The best spies in the NFL these days arent behind enemy lines but on the quarterbacks own side of the ball.
Every game, two of his interior offensive linemen are miked up for network TV, bringing the sounds of the game to millions of viewers and future opponents who hear the signal-callers cadence, codes and cues, all of which are enshrouded in an increasing amount of gibberish.
Just about every quarterback is doing his best Peyton Manning imitation at the line of scrimmage these days because of increasingly complex offenses and the leagues seemingly innocuous decision to move the umpire for safety reasons in 2010.
Switching the umpire from the defensive backfield to the offensive backfield in 2010 posed a problem for the NFL: these officials wore microphones and essentially served as the networks on-field boom operators. That was no longer possible with the umpire stationed deep behind the quarterback instead of in front of him, so last season the league put microphones on centers and guards.
Now, everybody can listen in on everything thats being said before the snap.
Defensive guys appreciate that, Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. You get all the quarterbacks cadence. Quarterbacks and centers dont like it. Offensive coordinators dont like it. By miking the center and the guards, were hearing the quarterback every snap. So, its entertaining for the fans, but its also informative for the defenses.
Still, before pass-happy offenses and miked-up O-linemen, it used to be a lot easier for defenders to figure out what the quarterback was up to.
Yeah, because youd have guys from another team that would come to your team and tell you stuff, and most of it stayed true, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. But you cant do that anymore because every week people are changing the terms. Youve got to be a sharp guy to play in the league these days.
Tune into any game, and youll see gesticulating QBs using frenetic hand signals and hollering a string of phrases, much of it outright hogwash dummy calls designed to trick defenses and hide the offenses intentions. Teams change their code words week to week, even series to series.
While fans all are tuned in to this quarterback gobbledygook, many defenders are tuning it out, focusing on other signs like player movements and alignments to help them decipher play calls.
Im not really listening, Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. Im just focusing on what I have to do and get off on the ball.
Sometimes, you cant help but start to wonder, Ngatas teammate Corey Graham said.
When youve got guys like Peyton Manning, whos so smart, you kind of know that he might be talking garbage so you dont want to pay too much attention to that. But to be honest, it does catch your attention as a DB, said Graham, a cornerback. When you see a quarterback out there saying a bunch of gibberish and pointing at your receiver, youre like, Aw shoot, what the heck is going on? I think Im going to back up a little bit. It does tend to make you think that theyre up to something.
The quarterback has been doing more talking anyway with so many teams spreading out their receivers and using the hurry-up or no-huddle offense on just about every snap.
Linebacker Chad Greenway said that when the Vikings faced Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan last season, I dont know if he had any calls in the huddle. It seemed like everything was called at the line of scrimmage.
While coaching staffs study the TV broadcasts to pick up clues about a quarterbacks calls and cadence, players find it harder to cut through the fluff and filler.
Im telling you, its tough. You cant look into it, Bailey said. Its good for people at home to see what the quarterbacks say, but anymore its hard to decode that.
When its all said and done, they can only do two things: run or pass, Broncos second-year safety Rahim Moore said. They can talk as much as they want, but at the same time as a secondary, as a defense were talking, too. So, when you get caught up in what theyre talking about, and vice versa, youre forgetting about your execution.
Players coming out of college nowadays are accustomed to these copious amounts of chatter at the line of scrimmage where the multitalented quarterbacks have several variations of plays to choose from depending on what they read in the defense.
Oh, thats all weve seen, said second-year cornerback Chris Harris, who starts opposite Bailey. Going against the spread in the NFL, the Big 12, thats all you get, really. Its always been check-with-me. So, you always try to disguise coverages so that the offenses cant get a jump on you.
Somewhere in all this trickery are bona fide checks and calls by quarterbacks trying to get defenses to give away their intentions while trying to camouflage their own. And sometimes the jokes on them.
I think youre seeing more defenses kind of playing the game back, Broncos safety Jim Leonhard said. Youve got to play the game back. You cant just sit back there and line up and let them make their checks and be at the mercy of what theyre doing.
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Dennis Waszak Jr., Schuyler Dixon, Teresa M. Walker, Josh Dubow, Andrew Seligman, Tim Booth, Howard Ulman, David Ginsburg, Will Graves and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.