As NFL players and fans alike prepare for what might be a different looking season to come, one question that has not gotten a lot of attention is this: What might it be like playing quarterback in relative silence?
Now, I understand why our fearless editor assigned me this story. After all, who better to ask about playing quarterback absent crowd noise than someone who played Division 3 football? You haven’t experienced a silent crowd until you’ve lined up under center on a rainy day in Brunswick, Maine as the Bowdoin College Polar Bears host the Wesleyan Cardinals. I think the only people who made it to Whittier Field that day got lost on their late-morning stumble back to their dorm after breakfast. Or, well, wherever they ended up the night prior ...
But this is something to consider. We have spent the bulk of the offseason wondering how young quarterbacks - Daniel Jones in particular - might adjust to playing in 2020 without the benefit of minicamps and OTAs. Especially in Jones’ case, how quickly can he get up to speed in a new offense without those extra days of practice?
Yet, when the games begin, many will take place in stadiums with reduced capacity, or even stadiums that are virtually empty. How could that play a role in what we see from quarterbacks like Jones in 2020?
To start, a reminder of what actual crowd noise does to a quarterback. We can turn to the words of two who lived that, former Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Ken Anderson and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. First, the Bengal. In his book “The Art of Quarterbacking” Anderson devoted a ton of space to dealing with noise, including how to use his voice and the need to make sure the referee helps you out at the line of scrimmage if you truly cannot hear. This passage gets into the impact noise can have on an offense at the line, especially on the road:
One touchy area is when fans begin to make an excess amount of noise as the quarterback prepares to call his signals at the line of scrimmage. As I noted early in the book, when this happens I simply keep my hands under the center and tell the umpire, who is directly in front of me and behind the defensive line, that I cannot hear and ask him to stop the clock. Again, I will not lift up until I see him make the time-out signal.
Away crowds really don’t like this, and they often raise the decibel level when the quarterback tries again to have the ball snapped. But it is a situation that must be endured because the offensive linemen and backs must be able to hear the signals. If it continues, often the opposition players will raise their hands and ask their fans to be quiet, and that often does the trick. But a quarterback should not try to be a nice guy and go ahead under those noisy conditions just to get the crowd off his back.
In “Art and Magic of Quarterbacking” Montana dove into crowd noise as well:
In addition to bad weather...another element you may have to cope with is someone else’s home field. It was very tough to play in places like Soldier Field, RFK, and the Meadowlands. Bill Walsh used to get us in the right frame of mind. He’d say: “They gotta live here. We just have to be here for three hours and then we can go home.”
You can hear the crowd when you’re warming up on the football field. If you’re on the road, some of the things you hear make you wish you were warming up somewhere else. After a certain amount of time, the stadium noise will fade out. You’ll hear certain things when you’re not in deep concentration, but in most cases, you won’t hear the crowd. People are yelling at you from behind the bench, but half the time, you don’t hear them. Then there are places like New York, where players on the sidelines are always making bets on who will get called the worst name.
So emotionally, and in terms of simply being able to hear at the line, crowd noise is a factor to contend with. So much so that last season the Giants, like every other team, practiced how to handle that element. Last season the Giants faced a trip to Ford Field to take on the Detroit Lions, and that indoor stadium can see the decibel levels rise. To prepare, the Giants implemented a few things during practice including simulated noise:
To help Jones prepare for that and still be able to play at a quicker tempo, [offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike] Shula said that, in addition to pumping in crowd noise during practice, they have been working on some other tactics to help Jones stay in a rhythm, such as hand signals from quarterback to the receivers.
“We talk about even little things as far as after the play is over, getting back to the huddle quicker, staying close to the huddle, so you’re there when the play is getting sent in,” Shula added.
“You can echo it. We also have things where if all of a sudden you can’t hear, as a safety valve, he has plays in his mind that he can go to.”
Without these concerns, what are opportunities now available to offenses? Additionally, are there new concerns raised by playing without crowd noise, and in relative silence?
Anderson identified one new concern that NFL quarterbacks might have to deal with, something old, washed-up Division 3 quarterbacks actually might have more experience in handling: Voices carry.
For example, I may call, “This is from up on two,” repeating it twice, and then say, “Split right, 90 double quick out from up on two.”
That is quite a mouthful but everyone has to hear every word and understand exactly what I have just said. It is not uncommon for numbers or words to run together, and that is why players often botch up their assignments. At the same time, the quarterback must speak loudly enough to be heard only in his own huddle. The defense is standing just ten yards away, and there are always a couple of sharpies who try to pick up the snap count or some of the terminology that will tip them as to whether the play will be a run or a pass.
Outdoors, crowd noise can help keep you from being overheard by the defense, but oddly enough, we have found that in an indoor stadium, such as the Astrodome, if there are not many people or if the crowd is unusually quiet, a quarterback’s voice can carry farther than he thinks.
So that is one potential pitfall facing quarterbacks: Handling the huddle. As Anderson described, sometimes if the crowd is quiet or the stadium is empty, the QB’s play call in the huddle can carry, even across the line of scrimmage to where those “sharpies” are listening for anything that might give them an advantage.
At the line of scrimmage, operating in silence is going to be a benefit for the offense. Any time you have attended an NFL game, you know what the stadium does when the home team has the football. Prodded on by the scoreboard, the crowd sits in relative silence, thanks to the “quiet please, offense at work” command on the Jumbotron.
But now, that will likely be the case for even the visiting team. What will this quiet do for the offenses, and the quarterback? I asked Tony Racioppi, the smartest person I know when it comes to the QB position. Here’s what he had to say:
“I think it will only benefit QBs, especially the veteran ones. Ability to use snap counts to keep [the defensive line] off balance and manipulate secondary. Communication is huge and will be a lot easier to check in and out of plays vs looks using both words and hand signals. I think third down and Red Zone will be easier to execute on road because that’s when crowds are loudest. Offense is about communication, rhythm, timing, execution. All things that should improve without crowds.”
That should make life easier on quarterbacks, including Jones.
So to sum up, quarterbacks in the COVID-19 era might need to be quieter in the huddle, for fear of the defense figuring out what they are doing. But at the line of scrimmage, life should be much easier, without noise to contend with. Both Anderson and Montana, two of the best to play the position, outlined the pitfalls that crowd noise can provide. Without that, as outlined by Racioppi, the things that matter most to an offense: Communication, rhythm, timing and execution, should all improve.