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Terminology... Signals, Cadence, and More
This is article #12 in a series covering the origins of football’s terminology. All are available under the Terminology tab above. My book, Hut! Hut! Hike! describes the emergence of more than 400 football terms.
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.
Some still refer to running plays without opposition as signal drills, though going against air emerged in the mid-1980s and appears to be the most popular expression today.
Returning to the signals themselves, the military’s use of "Atten-hut" led to hut entering cadences in post-WWII offenses, such as, "Set, ready, hike, hut one, hut two, hut three." The post-WWII rise of professional football and two-platoon football brought greater specialization and complexity, including offenses that used multiple formations, motions, protections, routes, and more. For example, by 1954, the Washington Redskins had more than 450 plays and combinations, so their players could no longer memorize their assignments on plays named only by a number. That led to play names becoming strings of information that included assignments. So, the quarterback might call the play in the huddle, saying: "Left 2, 37 F U Z O, on 3." Left 2 indicated a formation with the left halfback flanking left, 37 meant the fullback would run through the 7 hole, F U Z O provided blocking assignments, and 3 was the snap count. (Since college football returned to single-platoon football in 1952, most major college offenses remained simple enough to continue naming plays using numbers only.)
However, all good things end, and with offenses no longer aligning in the same formation play after play, neither did defenses. They became less predictable, switching formations and assignments situationally. The result was that the play called in the offensive huddle did not always match up well with the defense, so offenses needed methods to adjust the play. That led to football returning to executing plays based on the quarterback's audible signals at the line of scrimmage.
John Heisman’s teams typically snapped the ball on “Hike,” but sometimes snapped it on the second hike to draw the defense offside. That tactic was declared illegal because it was viewed as deceptive and unsportsmanlike. Still, attitudes evolved, and such tactics came to be viewed as gamesmanship, leading to the rules being eased. Currently, quarterbacks attempt to draw defenders offside by emphasizing certain parts of the cadence. This practice has been called the hard count since the early 1980s.
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