Hut! Hut! Hike!: Signals, Cadence, and More
— The Hut! Hut! Hike! series examines the origins of football terminology and how the game's evolution drove changes in its vocabulary. The full article (#12 in the series) is available to paid subscribers only. —
The transition from the scrummage to the scrimmage in 1880 allowed the development of structured offensive plays, but that change did not occur overnight. Initially, the scrimmage was merely a controlled method of initiating action in a rugby-style game. Over several years, however, offenses recognized that coordinated effort was more effective than winging it. For example, teams covered punts more effectively on early downs when each member of the punting team knew their team was punting. Likewise, offensive linemen blocked better when they knew the ball would be run to the right or left.
This recognition led teams to develop structured plays called at the line of scrimmage via coded signals, which is the quarterback’s cadence today. Initially, team captains or quarterbacks used hand signals, such as placing their right hand on their hip or pulling up the left sock, but most used voice commands consisting of short phrases or sentences. "Play up sharp, Charlie," "Play up, Charlie," or "Charlie" might indicate the next play was a punt, while other word combinations designated running plays. By the 1890s, teams named their plays using two-digit numbers, and while these were easier to communicate than short phrases, they required players to memorize their responsibility for each play. This system limited the effective playbook size, but in football’s one-platoon days, playbooks were limited by the available practice time. Still, Stagg and Williams’ 1893 book, American Football, includes sixty-nine plays named only by numbers, so players on their teams had a lot to memorize.
The need for teams to memorize plays led to a portion of practice devoted to running plays against air. That is, the team lined up in formation, the quarterback called the signals, and the team executed the play without competition. A regular part of early football practices and pre-game warmups, this process was known as signal drills.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Football Archaeology to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.