What Does “Omaha!” Mean?

Photo: Craig Hawkins via Flickr

Peyton Manning loves Omaha. Or at least the Denver Broncos quarterback loves to yell “OMAHA!” just before the start of a play. Omaha is just one of the many words he and other quarterbacks yell just before the ball is snapped. Sometimes these words are audibles, quick changes of the play the team is about to run. Sometimes they are meaningless verbiage meant to confuse the other team.

Manning is notoriously loquacious before the start of a play and over at the sports blog Deadspin they wondered why Manning shouted Omaha so much in last weekend’s game against the San Diego Chargers. What does “Omaha” mean?

The short answer is: On any given play, we don’t know. If we did, the Chargers and all of Manning’s opponents would know too, and it would lose any effectiveness as a cipher. All “Omaha” is is an easily understandable code word that won’t be mistaken for anything else, and can be used to signal something that the Broncos have decided ahead of time. How and when Manning assigns the word meaning is yet another example showing he’s one of the smartest quarterbacks the sport has ever seen.

The shifting meanings of “Omaha” got me thinking about the shifting meanings of “religion.” Like “Omaha,” “religion” is a word that scholars use for different ends depending on the situation. It might refer to certain sorts of beliefs or certain rituals people do or certain codes of what one should and shouldn’t do. There are as many different definitions of religion as there are scholars trying to define it.

But what I really liked about the Deadspin post on “Omaha” is how it shifted the question from what Omaha means to how Manning uses it (check out the video in the post where Manning uses Omaha to repeatedly confuse the Chargers and make them commit a penalty).

This is yet another weapon that Manning uses to better effect than almost every other QB. He’s a notorious talker at the line of scrimmage, an inveterate user of audibles, and defenses have come to expect and try to anticipate his signals. Much of the time, the verbiage and the gesticulation is meaningless filler, designed to get opponents to start second-guessing their sets. A lot of the time, “Omaha” might just be misdirection. But Manning is a master of giving it meaning just often enough to get defenders to associate it with imminent snaps. And if other teams think they’ve got “Omaha” figured out, then it’s even more powerful when it presages the exact opposite.

It is less important what “Omaha” means on any given play and more important to notice how well Manning uses it to win games. Similarly, I think scholars should focus less on what religion means, what it is, or how it is defined and pay more attention to the ways both scholars and practitioners use it. Like Omaha, the variety of definitions of “religion” don’t make the term meaningless, rather each definition is tied up with a specific use of the term. The best scholarship in religious studies recognizes this and, like Manning, deploys the term “religion” in different ways to achieve different ends, fully aware that each definition of “religion” is strategic and contingent and also pays attention to the ways people on the ground deploy “religion” in their own strategic and contingent ways.