“Time between plays will be 40 seconds from the end of a given play until the snap of the ball for the next play …” — NFL rule book
December 2, 2001 — Forty seconds. For most of us, it’s enough time to grab a beer, head to the bathroom, or take in yet another self-promotion of FOX’s primetime lineup. (Kiefer Sutherland hasn’t gotten this much screen time since he was engaged to Julia Roberts.)
Forty seconds. For NFL players, its barely enough time to catch your breath.
“It feels shorter than that,” Atlanta Falcons starting center Todd McClure said. “It feels a lot shorter. Because, by the time you get back to the huddle, you get everybody organized, everybody gets up off the ground, Chris (Chandler) calls the play and we’ve got to get right back up there.”
Still, those seconds are crucial. They are filled with psych jobs and strategizing — and they are almost as important as the action-packed seconds fans tend to focus on.
“I would say, for the most part, fans don’t realize what goes on,” Todd said.
This is what goes on.
After an offensive play is whistled dead, Falcons quarterbacks coach Jack Burns, from upstairs in the coaches’ box, decides what play to run next. Via headset, he relays the call to head coach Dan Reeves, who then relays it to quarterback Chandler, who has an earpiece in his helmet.
Chandler, then, passes the play on to his teammates. That’s the easy part. When the huddle breaks, the mental game begins.
As Todd approaches the line of scrimmage, his eyes take snapshots of the defense — every lineman, every linebacker, every defensive back.
“The center makes the majority of the blocking calls,” Todd explained. “A lot of the things that the other linemen do is based on the call that the center makes.”
And the call that Todd makes — be it “Triple!” or “C-Scoop!” or “Gap it!” — is based on what he sees.
“A lot of times you are looking for little subtleties that will tip you off to what they’re about to do,” Todd explained. “If you see one of the safeties walking up and another safety shifting over to the middle of the field, you know there could be a possible blitz.”
On the line, it’s like a high-stakes poker game with painful consequences. Opponents study one another closely. They’re looking for the other guy to unwittingly reveal a tell, some hint of what the he’s going to do once the ball is snapped.
“Some guys, if they’re going to slant inside, they’ll bend their knee a little bit a certain way or turn their foot a certain way,” Todd said. “Little things like that will help tip you off. A lot can be learned from studying film.”
And it works the other way, too.
“As much as possible, you’ve got to try to get into your stance the same way every time,” Todd said. “You can’t let anything look different that would tip them off.”
That football is such a cerebral exercise would likely surprise most folks. Even more startling, perhaps, would be the fact that linemen — long labeled the simpletons of sport — are the ones doing a good bit of the thinking.
And they have to do it all with guys like Warren Sapp jawing in their ear.
“There are some players that talk more trash than others,” Todd said, “but for the most part, it’s such a mental game that you don’t have a whole lot of time to do all of that. But, still, there are players that talk trash.”
Carolina defensive tackle and Columbus native Brentson Buckner comes to mind for Todd. When the teams played Sept. 23, Buckner let Todd have it.
“Sixty-two?” Buckner yelled, reading Todd’s uniform number incredulously. “Who are you? We ain’t never heard of you. You a little man. What you doin’ out here on the football field?”
Does 6-foot-1, 286-pound Todd — “little” by lineman standards — respond?
“Not a whole lot,” Todd said. “But if somebody is talking a whole lot of trash, and maybe I get a good block on him, then maybe I’ll say something to shut him up a little bit.”
Todd said it’s best that the television microphones don’t pick up most of these verbal sparring matches. Football might lose its PG rating.
“There would be a whole lot of beeping going on out there,” Todd said.
But Todd knows he gets paid to block, not to blab.
“You’ve got to concentrate on what you’re doing,” Todd said. “And if you let somebody else get in your head, then you’re not concentrating on your job. You can’t get in that kind of mind game with them.”
When the ball is snapped, however, the guessing game ends. Brawn takes over for brains. Then the whistle blows.
And the 40-second dash starts all over again.