Play-calling is tricky mix

NFL: Even experts in the field know it takes more than intuition to make their best-laid plans gain yardage.

November 02, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Bill Walsh liked to be free-wheeling and loose when he called plays in the NFL some 15 years ago. Jim Fassel constantly looks for a rhythm in his play calls with the New York Giants. And Norv Turner knows that even the best call can become a ghastly mistake if execution isn't behind it.

Play-calling in the NFL is a tricky mix of planning, execution, intuition and a fair amount of good fortune.

"The beauty of it, with all the analysts, is that people forget it is a game," said Turner, the offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. "There is human error and there are players out there who actually have a lot of control in what's happening."

Players catch touchdown passes, but head coaches and offensive coordinators who call plays generally catch only heat. The paradox of play-calling is that you can be right - and wrong - on the same play.

You can make the perfect call to exploit vulnerability in the secondary and have it backfire with a missed block or a tipped pass.

"It's all how the play comes out," said Fassel, the Giants' head coach who sparked an offensive resurgence last season when he assumed play-calling duties at midseason.

The difference between a good call and a bad one can come down to luck. But the difference between a cutting-edge play-caller and a guy who just calls plays is in the mind and the imagination.

"I just think it's a matter of talent," said Walsh, a Hall of Fame coach with the San Francisco 49ers. "Some people play the piano better than others.

"Those who give it time, who are more free-wheeling and free thinkers, are generally those who are more successful. Those who are concerned only with information gathering and statistics are not as successful."

Walsh's legacy extends beyond the three Super Bowls he won with the 49ers. He also introduced the West Coast offense, with its short passing game, and popularized the offensive script that virtually all NFL coaches use in some form today.

The script came out of his relationship with legendary coach Paul Brown in the early 1970s, when Walsh coached quarterbacks and wide receivers with the Cincinnati Bengals.

"We called all the plays in those days and he'd say, `What [opening plays] do you have?' every week," Walsh said. "I'd give him four plays, and he'd say, `That's good' or `Think about this.'"

Walsh expanded the list to 10 plays in Cincinnati, then 20 when he joined the San Diego Chargers' staff and finally 25 when he coached the 49ers.

He developed the strategy for tactical reasons - exploring coverages and setting up plays - and for the calming benefits it had on his own team.

"Players really appreciated the night before the game knowing how the game would start the next day," he said. "It was much better to make the plan on Wednesday and use it rather than wait and have to make up those [plays] on the sideline."

It's a comfort zone that Fassel creates with the Giants, as well.

"To me, the most important thing is it gets the players into the rhythm of the game and lets them know what they can do," he said. "I want to set tempo."

Whereas Walsh had more than 10 categories (like third-and-over-10, second-and-five) to pick from, Fassel chooses 12 plays and will vary the selection, based on the situation and what is clicking early.

But much of play-calling is based on the feel a coach gets as he works through the game. Turner cultivated a reputation as a top play-caller as a coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys and into his seven-year reign as head coach with the Washington Redskins. He uses his script to probe for tendencies.

"What we try to do is get a feel for what they [the opponents] are doing, when they are doing it and what their plan is," Turner said. "Then we adjust to that."

For Turner, the process starts with understanding his own players' strengths and weaknesses.

"The mistake some people make is they see someone else run something and say, `Let's put that in our game,'" Turner said. "But it doesn't fit their guys. You want to give your players the chance to do what they do best; that's the best chance you have."

Fassel agrees. Plays have to accommodate the talent of the people running them, starting with the quarterback.

"That's the essence of setting the game plan," he said. "If you get out of doing that, it's bad coaching.

"There are guys who pull plays off the sheet and copy plays from other teams and at the end of the game, you say, `What were you trying to do?' There wasn't a theme. I think the good play-callers know their personnel, know who the defense is and the circumstances of the game, then can adapt to changes in the game."

After Fassel assumed play-calling duties from former offensive coordinator Sean Payton last season, the Giants scored 26 touchdowns in their final nine games and reached the playoffs. Fassel wanted quicker throws and better pass protections for quarterback Kerry Collins, who was getting battered early in the year.

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