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Summer School: The simple marvels of the Erhardt-Perkins Offense

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All successful relationships are built on communication.

The differences between NFL offenses are greatly exaggerated. There is a lot of crossover in terms of what teams run what plays. No matter what system they run, they're likely using the same ideas. The main difference is how those ideas are communicated. Today, we take a look at an offense whose main philosophy is making that process as smooth as possible.

Origin

Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins were offensive assistants with the Chuck Fairbanks-led New England Patriots in the 1970s. Fairbanks was a defensive specialist, so he entrusted the offensive side of the ball to Erhardt and Perkins who developed a quarterback-friendly system of passing. Their focus was on a run-first offense and a simplified passing game helped them dedicate their attention where they felt it was needed. The Erhardt-Perkins offense was born.

It wasn't until Charlie Weis joined those same Patriots decades later that the modern iteration of the system came to be. Instead of using a simplified passing system to minimize the duties of the QB, Weis used it to massively enhance the multiple options and possibilities within a given play. This was the Lego of offensive systems. Its inherent simplicity could be exploited to build any machine imaginable.

Concepts

Efficient language

One of the biggest drawbacks in the West Coast and Air Coryell offenses are their elongated play calls. The call in the huddle could be "Jet Dart 368 Y-Flat Train on one." That's a standard Coryell play and the language is too descriptive and wordy for a fast-paced offense. Each part of the playcall refers to different players and it contains a lot of irrelevant information for many players on the field.

The Erhardt-Perkins offense is different to other offenses because it describes concepts rather than individual routes. Take the "368 Y-Flat" part of the Coryell playcall listed above for example. The Erhardt-Perkins play call for that would be two words and could read something like "Circus/Kings." "Circus" would refer to the route combinations on the left side of the field, and "Kings" would tell receivers on the right what to do. I wrote about basic route combinations before, and that should give you some idea of how this works. This offense uses a huge variety of combinations between two and three receivers to get the most of the space that they're working in. Additionally, it's important to note that their play call names don't refer to the common combination names and merely act as a signifier within the team. It's code. It's all code.

The benefit here comes when you want to audible on a play, or use a no-huddle offense. If you call out "368 Y-Flat" as an audible, you've just told the defense your exact play. "Circus Kings" isn't going to give them anything. Additionally, if you get to the line of scrimmage and see a defensive formation you don't like, you can change one half of your pass play at a time. If your "Kings" combination doesn't look like it'll succeed against the current coverage, but the "Circus" combination looks good, then the QB could say "Kings Kill Kill Kill Wendy Wendy. Circus Wendy." He keeps the pieces of the play that he thinks can work and gets a new route combination for the other side of the field.

Dynamic personnel

Another benefit of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that you can use the same personnel in multiple ways. You can split a running back out wide and the play call doesn't change. The tight end can motion into the slot and the play call doesn't change. Line up with three tight-ends and two running backs, split them all out wide, call out two words, and boom -€” new play. The Erhardt-Perkins offense gives teams a lot of flexibility to teams with dynamic personnel.

Nobody does this better than the Patriots. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady orchestrate a well-oiled machine to attack a defense in numerous ways with little on-field changes. They use TEs and RBs as receivers better than any team in the league, and it's this multiplicity that gives their offense such potency.

"Pass to score, run to win"

The original concepts of this offense looked like a ground-and-pound run-based playbook. The phrase "Pass to score, run to win" was often associated with the Erhardt-Perkins style. The simple terminology for receivers on the outside stemmed from their secondary importance to the overall offense. In later years, these ideas were taken and flipped when teams discovered that the simple terminology actually enhanced the passing game rather than putting it on the back burner. Of the offenses in the league, the Erhardt-Perkins is the one that looks the most different from its first inception. If you look at the late 1980s Giants teams that ran this scheme and the current Patriots, their attacking styles appear to be miles apart.

Example play

Above you can see a page from the 2005 Carolina Panthers playbook. It details just a few of the different route concepts for two receiver pairings and the code words for each set. The play call could ask for a "Delay/Hunt" combination, but the QB could audible away from the "Hunt" concept and choose "Illinois" instead. When you see it diagrammed out like this, it makes a lot more sense.

And here is a good example of a play that shows the different ways you can run the same play with multiple personnel groups. I took this from Chris B. Brown's excellent breakdown of the Patriots' offense on the ill-fated Grantland [see 'Further reading']. Let's look at the four ways of running "Ghost/Tosser" here.

  • Play 1 -€” 3WR / 1 TE / 1 RB -€” Ghost left, Tosser right
  • Play 2 -  4 WR / 1 RB -€” Ghost right, Tosser left
  • Play 3 -€” 2 WR / 1 TE / 2 RB -€” Ghost left, Tosser right
  • Play 4 -€” 2 WR / 1 TE / 2 RB -€” Ghost right, Tosser left

The QB only has to remember the shape of the route combinations to understand the play, regardless of personnel in the huddle. Add to this the ability to run the ball out of any of these plays, and the offense can easily run the same play multiple times in a series with minimal worry. The simplicity gives the offense a huge advantage in no-huddle situations, while also maintaining disguises when they want to substitute personnel. When run effectively, the Erhardt-Perkins scheme can be deadly.

Talking points:

The Giants adopt some of these principles for their no-huddle offense. Do you think they have been effective with these techniques?

What problems stop this offense from being installed league-wide?

Would you trust the Giants' personnel to run this style of offense on every play?

Further reading:

'Speak My Language' by Chris B. Brown - Grantland

'The Erhardt-Perkins System' by Mike Randall - Baltimore Sports and Life

'Examining NFL offensive philosophies' by Jason Pieri - Buffalo Rumblings (SBN)