Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Art and Science of Football Play Calling

From 1996- 2010, I called every play in high school games. I had three more games and two back to back years from 2012-2014, but I haven't been a primary game play caller in a while now. The guys who have called the plays in the years since then all have done a great job and though I still have input in game planning, I do not do the 'on the play clock' decisions.

Play calling is fun, but if I am honest, I have to admit that there are now hours and hours of mental and prep time that I have today that I did NOT have when I was the primary caller in games.

Someone recently asked me if you can train play calling... and it made me spend some time thinking about it... and yes, I do think you can train someone on how to grow as a play caller.

As I have been thinking about it, I thought I would make some notes... in no particular order... thinking about calling plays and making gut check decisions in football.

I thought I would start with an example of TWO SPECIFIC CALLS I MADE DURING MY PAST- 

These two play calls are parts of 1,000's of these types of decisions. And again, for the spectator, a great call works and a poor call doesn't.

In 2007, we were playing Goodpasture (TN)  for the region championship in week 10. If there was one team that was a thorn in my coaching experience is the Cougars. They were well coached and they were very talented.

To demonstrate this look at the scores below:

2004 W- 37-23 My first game as a head coach.
2005 L- 7-21- knocked us out of a chance for playoffs- They were State runner-up
2006 L- 21-35- first of 2 games- they were state runner-up
2006 L- 7-20- 3rd round of playoffs, we finished 10-3- again...they were state runner-up
2007 L- 32-43- this is the game I am writing about, week 10 for region title
2007 L- 41-47- we drop a snap on 2nd and goal from the 1 in OT- they were state-runner-up
2008 W- 21-10- regular season- we won region title
2008 L- 21-35- they knock us out in quarterfinals and they are semifinalists
2009 W- 21-14- we finish 3-7- they get knocked out 2nd round
2010 L- Regular season 28-27- they block PAT with seconds left on the clock
2010-L- 1st round of playoffs 20-6- our starting QB does not play- my last loss as a head coach-
They were state runner-up

I had 33 losses in 7 years as a head coach and 8 of those were to Goodpasture. (24% - My head coaching career record was 47-33) .

PLAY CALL 1- My Qb in 2007 was Connor Lowery, as fine a young man as I have ever coached. Signed with Samford University, graduated in accounting, and won the award for best team player for that program. He is now a GREAT DAD and loving husband.

Connor was our version of Tim Tebow- big, strong, hard runner. Played a lot of his senior season with a separated AC joint in his shoulder.

We did a lot of pre-snap reading when we played Goody, and based on a few alignments and scouting, we checked to plays based on how they were playing their 3-4. The run game was just zone read and what we call TAG - a counter-trey scheme and called QB run.

If Goody gave us a run defense- we threw the ball, primarily to an excellent WR in Tripp Weir.
If Goody gave us a pass defense- we ran zone (mostly a fullback run or TAG- the Qb counter- trey).

Was this a good scheme? In game 1 we scored 32 points and in game 2 we scored 41 but came up short. They had amazing talent in their wing-t offense and always ran it well.

They way I remember this play call was that we scored late in the 4th quarter to reclaim the lead (which we had lost after being up big early).

And we got a STOP. Our defense always played hard.

On first down we gained 6.

We were 2 and 4 from mid-field and I knew what I wanted - TAG PASS. I had saved it all game. On tag pass we still pull the guard and tackle- we simulate the Qb run and then hit a deep play action shot.

We executed it just right. It looked like run, it sounded like run, it smelled like run- I watch Tripp Weir run a beautiful burst route- he shuffled his feet like he was blocking- the safety and corner both sucked up. And Tripp sprung free all alone.

Connor threw a beautiful ball- a lot of air. Tripp did a great job of stretching late for the catch.

These two guys had hooked up hundreds of times like this. And they had had some BIG moments.

And the ball passed millimeters past Tripps outstretched arms.

You can easily visualize the sights and sounds- the universal sound of ALLLLLLMOST!

Missing that pas was huge though because it put us behind the chains and we ended up punting and we needed points each drive... 

CALL #2

2010. Same team- same location. The QB this time was Nolan Genovese. The power receiver Sam Cranford. The game plan very similar. We scored 28 points and missed two opportunities in the red zone.

Here is one of them.

It is right before halftime. We are up by 5 points. Time for 1 play. I send the FG team out for a 19 yard field goal.

They call timeout.

As we come back, I decide that we would fake it.

We had put a ton of work that season in our kicking game. We had an amazing special teams coach that year and we had the best 'operational time' that I have ever seen a HS team have.

But we were small up front. And no matter how hard we pressed it- we could easily get run over on the front.

I thought: A) This will work B) Anytime you show a fake it might slow them down C) It is just halftime and we are moving the ball.

Every eye in that huddle, including the special teams coach, liked the idea.

We snap it. Our left TE slips down the middle. We throw the pass. It hits his hands. And then he is hit and the ball drops.

This is a GREAT kid. He is a GREAT player. And he makes that play all the time.

He was crushed on the sideline.


I went to him, hugged and said, "no big deal- let's keep fighting".

We lost by 1 point- should we have kicked the FG? The last PAT of the game was blocked.

Two calls- two outcomes.

There is a small, small, small gap between winning a losing.

But I loved every single minute of it... in the arena.

_______________________


I wanted to take a few minutes and comment on observations I have made about play calling over the years. What is a 'questionable play call'?

I have been watching a lot of football film over the last few weeks (and years) and it is always refreshing to get away from the game and come back after the computer has had time to shut down a re-boot.

When a coach is planing for a game- he is putting into his mental rehearsal a lot of information. First, he knows his team and players. He has watched them live and on film and he knows both strengths and weaknesses. He knows how healthy they are. He knows who is likely to perform under pressure and who is likely to choke. He has certain plays and players he trusts and he has certain others he does not.

Secondly, a coach tries to guess what the other team knows. As an opposing coach breaks down his team, what does he see? Who is he impressed with? Where does he see weaknesses?

Both coaches see schemes- and almost any coach knows the strong and weak match-ups of scheme. Behind the scheme are philosophical beliefs that have strengths and weaknesses as well. Some teams are very good against your philosophy and scheme- and other teams create real issues.

Thirdly, there is the plan and practice of the plan. What was new this week? How did it look? Was it repped enough to a point where the players can execute it in the game?

Finally, there is the game condition itself. How is the game going? What is the weather, field conditions, momentum?

There are many different styles and ways to call a game. I see it being very similar to playing a par 5 in golf. The drive is the field position- are we in the fairway? Then there is the risk and reward- do we lay up or go for the green in two? And you can always out think yourself a little- what is the other guy going to do? Is he coming with the blitz or will he back off in a zone?

Now- let me add one other factor- PLAY CLOCK. A good play caller has to immediately call out personnel, formation, and play- you really get no time to weigh pro and cons. That is why the excellent ones have experience and mental rehearsal to quickly pull the trigger.

The bottom line is this: it is kind of stupid to ever say "That was a dumb play call" unless you are privy to all the conditions I have described above. That is why it is very, very rare for me to even entertain the idea of questioning a play call. I will be a very supportive coach in that area.

To the common observer - A GOOD PLAY CALL WORKS AND BAD ONE DOESN'T.

I have had coaches tell me that I called a good game- it feels good- and I do believe I was a great play caller during my time at it-  but the bottom line is this- only I know when I botched a call- which means I put the formation to the wrong side of the field- or I messed up the personnel- or I called something that I knew the players struggled with- or mis-spoke.

SO THE QUESTION IS- CAN I TEACH SOMEONE HOW TO BECOME A BETTER PLAY CALLER?- and the answer is, I can show them a formula... but there is only one way to get better at doing it, and that is calling plays... over time... and then you learn from success and failure.

If I had to describe the process, I could put it in three blocks:

CHESS/ FISHING/ MENTAL REHEARSAL

CHESS

The first block in developing as a play caller is learning the deep details of scheme. This takes time and also, it takes constant updating. The schemes used today are stacked on top of all of the good schemes that precede them. Defenses are CONSTANTLY evolving, I could write a book on how the game changed from the late 1970's through today... but it would be about as long as War and Peace! And when I finished... it would already be out of date!

At the same time... it is still a game of numbers, match-ups, and space. Every defense has a hole...
but they also know where the holes are and do a great job of moving and hiding them based on field position and down/distance/situations.

This takes study.. this takes time... my suggestion is to start with YOUR system on offense and then play that system versus different defensive fronts and coverages. Your system is a language that allows you to be multiple... but also.. you can't call endless plays.

SO Chess also has pieces- Kings, Queens, bishops, pawns, knights, rooks... all with different movements and power. Likewise, your system has to take into account personnel... and if you are a high school coach.. those pieces change year to year.


FISHING

My dad taught me a lot about making the most of a 'honey hole' in fishing. You have to cast away from time to time to let the school replenish. I think the best thing I did as a play caller was to see the holes in a defense (scheme and personnel) and I wanted to hit the hole enough to make hay... but I also knew to cast away to keep the defense off balance.

And it can't be the same rhythm- hole hole- away/  hole- away -away - hole/ away- hole-hole-hole

and if you did it right... the hole never closed.

I wanted to change before they changed.

MENTAL REHEARSAL-

When I was a full time play caller- before we started the game on Friday night- I probably called the game mentally hundreds of times. I played in my mind-  first play- first drive- combinations- 2nd and short- field position- red zone- coming out- situations to call a trick- what they may be expecting and what are my tendencies? How can I change those to create the most productivity.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Today, so much of play calling is charts and analytics.... and that is the SCIENCE needed to self scout and call games.

But the best play callers had an art to his flow as well. 

As I see the latest trends here are some final ideas:

packaged/ complimentary plays with a main call and a 'kill-kill' secondary call
menu plays to go fast- change tempo
RPO's- to help to slow down secondary run fits

You have to have balance- you have to find a way to throw and run effectively.

You have to use movement and multiple sets. I think static teams that only show a 2x2 or 3x1 set are allowing the defense to dictate the game.

You need to run on some pass downs and pass on some run downs.

In HS football- you have to throw 4-7 times deep a game.... and not just double moves. 

3rd down and long- you need to be smart- you can't throw for the sticks on every 3rd and long. 

1st down production is important.

You HAVE to have short yardage plays your team believes in. Teams that lost 3rd and short and 4th and short are going to have a hard time winning close games.

You can be too conservative and too reckless.... there is a balance.

I enjoyed posting about this.... hope it stirs coaches to grow and develop creativity and skill!




Thursday, September 01, 2022

Remembering 50 Years of TEAM

One of the joys of this football season has been doing a podcast in celebration and remembrance of 50 years of football at Briarwood. In my 31 years of coaching, it is hard to stop and celebrate. As soon as you rejoice at a fun win, you have to bear down and get ready to compete again.

There is no shortcut to success, because the only thing I can really add to preparation is hard work. Years ago I wrote about the constant mental toil that churns inside weekly. The post is old, so I had to republish it (should be re-published on Sept 1, 2022)

That never changes.

And so, before long... not only has a decade gone by, before you can take a breath... it becomes 3 decades!

When I realized that our 50 year celebration was coming, I knew it was time to see if we could archive a few stories and memories. The frustration is that we will leave more out than we can document. And I do hope those that get left out of the process will be gracious!

Even this post will be just a taste of what the experience has meant to me.  As we come into another game this year, I have become more acutely aware that there is a very common theme to the teams I have been able to go to battle with... and that is IT TAKES A TEAM!

And each week, as we did another podcast- it became obvious- these guys bought into TEAM concepts!

And once a team finishes a season, what remains is the fundamentals that it takes to become a team. One of the many reasons I love football is because it is the ultimate team sport. Football requires incredible cooperation and team unity. Once I became a head coach, I began to rethink my definitions of ‘success’ and ‘achievement’ and developed the idea that one factor in our success, as a program, is if we grew into a ‘team’. Many of us know the slogans- “There is no I in Team” and T.E.A.M. “ together everyone accomplishes more”- but I want a team to be much more than a slogan.

I think all teams are products of growth. A team cannot be made in a moment; it must be developed over a period of time. The fundamental ingredients to becoming a team are love and trust. To the degree that our players and coaches can learn to love each other and trust each other will be the depth of our power as a team.

In the first third of a season, a coaching staff can begin to see the types of players on a team, where they are, and what the challenges are in the way to  'becoming one heartbeat'.  

Here are the three types of players, and each group has a unique challenge:

Stars and starters- these guys feel good about their role, but the danger is to rest and cease from the grind. They also bear a responsibility to encourage and include ALL of the players, no matter their role. My best groups over the years are appreciative of the scout team guys, the JV guys, and even the managers, filmers, and trainers.

The back-ups- increasingly, this is becoming an endangered species. A recurring theme in this culture is "if I don't play, I'm not going to stay on the team". A successful team HAS to have back-ups and coaches need to make sure they are developing these players. They aren't ready for prime time, but how do we get them there? Some players will always be a back-up. But 10 or 20 years AFTER a season, none of that matters. 

The role players- These are significant members who often go unrecognized. But we HAVE to remind them that they have VALUE! A win is enjoyed by all!

Ultimately a team is characterized by self-sacrifice and a unity of purpose. Selfishness, bitterness, cynicism, apathy, and isolation are team killers. To develop love and trust requires communication, honesty, forgiveness, tolerance, and effort. A great step to love and trust is learning to suffer together. I can point to important moments when our football teams experienced major moves in developing the team spirit that we so eagerly wait for each season and it usually follows very difficult struggles or failures. Under pressure, we learn who we can rely on. There is very little pretending in times of pain.

CULTURE MATTERS!  We want to be champions 20 years from now!

In the early 1980’s, the University of Miami won a National Championship while Harvard University lost every game that season. Sports Illustrated did a story on where the players were 10 years later and found that a large percentage of the Miami team had gone to prison or experienced other unnecessary hardships while the Harvard players were enjoying unprecedented success in life. Who really won that year? Time shows us the obvious answer.
 
The same is true at ANY school. What will we gain if we win the state championship but forfeit our soul?

 So please understand that we are seeking not only wins now, but wins for our players in life…ten, fifteen, thirty years from now. How do we do that? Here a few reminders for all of us.
 
#1 We are committed to very high standards of ethics, work, and morality.
#2 Violations of standards will bring consequences.
#3 Great athletes without character will have a hard time getting honor.
 
Parents can be a HUGE help here. Great parents demand the same standards out of their children and seek to model those standards at home. If a son is punished for disobedience or dishonesty or immorality- back that punishment with harsh consequences of your own, and hold to them.
 
If your son is tempted to quit because of high standards of work or effort- DO NOT LET HIM DO IT. Never let a son quit out of fear or dislike of work.
 
Let me say again, we do not believe we have to sacrifice wins now to win in life. We have seen that we can do both. In fact, by holding to high standards, we are better now AND we have seen that the program is producing great students, quality leaders, good husbands and fathers, and great community servants.
We do not win them all- but we believe time is demonstrating God’s blessings on the effort.

As you listen to our podcasts- this unified effort is evident!

Christianity is ALSO a team sport. Our need for the team is based on our enemy being the best one on one player in the history of the world. Our Savior beat Satan in the contest in the wilderness, but no one else has survived the encounter. We need each other to make it in this world of danger and pitfalls. 

I believe that God’s mystery is designed to bring us together in fellowship. As we struggle with the questions of Scripture and life, we have to spend time together. It is good to hear different experiences and discuss various ideas. It is good to come together, it is dangerous to drift apart. 

One of my mentors noted that most men who fall are isolated, without support or accountability. We need to make an honest effort to take time and invest in the relationships that carry us in life. For a man, it will be his spouse and a significant two or three men who are able to challenge, encourage, love, forgive, and support. The local church provides some of the greatest opportunities to develop these types of relationships.

BTW- hear this for yourself- listen to some of these podcasts... and hear team concepts in each one!



The Inner Life of a Coach


MY INNER LIFE DURING FOOTBALL SEASON
written mostly as a head coach in 2005

This will be my 31st year as a football coach. I have been an assistant, coordinator, head coach, and now I serve as a type of 'consultant', but the inner turmoil is the same. In 2005, I kept a journal of a typical week- and the following is a distillation of those notes:

The first time I published it- the response I get each time I post it shows that it resonates with coaches. One coach wrote me and said "I had my wife read this in hopes that she understands the madness a little more."

Once you start a season, there will be many more consecutive weeks of planning, practice, evaluations, adjustments, and competition.

I get real quiet when I am away from the team during these times... but inside, my brain is in overdrive.

If you think about it, please pray for all football coaches everywhere... the craziness NEVER stops.

A Journal.... I wanted this AM to record what seems to be the annual recurring haunting of my mind during football season.

I think about football almost every day…year round. It’s hard not to, my life is shaped like a football. I developed an early passion for it, I have a lifetime of memories, both good and bad within my football life.

I have been coaching since 1991 and the inner experience has been almost identical each year. I spend an enormous amount of inner energy rehearsing the game in my mind. I rehearse plays, formations, motions, scenarios, injuries, per game talks, post game talks, play parent conversations, pray, anxious thoughts.

My wife points out every season how quiet I am. Inside, though, it is a screaming madness. I love my family and friends, but during the rigors of a week-to-week football schedule, they seem to me like I am underwater and they are on the surface calling out to me.

I wish for my brain to turn off sometimes. I find that flipping channels on TV gives me some relief. Eating gives me relief too, but it is not good for my weight or health.

About 2 weeks into the season, I get flickers in my eyelids. It is like the film I watch burns a shadow image on my eyelids. I close my eyes and still see the faint outlines of plays, wide angle, in motion.

My week starts on a Friday night- it is after the game and I am about to watch the film of the event that I have worked for all week. After a win, it is the most satisfying feeling in all the world. When we lose, I am anxious to see all the breakdowns.

I am so keyed up on a Friday night that I will usually not get to sleep before 2 AM. I lay in bed and the rehearsal goes on and on. I see it over and over. I hear it. And I start thinking about adjustments for the next game. What about our depth? Who will center if "Dan"- gets hurt? "Joe" looked sad after the game. I hate that "Ken" is hurt.

Saturday morning I am up early, I am anxious to read about our game and all the other games. I complete the HUDL exchange with the next week’s team. College football only fuels my mind. I constantly look at what the innovators are doing. I like that blocking scheme for power.

There are other things to be done, Grass cutting, kid’s activities, social appointments, girls soccer, occasional youth football game I need to attend… Saturday night, I am in meltdown. I yearn for my bed with an enormous longing. I usually crash hard, unless the game that night is really good.

Sunday morning, I actually think about the Lord… Church today, and I am excited, Worship is a release. I do catch myself thinking football plays during lulls in the service, but I am usually caught up in the reality of my sin and the grandeur of God. I thank Him over and over.

I love teaching Sunday School during football season, it forces me to keep in the Word and prayer. It is an accountability measure. I love the fellowship. When we win, I get a lot of fun conversations. When we lose, I get some encouragement- but I am also surprised how some people run from me. Maybe it is awkward for them?… not sure.

Sunday afternoon, my freest day! A nap is welcomed! I feel human again. My family is not separated by water! I eat and rest. Football is on, but the pro game does not interest my imagination- I am a passive fan. 

Sunday night, let me forget football…but if it is a big game, forget it. The bigger the game, the faster the haunting begins. I just hope for sleep.

Monday morning- swamped with anxiousness. I work in a frenzy- I have to get the game plan started. I have to watch the opponent. I have to draft the practice schedules. Travel? Weather? Injuries? Back-up plans? School week- and yes, I am expected to do very well as a classroom teacher....

Monday afternoon/evening:- team meeting- recap of Friday- Good/bad/ugly- watch film- teach-teach-teach- lift weights-introduced the new opponent- conditioning- kicking game- 7 on 7. Coaches meetings- go over each player- how are we doing? What are challenges? What are tweaks? How do we size up the opponent? Phone calls. A parent is not happy with me and another is thrilled.
I wrap the day up between 7 and 8PM. All the way home, my mind is scheming. I play scenarios over and over. How do they see us? What will they be thinking? What might be their plans? What do we need to rep? Monday night football helps- TV is an excellent distraction, I hope the show is provocative and will shut off my brain. I close my eyes. The flicker is there. I pray. I feel so sorry for my wife, she needs more of me. But I am possessed. Lord, keep it together until the season is over. Help me take advantage of breaks and opportunities. I love my wife and children more than football. It is hard to prove that right now.

Tuesday morning- I got about 7 hours sleep unless it is a big game. If it is a big game, when I wake up- I am up. I hope is is 5:45, but sometimes it is 4:30 or 4 or sadly, sometimes 3:30. I toss and turn, pray, think, and get up.

Last time to really get opponent down- I watch the film again- who are their danger guys? Where are the weaknesses? What are the tendencies? Do they see them? How does the match ups work?

Tuesday Afternoon- BIG DAY/WORK DAY- Meetings and weights- install the plan- teach/teach/teach- Are we focused? Full pads- long, hard practice…tempo tempo- Lord, please keep us healthy-
6:30- practice ends. Usually I feel really good or bad right now. Good practice is a must! It is darker now- we are all tired. I love the laughter in the locker room- great spirit! Coaches laughing- such a great time! Thank you lord!

Tuesday night- I re-engage with the fam- so good to see them! How was the day (and I usually mean 2 days)- I look at my wife- thank you Lord for such a good woman. No words can relate the love I have for my wife of 33 years- see just can’t see it much during the haunting.

Wednesday morning- Deadlines- Scouting report finished- SS finished- playcards have to be finished, printed, laminated, distributed, I spend most of Wednesday on School and Sunday School- grading- recording- planning-

Wednesday afternoon- shorter practice- rehearsal- last reps- sometimes we review Tuesday practice tape- last weightlifting day- usually a fun practice- over at 6PM- church dinner- assistant coaches start painting the game field (update: glad these days to have a turf field).

Wednesday night- I start calling the game in my head- 1st and 10- 2nd and long- 2nd and short- good runs- good passes- 1st play- kickoff or receive?- I study the weather map and forecast- big games I start to get nervous- my stomach feels queasy-

Thursday morning- I’m pumped- it’s Thursday! Thursdays are good. I rehearse the game plan. I’m getting a mental rhythm. Time to call next week’s coach and arrange a film swap. I will sometimes take a sneak peek at the next opponent.

Thursday afternoon- quick meeting- walk thru- team devotion- get them out of here ASAP- feel good- Hay’s in the barn.

Thursday evening- I like a good college game or middle school game. Hopefully I will sleep. I work hard to have no caffeine after lunch. Good family time- End of the week is here. If I lay down and fall asleep quickly- YEAH!- If I start playing the game mentally, it may be a long night. Please don’t wake up before 5:00.

Friday morning- I’m juiced! No tie day- YES!- Quick look at weather and our equipment. Were the headsets plugged in? Mom’s prayer group list…DONE! Thank you for those prayers! Good to see our team in game day wear- I don’t feel badly at all to be in a golf shirt- LUNCH WITH BOOSTERS- fun,light- have to hurry back to class-

3:00 Coaches devotion- the most spiritually intense hour of my week. We lay it out to the Lord- a great time of fellowship- I love my coaches!

4:30 Players arrive- food arrives- I don’t want to eat, but if it is good- I do- I usually feel heavy pressure and adrenaline- I pray- I pee a hundred times from 3-7- I sometimes feel sick- The first few games I feel out of breath because I am not used to the adrenaline. Later in the year, I handle it better- pre game- I look at the other team- they look a lot better in person- I watch my team- are we focused? Smooth?

Meet with officials- I give them captains- I give them information and go through my checklist- and study their faces- is this crew going to be good to us? For some strange reason, I never feel nervous after the official’s meeting- I guess I’m fully now in the combat zone.

The locker room before the game is cool. I always pray very earnestly, Lord I can’t do this without you.

We go out and the game is always a blur. It is never predictable. Highs and lows and a roller coaster of emotional shifts in momentum. I have gotten a lot better about thinking well during the game and cutting mental mistakes down.

Nothing is more thrilling than a big win! It is the ultimate coming together of plan, work, brotherhood, and fight! Nothing wounds more than a heartbreaking loss.

After the game, I go around and hug a lot. I love seeing our players and fans happy. I see my wife and girls. They soothe me well in the losses. Thank you for being here!

And the film turns on. More flickers are burned.

When the season is over, my body totally shuts down and I get sick for about three days. A few days after that the flicker is gone and the madness is over…until next season.