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What Hayden Hurst’s baseball background has to do with Falcons’ communication

Goober Pyle

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When it was announced on Monday that the Falcons would not have fans attending games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium through September, it wasn’t much of a shock to anyone. Many teams across the NFL already had said fans would not be allowed in stadiums to watch games. The Falcons had a plan in place to potentially allow 10,000 to 20,000 fans into games, with PSL and season-ticket holders being sent a survey to fill out ranking which of the first four home games they would most like to attend. But that plan was put on hold as the Falcons’ first two home games against Seattle and Chicago will be held without fans.

But on Tuesday, Dan Quinn spoke to the challenge of playing in a stadium without fans, mainly how the ambient noise a crowd provides won’t drown out the verbal cues of the offense. Asked about how this could change an offense’s approach to communication, Quinn said it’s an interesting question with an answer he actually sees ties in elsewhere.

“Code words and hand signals — we’ll have to dig deep into our baseball backgrounds,” Quinn said.

When Quinn realized that, he went to pick Hayden Hurst’s brain.

Hurst was a baseball player before he was the 25th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. In fact, that was the second time Hurst heard his name called in a draft setting. After leading The Bolles School to two state titles and after pitching in the Under Armour High School All-American Game, Hurst was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 MLB Draft, and he reported to Pittsburgh’s Rookie League shortly thereafter.

So Hurst knows a thing or two about the non-verbal communication tactics used in baseball. And that’s exactly what Quinn wondered about as his mind started churning with new communication ideas in the wake of the announcement of no fan attendance at games in September.

“What are the indicators? How does it work for some of the signals?” Quinn asked. “Because we’re certainly not going to, every week, keep some of the same code words and hand signals.”

Because of the situation, Quinn said simply there will be more cat and mouse games played this year than in years prior. When asked about that conversation, Hurst smiled.

“He did kind of pick my brain the other day,” Hurst said. “It was a little blast from the past going through the baseball signals like a third-base coach would.”

When it comes to those non-verbal cues and the role they could play in games played without fans, the Falcons’ newest tight end said quarterback Matt Ryan is already pretty well-versed in his communication tactics. Hurst said Ryan even keeps the other offensive players on their toes.

“You have to keep your head on a swivel because Matt calls out his cadences, calls out his checks pretty quickly, so you have to be in the playbook, be in your iPad and understand what’s going on,” Hurst said. “… Getting with Matt in the offseason was huge, just familiarizing myself with the playbook and understanding how he is going to call the cadence and call things out. That was probably the best thing that I could have done this offseason was hook up with him.”

Hurst explained that Ryan can sometimes be verbal, vocalizing his checks and alerts. Other times he’s non-verbal, signaling the same things. Obviously this is an every-quarterback-everywhere type of skill, but perhaps, without fans and much ambient noise, that latter skill could become more prominent this season. In fact, maybe it’s worth it for Hurst to take a trip down memory lane with Quinn to tell tales of his days in the Pirates’ organization. This season, there may be more of a need to lean more heavily on a sign sequence like that of a third-base coach to a batter or even a catcher to a pitcher.

But baseball wasn’t the only callback Hurst made when speaking to the media on Tuesday morning. He also referred to his college days at South Carolina when referencing the scheme Atlanta uses offensively. He said it’s less like Baltimore’s — truth be told it’s “totally different” — and more like South Carolina’s, the program where he walked on in 2015 after storing away his baseball glove.

Baltimore’s offense revolves around Lamar Jackson. It’s a run-heavy system, with Hurst saying the Ravens’ offense is really good at power-and-gap schemes, moving players and reducing defenders through gaps. With an offense centered around players like Julio Jones, Atlanta’s offense is much different.

“I think it is exactly what I was doing in college,” Hurst said. “I am pretty **** excited about it.”

The excitement Hurst feels about being in Atlanta’s offense radiates off him. It’s an energy others have commented about before Hurst even got the chance to during the third week of training camp.

He’s excited because, strictly from a scheme standpoint, everything starts outside. Hurst said Jones is going to be “a first-ballot Hall of Famer” who gets a lot of attention from safety help over the top while Calvin Ridley is going to continue to “do his thing.”

“It opens up the defense for me. If I can use my speed and athleticism, then I am definitely going to get open on linebackers and be physical with safeties. There’s going to be a lot of singled up stuff for me,” Hurst said.

In another sense, because of how quick, how vertical Hurst plays for a tight end, he believes he can draw attention to himself. In fact, that was something Hurst and Jones noted out on the field at practice Tuesday, just how much Hurst could free up Jones. And if the Falcons give defenses no choice by featuring Hurst, it could be a situation that works in the offense’s favor.

Regardless, Hurst feels he’s exactly where he needs to be, especially with Quinn picking his brain about his baseball roots.

“I just have to keep doing my job,” Hurst said, “because I think there’s going to be a lot of balls coming my way.”

Practice observations and notes
• Todd Gurley and Alex Mack were not dressed out in helmets and pads for the first day of padded practice. They were on the field but did not participate in any drills or scrimmage situations. Brian Hill and Justin McCray took the majority of snaps in their place. It was a scheduled off day for Gurley and Mack.

• Jamal Carter was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list. This means the Falcons now have 80 players on their active roster, with no players currently listed on the reserve/COVID-19 list for the first time since the start of training camp.

• Kendall Sheffield was limited in practice last week with what Quinn called a sore foot. Sheffield started working in drills on Tuesday, and Quinn said, “He’ll ramp back up over the next few days” of practices.

• The Falcons’ rookies are doing some good things early in camp with fourth-round pick Mykal Walker picking off a tipped pass from Matt Schaub in practice Tuesday. First-rounder A.J. Terrell continued to show he may be a good fit in the starting lineup in the secondary as he broke up a few more passes after pulling down an interception last week.

• Quinn said before practice began that “the padded days have always been devoted to the big guys,” meaning now that the pads are on, the coaches can get a much clearer sense of what they have to work with at the line of scrimmage. One of the biggest questions this staff has to answer in that area is at left guard, and the battle for that position will be one to keep an eye on as practices move forward. Both Matt Gono and James Carpenter were rotated in with the first group Tuesday.




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It’s strange in a way, but I’m more excited about Hurst in our offense than I was Hooper.

Hurst brings a skill set that Matt Ryan has never had that other top QBs have. A TE that can stretch the field and split the seams. Hurst is also a better inline blocker than Hooper was. He might not catch as many 1st downs in heavy traffic (yet to be seen)  but when Ryan sees Hurst in a mismatch in man coverage on a linebacker or a chance to attack the seam, Hurst and his burst will allow for more big plays than we got out of Hooper. Defenses will have to protect the field deep behind Hurst helping open up more running lanes for Gurley  as well. 

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