Class in session: Sean Payton, Drew Brees teach NFL Lingo 101

Saints coach Sean Payton on giving quarterback Drew Brees lengthy playcalls: "He likes the information, studies it, likes spitting it out." Chuck Cook/USA Today Sports

Gun Flex Right Stack 394 Dragon Smoke Kill Turbo Sucker Right

It wasn't a particularly special play in New Orleans Saints lore -- or at least you wouldn't think so. Just a 6-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram in the first quarter of a 2016 win against Tampa Bay.

But NFL Films had Sean Payton and Drew Brees mic'd up for that game and captured them relaying that playcall through the headset and into the huddle. So I used it as an example when each of them agreed to sit down and dissect just what exactly they're talking about when they rattle off these cryptic, almost comically long sets of code words.

When I read it off to Brees to see if he could remember when the Saints might have used it, his instant recall was as mind-boggling as the terminology itself.

"I feel like we've called that play twice," said the 39-year-old quarterback, who is heading into his 13th season with Payton in New Orleans. "I recall we ran one of those plays against Tampa like two years ago and scored on it."

Wait. Can he do that with every play?

"I'd say I've got pretty good recall on most plays -- but especially ones like that one, which was a bit of a specialty play," said Brees, who explained that the Saints called two plays in the huddle in that instance, hoping they would get the right defensive look to "sucker" the Buccaneers into a misdirection run.

"But we could just sit there and go through a call sheet and just go play after play, and I could give you the history of it as we've been with the Saints," Brees continued. "And I could probably rattle off that same playcall in certain games in critical situations. 'Man, this was a game-changer. Or this was a game winner and this was this and that was that. Or this guy made this adjustment on this play.'"

So if I asked Brees to remember the call from, say, the two-point conversion pass to Lance Moore in Super Bowl XLIV?

"Bunch Right Tare Slash 37 Weak F Kill Q8 Solid Z Speed Smash," he fired back so quickly that he might as well have been reciting his phone number.

It might not sound like poetry, but that's the kind of terminology that has led to Brees and Payton being so successful together for more than a decade.

Since they arrived in 2006, the Saints have gained more yards than any team in NFL history over a 12-year span, according to the Elias Sports Bureau -- averaging 404.1 per game. Their collaboration has been especially impressive considering they cut their teeth in different offensive systems.

Brees ran the spread offense at Purdue, then began his NFL career by running a version of the Air Coryell system with the San Diego Chargers that uses a series of numbers to identify passing routes. Payton, meanwhile, first began to develop his version of the West Coast offense (which uses names for the routes and numbers for the protections) under Jon Gruden as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Brees said it was hard for him to adjust when he came to New Orleans -- like "learning a new language" -- before it ultimately became second nature.

"You're really talking about a Mac vs. a personal computer," said Payton, who laughed at the memory of coaching-pioneer Paul Brown being the first to send in playcalls from the sideline and trying to use his own secret communication device in the quarterback's headset back in the 1950s before the league outlawed it.

"All systems can give you the same type of plays. It's just, 'How is it communicated? Are we naming the formation? Are we numbering the protection and then naming the route?' It varies -- and all are effective," Payton said. "All of us, though, are searching to streamline that constantly. So you find yourself with words that you're implementing to be one syllable -- you know, 'wasp' -- or those terms that come out of your mouth cleanly and quickly.

"In your hurry-up or no-huddle, you might just say a word, and then everyone's understanding, 'It's this play.'"

That goes for the trick plays that everyone gets excited about in practice all week, too. Like the unforgettable "Philly Special" that just helped the Eagles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Or the Saints' classic "Superdome Special" reverse touchdown by receiver Devery Henderson when they reopened the Dome after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Everyone knows what to do on those plays.

But other times, more is more when it comes to jamming information into a playcall.

NFL jargon dissected

Gun Flex Right Stack 394 Dragon Smoke Kill Turbo Sucker Right is on the longer end of the Saints' playcalls. But Brees said it's pretty common -- especially since they like to call so many two-play packages in the huddle instead of the classic technique of audibling at the line of scrimmage and trying to yell information across the field.

So what does it all mean? Here's the breakdown, courtesy of one of the most dynamic offensive duos in NFL history:

Gun Flex Right Stack: That's the formation. "Gun" means Brees is in the shotgun. "Flex" means the Y receiver is flexed out a little bit from the line of scrimmage. And "Stack" means the two receivers on Brees' left side are essentially stacked on top of each other in the slot.

394: That's the protection. The "3" signifies that it's a three-step drop, which Brees said tells the offensive line to be "quick and aggressive." And the "94" signifies a max protection, so everyone should be able to block long enough to at least get the ball off on a pass play.

Dragon Smoke: That's a route concept -- in this case a quick pass designed to beat a blitz. Payton said the receivers would know whether to run a "drag" route or a "smoke" route based on the look the defense is giving or the game situation. The routes are where these names usually get most creative -- like Moore's "speed smash" to the corner of the end zone in the Super Bowl. Or "Harvey" or "Hank" or "Henry" (variations that all signify a hook route).

Kill: That's the key to this play -- the word that signifies Brees is calling two possible plays in the huddle. If he yells, "Kill!, Kill!, Kill!" before the snap, he's switching to the second play (which he did on Ingram's touchdown run).

Turbo Sucker Right: That's the run play Brees switched to when he saw the defense giving the look he wanted. "Turbo" means the Z receiver went in motion from the left side to the right side. And "Sucker" means it's a misdirection play that looks like Brees might hand off to the Z receiver on a jet sweep as he comes across. Instead, Brees hands the ball to Ingram, who runs up the middle between the right guard and the right tackle.

"I knew if we got the right look for the run play, it would be a walk-in," Brees said. "So it all drew up exactly the way we wanted. Those are always the best kind."

The obvious question is, "Why do the playcalls have to be so long?"

Well, they don't.

Coaches can simplify their scheme as much as necessary. Or even have all the plays listed on a wristband, which is what Brees did at Purdue. And yes, nearly two decades later he can still tell you that Play No. 33 on his old Purdue wristband was a "74 fade."

But as Payton explained, the longer the call, the more information is being conveyed.

"If you just come up with a one-syllable name, it's probably gonna be easier on the [quarterback] and it's probably gonna stress some others a little bit more," Payton said. "I can call, '22 Flanker Drive.' Boom. But if I call, '22 Flanker Drive, Halfback Burst,' I just helped the halfback out a little bit more. If I call, '22 Flanker Drive, Halfback Burst, X go.' Well, it's the same play, but I've alerted the X on a go. So it's information. And how much are you choosing to give? And who are you giving it to?

"And I would say, if it's long for Brees, that doesn't mean it's long for the next guy. He likes the information, studies it, likes spitting it out. But it's only as effective as your execution."

Payton said his playcalls weren't as long with quarterbacks like Quincy Carter and Vinny Testaverde when he was calling plays for the Dallas Cowboys or Kerry Collins with the New York Giants. And they wouldn't be as long if a young backup like Taysom Hill was thrown into the game.

Former Saints quarterback Garrett Grayson, a third-round pick in 2015, admitted that he struggled to spit out the long playcalls with confidence and authority in the huddle during his first year or two in New Orleans -- one of the reasons he flamed out in less than three years.

Hill said the Saints' playcalls are the longest he has ever been around.

"We're not gonna eliminate a player, though," Payton said. "We'll reduce so we can see them play. It's not like, 'If he can't do that, he's out.' Because, well, what if a guy's super talented?"

As for the terms like "Blue 80" that Brees yells at the line of scrimmage -- he wasn't as open with those.

"We're getting into the proprietary information there," Brees said coyly. "Any color number has existential meaning. There's some stuff that means something (including the snap count) and some stuff that doesn't.

"But I can't divulge that."

Payton's NFL education

There were about 10 minutes of awkward silence in Payton's office as he went down a YouTube rabbit hole trying to find a clip of Gruden calling one of those "either-or" plays in Super Bowl XXXVII, which led to a Keenan McCardell touchdown catch.

He finally found it -- South Right Nickel 41 Kill 374 Wasp.

It's not hard to pinpoint where Payton developed a large chunk of his offensive system and tendencies. He wound up with a kindred spirit when he landed his first NFL coaching gig in Philly 21 years ago and started learning terms like "Spider 2 Y Banana" from Gruden, then the Eagles' offensive coordinator.

"He was very, very important [in my development], because it was a foundation of offensive football specific to terminology, formations, red zone, third down, quarterback play," Payton said. "Just like years later when I arrived for three years in Dallas with Bill [Parcells] and the element of being a head coach.

"Sometimes you have some control over those, and other times you don't. ... But I was certainly fortunate to have ended up in Philly in '97 to be around him and [longtime NFL coach Bill] Callahan. It was a forward-thinking room in regards to offensive football, and it was critical for me.

"You realize very quickly how much you still needed to learn and didn't know, and then you really become a sponge and start taking it all in."

Payton's reverence for Parcells as a mentor is well-documented. Some of that is reflected in Payton's offensive scheme, too -- like the way the Saints label their series of runs, for example.

Brees also has been influential, as well as longtime Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., since all three arrived together in '06 and started collaborating on the offense.

Brees is hardly the only NFL quarterback who speaks West Coast offense so fluently, because it has been the most popular system in the league since Bill Walsh made it legendary in the 1980s.

But Payton said Brees' recall is part of what makes the 11-time Pro Bowler so special. And it's part of what has allowed Payton to run one of the most diverse and sophisticated schemes in the league.

"His ability to study it, hear it ... the stress he has on Tuesday night when he gets the list and Wednesday's practice because he wants to get it right, and then he has it by [the end of the week]," Payton said. "I can give him the beginning of that: 'Drew, give me Gun Flex Right Stack 394 ...' and he'll just turn and [wave me off]. He'll know it."

Brees, who speaks highly of past coaching mentors like Joe Tiller at Purdue and Marty Schottenheimer, Brian Schottenheimer, Norv Turner and Cam Cameron in San Diego, said he takes great pride in mastering the game plan throughout the week. He wants to be able to anticipate what's coming next and spend extra time between plays looking for clues in the defense, etc. He also wants to be prepared in case the headset cuts out, so he doesn't have to burn a timeout.

When asked how often he hears the first three or four words of a playcall and knows what the rest is going to be, Brees said, "about 99 percent of the time."

When asked how often he doesn't even need to hear the first word, Brees laughed.

"Well, in certain situations," he said, "a lot."

In fact, the hardest part for Brees now is that sometimes he has a little too much recall.

"This is 12 years now in this offense, and we've evolved so much," he said. "We call a play and I look at Pete Carmichael and [longtime quarterbacks coach] Joe Lombardi and Sean Payton, and we can sit there and be like, 'OK, we've taught this four different ways over the last 12 years.' And it might have been where we taught it one way for a little while, and then there was a better way, then we said, 'No, we like the old way better.' Or there might be, 'Well, what if we tried this?' So there's plenty of times where a play will come up and we're like, 'OK, how are we teaching this one again?'

"It's just constant evolution. That's part of what's been so fun about this."