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.
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.
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.