The nature of his innovation has to do with the speed with which he is able to communicate signals to his players from the sidelines — and their ability to quickly line up and run play after play at a pace that ultimately debilitates the opposition.
Kelly’s teams have found a new way to intimidate, one that does not involve high-speed collisions and head injuries. “Some people call it a no-huddle offense, but I call it a no-breathing offense,” Mark Asper, an Oregon offensive lineman, told me. “It’s still football. We hit people. But after a while, the guys on the other side of the line are so gassed that you don’t have to hit them very hard to make them fall over.”
Let’s go! Pace! Tempo!” Kelly shouted as he walked amid his 120 players at the beginning of an Oregon practice. “It’s a beautiful Monday morning!” he added, which was not technically true. Sheets of cold rain were falling on Oregon’s leafy campus, a typical fall day in this part of the country. But Kelly’s players — the Ducks, as the university’s athletic teams have been called since the 1920s — were practicing indoors, in a facility that looks like a massive airplane hangar carpeted with artificial turf. The team usually practices inside even on sunny days, which allows Kelly more control of the environment.
The first thing you notice at an Oregon practice is the music, which blasts from two giant speakers affixed to the ceiling. As his players stretched, Kelly walked in step to the thumping rhythm of a cut from the rapper Wiz Khalifa, something called “Black and Yellow,” with lyrics that seemed to consist almost entirely of the words in its title. On most days, the soundtrack at Oregon practices is a mix of hip-hop, heavy metal and hard-driving rock, some of it selected for its topicality. No one takes credit for programming the tunes, but the master D.J. is widely suspected to be Kelly himself. One day when I was with him, a local reporter mentioned that Adam Duritz, frontman for the Counting Crows, is a big fan of University of California, Berkeley (which, as it turned out, was Oregon’s next opponent), and was frequently on the sidelines during games. “I didn’t know that,” Kelly said. He pulled a notebook from his back pocket and made a note. Sure enough, the next day’s practice included a Counting Crows set.
Oregon practices in the morning before its players attend class, and the sessions are brief — usually an hour and 50 minutes, and sometimes less. The music blares from start to finish, and you see players during their short rest periods busting out dance moves. One day when I was at practice, Kelly was the keeper of the air horn, which he sounded to move his team from one drill to the next. Through much of the practice, he switched the horn from hand to hand, in time with the music. It is common for pro and college teams to occasionally pipe in crowd noise or loud “white” noise before road games to simulate the distraction of hostile crowds. “To me, that stuff is like fingernails on a chalkboard,” Kelly told me. “I like the music because it puts some energy and rhythm in our practice.”
Oregon does no discrete conditioning during practice, no “gassers” — the sideline-to-sideline sprints that are staples in many programs — and no “110s” — sprints from the goal line to the back of the opposite end zone. The practice itself serves as conditioning. Just as they do during games, Oregon’s players run play after play — offensive sets; punt and kickoff returns and coverages; field goals; late-game two-minute drills — but at a pace that exceeds what they can achieve on Saturdays. Nick Aliotti, Oregon’s defensive coordinator, explained that the team can go even faster in practice because the “referees” — student managers sprinting around in striped shirts — spot the ball faster than any real game official would.
Trying to reach (or exceed) competition speed in training is a common goal across a range of sports. I once asked Bob Bowman, the longtime coach of Michael Phelps, why Phelps did not swim the languorous distance sets that were part of some other competitors’ regimens. “We don’t want him to swim slow in meets,” he said, “so why would we have him practice swimming slow?” John Wooden, the legendary U.C.L.A. basketball coach, was known for fast-paced practices that reduced the need for aerobic training.
But in more traditional settings, what slows things down is the impulse of coaches to stop the action and be heard. To instruct and correct. Coaches*, after all, get into the business because they love a sport and want to see it played right. They have limited control during a game. Practice is when they can stop time and choreograph perfection.
Imagine the following, which you would see at a typical football practice across nearly any level: An offensive-line coach wades in after a play, puts his hands on the shoulder pads of his big left tackle and tries to correct the angle on his block or some subtle aspect of his footwork. Another play is run, and the coach says, “Better,” but he wades back in to make another small adjustment. That’s how a crisp two-hour practice becomes a three-hour ordeal.
It doesn’t happen at Oregon. Coaches sometimes pull players from the field for quick talks, but first they send in substitutes, and the plays keep on rolling. They look back at the films from each practice — identify mistakes — and then point them out in early-evening players’ meetings, which are also short.
This style has been easier for Kelly’s players to adjust to than for his coaches, most of whom have spent many more years than he has at the major college level. Aliotti, the defensive coordinator, is 56 and in his third stint on the Oregon staff. He has also coached in the N.F.L. “It’s insanity for a coach,” he said when we talked one morning after practice. “You’ve got the music blasting, you look around and your kids are dancing and you don’t want to stop the fun. But when you’re an old-school guy like me, it takes patience and change, because you want to make yourself heard. I want to correct a guy, but we’re already on to the next play. Don’t get me wrong. This has been good for us as a team. But I have to be real with you. It’s still hard for me.”
College-football offenses have become more wide open in recent years, but the highest-scoring attacks tend to rely mainly on the forward pass. They are aerial circuses, like Texas Tech under former Coach Mike Leach, whose celebrated spread offense from 2000 to 2009 was so pass-first that his quarterback, in 2003, averaged about 60 pass attempts and 486 passing yards per game. By contrast, Oregon was leading the nation in scoring through 10 games this season with an attack almost evenly split between passing and rushing attempts. The run plays — because receivers are not spread all over the field at the end of a play — allow the Ducks to scramble back to the line of scrimmage and quickly snap the ball again. And Oregon sequences its plays and formations in such a way that it can push the tempo even after pass attempts. The running-backs coach, Gary Campbell, told me that if a receiver on the right side of a formation is sent on a crossing pattern to the other side of the field, Oregon coaches have already planned a formation for the next play that keeps him on the side of the field where he finished.
Kelly has long been attracted to fast-paced play, but his offense goes even faster now than it did at New Hampshire largely because he is fully in charge. (McDonnell, the head coach at U.N.H., sometimes feared that his own defense would become fatigued if Kelly’s offense ran plays quickly but didn’t get first downs.)
“When we play fast, it gets us in our rhythm and takes the other team out of its comfort zone,” Kelly told me. “Our goal is not to intimidate an opponent with our tempo, but it may be a byproduct of what we do.”
KELLY WOULD BE the last to argue that he is in the vanguard or that his methods are pointing toward the future of the game. But others are watching Oregon football closely for those very reasons.
“What Oregon’s doing will take the evolution of football to a whole different level,” Brian Baldinger, a former player for several pro teams and now an analyst with the N.F.L. Network, told me. “Nobody in the whole history of football can snap off plays as quickly as this team does. Other teams can’t condition for it. It’s a great equalizer. If you’ve got a 350-pound guy, I don’t care how good he is, you’ve got to get him off the field.
He can’t keep up. I think what everyone wants to know is, What’s the trick? How do they do it?”
As with many innovations, the trick is almost certainly less complicated than it appears. The first challenge of Kelly’s offense, Bellotti told me, was to put in a communications system. “When you go without a huddle, you have to do your signaling and nomenclature in a way that your team understands it and the other team doesn’t.”
When Oregon is on offense, coaches on the sideline give hand signals. The backup quarterback flips a series of cardboard signs, each of them with four pictures or words on them. Some of the pictures include a tiger, a jack-o’-lantern, a jet taking off and a shamrock. Several photos are of ESPN personalities.
Oregon never puts 11 geniuses on the field, and neither do any of the teams they play. The communications system can be only so complicated. Not all of the signals are “live,” and players know which ones to pay attention to. Many of the pictures, Bellotti said, are of things the players can relate to. “For example, say the ESPN guy is someone who comes on at 6 p.m.,” he explained. “Then maybe the play has something to do with the number 6.”
Coaches on the other sideline may be able to decode the signals. But the signs change weekly, and with Oregon running plays so quickly, they would have just seconds to communicate what’s coming to their players.
(And because Oregon’s spread offense contains numerous options on each call, depending on what the quarterback sees, stealing signals would only give the defense a hint.)
What Oregon’s innovative offense is really about is conditioning, repetitions in practice, precision and, most of all, agreement on the core mission — to go fast. Any team with a nimble, quick-thinking quarterback and an assortment of quick skill players could do it.
And Baldinger believes many will. “It’s going to be copied, from high schools up through major colleges and all the way up to the N.F.L.,” he said. “If they manage to win the national championship, you’re really going to see a lot of it.”