OMAHA! Peyton Manning, John Heisman, and the origin of Pre-Snap Verbiage

Football is a unique game, which is why we love it. One of the biggest differences between football and other sports is that there’s only one game a week. As a result, reporters, journalists, and whatever the hell Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith are calling themselves these days all need things to talk about, write about, and discuss.

Pictured: "Journalism"

Pictured: “Journalism”

Believe it or not, sometimes there are actually a few interesting stories that come out of all that journalistic digging. One of the side stories that has taken social media by storm is Peyton Manning’s use of the word Omaha while making his checks and audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Companies are hopping on the bandwagon, offering travel deals to the city of Omaha, Nebraska. There is even a collection of Omaha businesses who have pledged $500 to Peyton Manning’s foundation for every time he uses the word in today’s game.

What does Omaha mean? Is it a run play, pass play, or a play action pass? Ask Peyton himself, he’ll tell you:

 

If you want an actual explanation for what Omaha means, the guys over at NFL Network did a great job, especially Marshall Faulk and Charles Woodson, explaining the meaning and how Peyton Manning uses it. Anyone who watches Peyton’s brother Eli on a regular basis can tell you that Omaha is a big part of the Giants terminology as well, and is used much the same way.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Denver Broncos

So what is Omaha? Let’s start with what it’s not. Omaha is not a play call. As Marshall Faulk says in the video, there’s no way Peyton can use one word to mean different plays, it would be way too confusing. As a football player in the heat of battle, the fewer things you have to think about, the better.

Instead, Omaha is a way to change the snap count, as Faulk correctly put it. Chris Collinsworth said the same thing during a Sunday Night Football broadcast of a Giants game, where Eli could be heard using Omaha several times. Once Peyton says Omaha, center knows the snap count has been changed to one, which is useful when the play clock is winding down and Peyton needs to get the play off.

Tom Brady

It’s worth noting that for all the attention that Omaha got these past couple of weeks, Tom Brady also used a word at the line to call out the snap count against the Colts. Each time after switching the play to a run, either a counter play or an inside zone concept, Brady could be heard yelling “Alpha! Alpha!” which in Patriots verbiage serves basically the same purpose as Omaha.

You’d think with the way the media is covering this, that Peyton Manning invented the idea a few weeks ago. In fact, the principles behind Omaha, Alpha, and any other pre-snap verbiage can be traced all the way back to the last decade of the 19th century.

Omaha Is Not New

John Heisman’s name is synonymous with college football (There’s a reason they named the trophy after him). Along with coaches like Knute Rockne and Walter Camp, Heisman was one of the founding fathers of the game. This is because he was not only one of the first coaches of the sport, but because he was instrumental in helping to shape the game into an early form of the kind of football we know today. Just as men like Paul Brown and Sid Gillman were a large part of bringing the game into the modern era, Rockne, Camp, and Heisman played a large part in football’s first great evolutionary leap forward. heisman Heisman was responsible for many innovations, including the creation of special verbiage to alert the center to start the play. As with every great innovation, it began with a problem. Originally, the center would put the ball into play by rolling it on the ground back to the men in the backfield. A football game in the late 1800’s resembled more of a rugby match than a complicated strategic showdown between a QB and a defense. To signal the start of the play, the QB would usually tap the leg of the center, basically a hard count today. Unfortunately, one of Heisman’s teams had a center who was tricked by an opposing player scratching his leg before the snap, so he knew he needed to come up with a new way of doing things.

Ben Zimmer explains:

Heisman’s solution was to have the quarterback use the word hike to put the ball into motion so that everyone was clear when the play started. Hike was a good choice, since it can mean “to pull or raise with a sudden motion,” and that’s what the center does with the ball.”

Zimmer was interviewed in a fine segment for NFL Films a few years back (that I can’t find anywhere online),  and explained why football teams use words like hut and hike when communicating. These are words that had a very specific, non-football related use in the English language before Heisman came along with a solution to a problem and kept the word hike in usage for decades to come:

The short answer, which I gave in the interview, is that the hut of the quarterback’s cadence (“hut 1, hut 2, hut 3…”) almost certainly comes from military cadences for marching, where hutis used to accent a syllable. The military-style hut has been in use since at least World War II, when drill sergeants also began yelling “Atten-hut!” as a call to attention. By the 1950s, quarterbacks had borrowed this technique to develop their own cadences for calling the snap count. Hut is a short, sharp syllable that can be heard clearly over a distance, so it serves the quarterback just as well as a drill sergeant leading a march.”

So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know, and probably a little bit more than you wanted to know, about the history of Omaha.

With all the hype surrounding his use of the word Omaha, don’t be surprised if the Broncos change it up and do what they did last week to the Chargers, using a “fake Omaha” to draw the defense offsides several times. I can guarantee you that the Broncos and Peyton Manning especially love it when opponents try to decipher his calls at the line. Every moment they spend trying to figure out Omaha or Eagle or whatever word Peyton is using, is one less moment they’re focused on stopping Knowshon Moreno from picking up yardage, or Eric Decker from getting behind the secondary for another score.

Enjoy the games everyone.


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