceded, "When the ball goes."

Howard Mudd's revolution was complete.

Complaints like Fisher's didn't go away immediately. The next year the NFL circulated a memo instructing centers to stop moving their heads a full second before snapping the ball. Otherwise refs would flag them for illegal motion. It sounded like a small thing, but the Colts had perfected the rhythm of the silent count and did not want to mess with it. So they ignored the memo. Refs found the new rule too difficult to enforce, and it went the way of flags for excessive crowd noise.

It disappeared by acclamation.

In 1985, the sound level in stadiums routinely topped 100 decibels. Offensive linemen could no longer hear the quarterback calling for the snap of the ball.
"There's a rhythm that the center has after the quarterback taps him on the ass. You guys figure out the rest."

The MMQB

Every Friday we go long at TheMMQB.com. This week, Kyle Shanahan shares the secrets of the Redskins' read-option with Peter King.

PHOTOPhotograph by ROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDTAP DANCE From early in his pro career, Manning has been the foremost practitioner of the silent snap count, carrying his wisdom to Denver from his pioneering Indy days.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR./SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KOSAR)LOUD AND PROUD Even in the open air of CenturyLink Field, Seattle fans (right) can wreak the kind of vocal havoc that undid Kosar (19) in Miami in '86.PHOTOKIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM[See caption above]PHOTOBILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDJUST DIN, BABY With the guidance of Mudd (near left)in Indianapolis, Manning (18)was in perfect sync with Saturday (63) and especially Glenn (78), whose career (quietly) took off.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]PHOTOROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDMUDD AND GUTS The father of the silent snap count, now 71, was a steamrolling three-time All-Pro giant for the Niners in the '60s.