Before each play, sideline `bedlam'

Once simple, play-calling mushrooms into chaotic mix of technology, instinct

November 27, 2006|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

Johns Hopkins football coach Jim Margraff laughed as he recalled a simpler time. Midway through his collegiate playing career, Margraff had begun to rewrite the passing record book as a Hopkins quarterback, and he pretty much was calling the shots while doing it.

Back in the late 1970s, Margraff didn't just run the Blue Jays' offense. For his first two seasons, he ran his own show as the team's primary play-caller.

"I remember [former coach] Howdy Myers telling me, `God bless you, Jimmy, and take what [the defense] gives you,'" Margraff said. "I don't think we'll ever see that again. Guys lose their jobs over this stuff now."

As football has become more specialized - from the many player substitutions that create different looks in offensive and defensive formations to the use of digital video that allows coaching staffs to break down opponents' tendencies in abundant detail - the act of calling plays has gotten more complex.

About 60 to 70 times per game in a typical collegiate contest, a play is delivered to a team's offensive huddle, either by players shuttled in and out of the game or directly from the sideline with oral or hand signals. And that's only what fans see on the surface.

Play-calling has evolved into a combination of art, science and gut instinct, with a battle to negate communication breakdowns during short windows of decision-making time.

It's about navigating through an occasionally chaotic setting that encompasses players on the field and coaches, linked by headsets, on the sideline and upstairs in an observation box.

It's about avoiding a mangled exchange of ideas, either because of electronic problems or too much chatter among coaches when the play-caller is trying to concentrate. It's about a coach understanding what the opposing defense is up to, then countering with an effective play - be it culled from a scripted list or simply based on what feels right - without taking too long to get the information to his quarterback.

And, as Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and Terps sophomore backup quarterback Jordan Steffy can attest, it's not easy.

"There are several times a game when Coach Friedgen will leave out whole portions of plays," said Steffy, who relays calls to starting quarterback Sam Hollenbach from the Terrapins' sideline.

"It's like [Friedgen] knows the playbook so well, in his head he's thinking of a million different things, and he'll call the formation and the [pass] route and forget the motions and [pass] protections. It can take some time, but I think he has really got it down."

Friedgen, who assumed play-calling duties this year, said adjusting to the game's flow in that role has been a challenge at times.

"There will be a lot of give and take with me and [coaches] in the box [on the headsets]," Friedgen said. "I'll say, `Shut the [heck] up.' That would be a great show to have a camera on the sideline for, because it's just bedlam."

One play, many paths

The path of the play call can take a variety of directions. The call sometimes originates upstairs, usually from an offensive coordinator, whose decision is relayed from the sideline to the field. Or a coach on the sideline, after getting insights from upstairs about the look of the opposing defense or the down-and-distance situation, will have the final say.

And the quarterback is not some robot removed from having input. He sometimes gets to make a decision at the line of scrimmage after his coach presents him with several options, based on how the defense might shift once the offense gets to the line of scrimmage. Watch how, during a pause before the snap, the quarterback barks signals up and down the line, as he "checks" the offense into what should be the right play.

As Towson University quarterback Sean Schaefer sees it, the idea is to get the offense to the line fast enough to give him the necessary time to check the Tigers out of one play and into another. And because Towson runs much of its offense without a huddle, Schaefer has to take extra care that teammates understand the original call or check precisely.

"A wide receiver on the other side of the field might not see the whole play call. There might be one extra word at the end of the call somebody didn't hear," said Schaefer, one of the Atlantic 10's top passers, who has all of his plays signaled in from the sideline after offensive coordinator Phil Albert selects one. "It definitely can get messy. Sometimes it makes you take a timeout you didn't want to take."

Coaches from Margraff to Towson's Gordy Combs to Charlie Weis at Notre Dame each point to how game preparation has changed immensely over the years and how that, in turn, has added more sophistication to play-calling.

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