To Call a Play: Part I

News Washington Commanders

Street football play calling is something any fan can identify with, since from young ages we have all made use of the “run downfield and break right at the fire hydrant” play, as well as the “run to the left of the dogwood and curl around it” game-winner. In the NFL, of course, it takes quite a bit of work to get from the X’s and O’s on paper to watching Brunell hit Moss over the middle en route to a touchdown.

Much ado has been made about Saunders’ infamous 700-page playbook. Now that the Redskins have struggled through two tough weeks, Skins fans have also heard nearly 700 variations on the same joke about Washington’s offense: “Let’s try the other 699 pages and see if they work!”, “Maybe Saunders should have tried to make some plays work before adding 690 pages to his game plan!”, and so on. Where expectations were great, disappointment abounds.

Yet, are there not enough creative concoctions in Saunders’ encyclopedia that will allow him to take advantage of the Skins’ strengths while hiding their weaknesses? Is it simply the case that the offense hasn’t learned the ins and outs of “the system” yet? Why is it that Saunders has 700 pages for the offense, anyway. . .is it really effective, or is it just complicating things beyond necessity?

John Madden wrote a book in the late eighties entitled One Knee Equals Two Feet (And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football) (Jove Books; reissued 1987) in which he describes the typical scene in an NFL huddle. Madden, still fresh at the time from coaching the Raiders, goes into remarkable depth when it comes to strategy, coaching, and the player’s perspective on the world’s greatest game.

(Though it’s a bit dated now, I would still recommend this book for anyone interested in getting beyond touchdowns and field goals and digging into the true structure and strategy of the sport. A word of warning, however: Avoid his other, later books, as they tend to focus on tailgate food and bus-trips rather than the game itself—no doubt the product of years spent away from the sidelines and in an announcing booth).

At any rate, here is a section where Madden details the nature of play-calling:

“George Halas talked about how his quaterback, Sid Luckman, had to know 350 different plays. If you want a big number, that’s still true today. It all depends on how you count. One basic play can be run from several formations . . . If you run the same play with the running backs and the wide receivers in, say, four different formations, technically you can count that as four different plays.”

The truth is that no offense in the NFL will run more than a relatively small number of basic plays—NFL players themselves have said that this is the case. 700 pages of offense, then, comes from crisscrossing every conceivable running and receiving route with every conceivable formation in Saunders’ particular style, and then throwing in such factors as pre-snap motion (to create personnel mismatches), play-action fakes, different blocking assignments, and hot routes. The real genius of Saunders, of course, is coming up with the most effective way of implementing these creative passing routes and blocking assignments in such a way that it makes things as simple for our offense as possible—and to do all of this while exploiting the defense as much as he can.

Madden continues: “From the referee’s ready-to-play signal to the snap, a quarterback has only thirty seconds. To make the most of those thirty seconds, in the huddle a quarterback uses numbers mixed with a few one-syllable words—as few numbers and words as possible. That takes less time. In the Raider huddle, my players might hear: ‘Eighteen bob odd O.’ And that’s all my quarterback needed to say to tell everybody what to do.

“In our playbook, ‘eighteen’ meant the halfback would carry the ball on a sweep around the end; ‘bob’ told our fullback to block the linebacker outside our right end (back on ‘backer’); ‘odd’ told our offensive linemen which way to block—the tight end blocked down on the defensive end, the right tackle blocked down on the defensive tackle, the right guard pulled to lead the interference for the halfback; and the ‘O’ told the left (or offside) guard to pull and follow the right guard.”

Madden goes on to describe a typical pass play: “Ninety-one out flare seven.” A call in the 90’s signified pass plays with the numbers giving receivers their assignments. Wideouts ran deep hooks, the tight end would run toward the middle, and the “flare seven” call gave the running backs their pass assignments.

“Since the backs line up 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, they would be running a total of 15 yards—the same distance as the wide receivers. Ideally, the two wide receivers, the tight end who had to battle his way past a linebacker, and the two running backs would be breaking open about the same time.”

Saunders has a similar system in place, where a few numbers and one to two syllable words convey 11 different assignments in the span of one second. How does it work, and what can we expect to see from it in the rest of this year? We’ll explore this a bit further next week, so make sure to come back and check out the view from The Cheap Seats.

-Daniel Coleman

Edit: This blog was archived in May of 2016 from our original articles database.It was originally posted by Daniel Coleman

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