Do you say hut or hike? When you were a kid and snapped the ball in the backyard were you one who said “down, set, hut” or did you say “down, set, hike”? I was a hut kid. I don’t know why. I can’t remember if I learned it first from the other children in the neighborhood or if my coach taught it to me when I started playing as a 5 year old.
If you don’t know what I am talking about, this is the snap count. At the beginning of most every play in football the quarterback will call out a series of loud and clear interjections ending with the center snapping the ball. These words can do as little as just tell the center to snap or it can communicate any number of items to the rest of the team. We, as fans, rarely talk about them, but they do so much, we should.
The snap count coordinates the offense. It gets all of the players on the same page and lets the all act together at the same time. One of the advantages for the offense is that they get to move first. The snap count allows that movement to be coordinated and exploits the advantage.
Some offensive snap counts can increase this inherent advantage by using a double word to start the play. The combination of two words in quick succession, like “hut-hike” can tell the offense to move on the first word and the center to snap on the second. Technically the entire offense will be offsides, but it should happen so fast it won’t be seen or called. It will add a fraction of a second to the offense’s advantage.
Another way of using the snap count to the offense’s advantage is to try to draw the defense offsides. This is commonly done in short yardage situations to get a free five yards without going to the trouble of actually advancing the football. It is more effective when it is not expected. Defenses are coached to expect to try to be drawn offsides on short yardage situations. They are less cautious during random points in the game.
A common technique to draw the defense offsides is the hard count. A hard count is just a snap count delivered with extra emphasis, volume and speed. It is an exaggerated cadence designed to provoke the defense to move. It is sometimes combined with a rush to the line (legal) and the quarterback simulating receiving the snap with his body (illegal). The rush to the line and the hurried, loud snap count create the impression that the snap is imminent. It takes discipline for both the offense and defense not to jump offsides.
Snap counts are used by quarterbacks to communicate changes to the play. Some changes are big, some small. A big change could be the entire play. This is called an audible. Some offenses use them extensively, others sparingly.
Small changes can be made to the play as well. If the quarterback sees a blitz coming he may change the protection scheme, meaning he will tell the offensive line to block a different way. The snap count can be used to change the side of the play. The offense will be running the same play, but to the right instead of the left.
Hot routes can be incorporated into the snap count. A hot route is a route that a particular receiver will run against a predetermined coverage. When that coverage, or defensive look, presents itself, the quarterback will change the receiver’s pattern. For example, if the defense has a slow corner who is bad in man coverage, the quarterback may throw him a fade whenever the opportunity exists. He would use the snap count to let the receiver know to change his route.
Snap counts vary from team to team and can be as simple or complicated as the players and coaches can handle. The simplest is something like “set, hut”. It’s hard to forget, but it doesn’t allow the offense to work as many checks and audibles in to it. In some of the more complicated NFL systems the snap count can have all kinds of words in it. Most, most!, of them are dummy words which mean nothing and are there to keep the offense off guard. Others signal that something important is about to come, others are code for plays, others are the plays themselves. It is as complicated as the offense wants it to be.
If you aren’t in offensive meetings during the week, it will be hard for you as a fan to decode a snap count. It’s hard for defense who prepare for the offense all week. Take for example Peyton Manning’s “Omaha” call, which could mean any number of things. It might have been the code word to let the offense know audibiling is over and they are about to snap the ball. It might have been a dummy word the next week or the next quarter. It could have been confirmation to go with the called play. It could be any number of things, and it could change each week.