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MHR Primer Looks at Game Planning: Tebow Versus the Texans

     On the day after Christmas, the Denver Broncos played host to the Houston Texans. After falling behind 17-0 at the half, and 20-7 early in the third quarter, the Broncos mounted a comeback. Trailing 23-17 late in the fourth quarter, Denver capped its comeback with a twelve play, seventy-six yard drive to go ahead 24-23 -- which proved to be the final score.

     That game winning drive had seven passes and five runs. It used two basic personnel packages: one that used one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers; a second that used one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. The Broncos ran the twelve plays out of nine different formations. Tebow went 3-for-7, targeting five different players and completing passes to three of them.

     How did McCoy arrive at that game winning strategy? The process began in January of 2010. Take a jump with me and see how the plays we see on Sunday typically get put into place.

     I learned the rudiments of playing football on the snowy playground of an elementary school in Littleton, Colorado, just a few miles up the road from Dove Valley. At that level, game planning and play calling was extremely simple. Running plays consisted of giving the ball to the fastest guy on the team and getting out of his way -- given that he was unlikely to wait for blocks or follow them when they were there. Passing plays consisted of the guy who could throw the ball the farthest heaving Hail Mary pass after Hail Mary pass until one of them connected. Defense was even simpler: swarm the guy with the ball and bury him as far into the turf as you can. Even today, this is an ongoing problem when my staff tries to teach football to elementary and middle school students.

     In the wider world, many people's concept of how a game plan is put together and how plays are called are based off two popular football games -- fantasy football and Madden video games. Fantasy football is based -- in essence -- on the ability to predict which players will be the most likely to amass the best statistics, so you put those players into your game day roster. In Madden football, every play in the coach's playbook is available for every play. For example, if I use the "full playbook" option in my copy of Madden 11, I can choose from 164 different pass plays and sixty-six different running plays. In other words, on any given offensive play, I have a choice of 230 different plays. In the world of the NFL, game planning and play calling is not so easy.
The Problem Facing Coaches

     From what I've read, the typical NFL playbook can contain approximately one thousand discrete plays. I remember reading reports, when McDaniels was hired, about how his "playbook" was a multi-volume set that filled an entire bookshelf. Yet, the typical NFL team will run approximately sixty-five offensive plays -- not counting kickoffs, punts, field goal attempts and PATs -- during a single game. Now, add in the fact that some of those plays will be run more than once, the number of plays actually used in a game will be somewhat less than sixty-five. Many coaches will admit that they typically run forty to fifty different offensive plays in a game. Now, if a coach wants to be cagey, he can count each time he runs a play out of a different formation as a distinct play, in which case the number goes up. IMHO, a run off left tackle is a run off left tackle, regardless of the formation it is run from. So, the number of plays used in a game may be considered to be in the forty to fifty play range.

The question now becomes, how does the coach get from 1000 plays in his playbook to the forty plays he'll use come game day?

It Starts With Scouting

     If you're like me, when you hear the term "scouting" in relation to the NFL, you think usually think of some guy sitting in the stands at a college game and/or reviewing game film to discern the strengths and weaknesses of a given college player in order to determine whether or not the team should pursue him. While this is a significant part of the scouting department's job, it is not the entirety of that job.

     Almost as soon as a team's season is over, its scouting and coaching staffs sit down to review the previous season. They are attempting to evaluate what worked, what didn't work, which players were effective, which players did not live up to expectations, who to keep and who to let go. They also review the effectiveness of the various coaches on the staff. Pat Kirwan (New York Jets) and Ernie Adams (New England Patriots) have both played major roles in preparing these types of evaluations after spending hundreds of hours reviewing game film and taking copious notes which were then presented to the head coach.

     Based on this evaluation, the head coach builds a vision of what he wants the team to accomplish in the upcoming season. Hours are spent discussing this vision with the coaching and scouting staffs. The staff determines which of their current personnel can make the vision a reality and where there are positions that need new players. The goal is to determine how to best utilize the strengths of their players and limit the problems caused by their weaknesses. Once the vision is in place, the staff moves into the off season activities.

     Free Agency and the College Draft are the primary methods NFL teams use to fill in the perceived holes in the roster. Organized Team Activities (OTAs), minicamps and Training Camp are all used as a means to evaluate which plays to keep, which to drop, which players to keep, which to let go and who else to try and acquire. These activities are extremely important, since practice time during the regular season is extremely limited and valuable. These are often the times that the team will practice plays which will most likely not be a part of the teams regular game day repertoire.

     The staff will have completed the bulk of this evaluation process by sometime around mid-June. The staff will be well on their way to having their list of players they plan to keep and which players are on the bubble. The staff will have a good sense of what plays they want to use regularly and at that point they will prepare the gamebook for the upcoming season. At this point, many teams will have their playbook pared down to around 100 plays. This is an important step due to the limited number of practices available during Training Camp -- we may not realize that on the average, NFL teams have fifty-five practices during Training Camp. These practices are used to teach the team the plays that will make up the core of the season's game plan.

Winnowing the Choices

     As Training Camp finishes up, the preseason begins to wind down and roster cuts loom, the staff begins to reduce not only the roster, but the number of plays that will be used on game days throughout the season. The staff uses a variety of criteria to make their choices: Which plays do they have the personnel to execute? What kinds of defenses will they be facing? What will the game environment be like (natural versus artificial turf, indoor versus outdoor, etc)? The staff works long hours to bring the playbook down to around forty or fifty plays.

     It is here that we see the work of men like Pat Kirwan and Ernie Adams resurface. The scouting staff breaks down hours of film on the next opponent. Typically, they concentrate on the opponents' last four games. The rule of thumb that is often used is that if they don't see it in their opponent's last four games, their not likely to see it in their game. They will spend their time looking for tendencies and patterns -- such as on first and ten, at their own twenty, the opponent runs the ball 80% of the time.

     The scouting staff will provide the coaches with detailed breakdowns on the personnel packages (the number of running backs, tight ends and wide receivers on the field at any given time) the opponent uses, the formations run, plays called sorted by down and distance, time left in the game and score. The scouting staff will also look for the football equivalent of poker tells -- when defensive lineman A lines up directly across from the offensive guard, his first move is an outside one 80% of the time. In the case of the Houston game, the Broncos scouting staff would have looked at the Texans' two games against Tennessee, along with their games against Baltimore and Philadelphia -- a win followed by three losses.

      After they have prepared their reports on the upcoming opponent, the scouting staff will prepare an equivalent report for their own team: what are their team's tendencies and patterns, what are their own players' tells. Typically, the staff will focus on the last three games played by their team. In the case of the 2010 season, the staff would have reviewed the Kansas City, Arizona and Oakland games.

     Once they have the scouting staff's report, the coaches will sit down with their starting quarterback and get his input. Together they will determine what plays the QB feels good about, which one he hates, and his opinion of how well his teammates will do with any given play. After the QB has had his say, the staff will finalize the list of plays that will be used in the upcoming game.

     If you've ever watched a head coach or an offensive coordinator on game day, you have probably noticed that he was carrying a colorful, laminated card. That card was the teams play sheet. On that card, the staff has sorted out the game plan plays into various categories, such as down and distance, time left, score, two-minute drill, etc. During the game, whichever coach is calling the plays will select the play from that card. His choices will be informed by the flow of the game, the current situation, and observations from other coaches on the field and in the booth. The staff will attempt to put in a play which will result in a favorable matchup. After the plays have been put on to the play calling sheet, the team is ready for the week's practices.

A Typical Practice Week

     For coaches, players and the staff of an NFL team, the week runs from Monday to Sunday. The staff and players begin their week on Monday by reviewing the previous week's game. A great deal of time is devoted to film review. Players who were injured the previous week may spend time being evaluated by the team's doctors. The medical staff will let the coaches know which players will be unable to play and which will be limited in their abilities.

     The second part of Monday is spent on reports from the scouting staff. They will give the coaches a detailed analysis of the opponent's tendencies in regards to personnel packages, formations, plays, down and distance, and audibles. They will then provide the coaches with an analysis of their own team's tendencies in those same areas. The scouts will also provide the coaches with a detailed analysis of the team's statistics and how those statistics were accrued -- for example, using the Houston game as the model: Knowshon Moreno averaged 82.3 yards per game over the previous three games. The coaching staff will want to know: did he actually run for 82 yards in each game, or did he have one great game and two not so good one, or some other combination? In point of fact, in those three games, Moreno rushed for 161 yards in the Kansas City game, 81 yards in the Arizona game, but was only carried the ball four times for five yards in the Oakland game.

     The coaching staff meets on Tuesdays, while the players stay home. The position staffs meet separately. The offensive staff reviews the information about the defense they're going to face. The defensive staff likewise reviews the opponent's offense. Particular attention is given to the detailed reports about the opponent's tells and audibles. Some players may choose to come in for additional medical attention and/or to do additional study on their own.

     The players get their first walk through of the game plan on Wednesdays. Most teams have their players practice in pads on this day. Typically, the staff has the team focus on the plays they are most likely to use on first and second down. They walk through all of the plays on the play calling sheet for these two downs, along with the audibles that will be used to check down to other plays. The players who are lower on the depth chart are used to create an "opponent" for the starters to practice against -- this group of nonstarters is referred to as the "scout" team. The coaching staff usually will meet to evaluate the practice sessions to see where they need to make corrections and to set up the plan for the next day's practice.

     Thursday begins with the players reviewing the first day of practice. This usually involves a film review of the practice along with a discussion of corrections identified by the coaches, in a classroom setting. The players and staff will then walk through the corrections out on the practice field. This is followed by a walk through of the plays that have been selected for use on third down situations. As with the Wednesday practice, the coaching staff will work into the evening reviewing the day's practices to determine what corrections need to be made and set up for Friday's practice.

     After a review of third down plays and a walk through of the corrections that need to be made, the team spends the day practicing what they are planning to do on specialized plays such as short yardage, goal line and two-minute drills. This day is usually not performed in pads. The coaching staff also expects that the players will have spent some of their off time preparing for the game through such things as film study and memorizing the  playbook at home. It is expected that players will spend time thinking about ways that they can win the individual matchups they will be facing during the game.

     Saturday, as the day before the game, has a few differences from the rest of the practice week. There will be a review of the previous day's practice along with the implementation of corrections. If there is extra time, the team may practice an extra play or a gadget play not previously practiced. Saturday practices are often opened to family and friends. It is at this point that the day follows a different pattern.

     If the team has an away game, the afternoon is spent showering and traveling to the airport for the trip to the game city. If it is a home game, the players are sent home to spend time with their families. In both cases, most teams will have some form of evening meetings. The nature of these evening meetings vary widely from team to team. Some teams use it as a time to address any final corrections to the plays that need to be made, others will arrange for the team to listen to an inspirational speaker, some will show highlight reels of the best plays made by the team to date in the current season, still others review special teams and or depth chart concerns.

From Play Sheet to Game Play

     Come Sunday morning, the team now faces the task of translating the plays listed on the play calling sheet into effective play on the field. Teams know that they will have approximately six drives in the first half, so the goal the coaches have is to gain as much information as they can about what their opponents are going to do in the first two or three drives.

     Some teams do this by scripting out the first fifteen to twenty offensive plays. They run these plays without variation since the goal is to spy out what the defense is planning to do. Other teams will do this by rotating in different personnel packages to see how the defense responds. Once they've seen a variety of matchups, the coaching staff in the booth will identify four or five that have been the most advantageous and the team will use those several times throughout the game. The overall goal is to have a good sense of what the defense is likely to do by the end of the first quarter.

     As the first half wears on, the coaching staff in the booth will spend their time tracking what plays were called from the play chart and what the results of those plays were. They work to track what personnel the opposing team was using and how they matched up with the opposition. The booth staff will be working on determining what has worked and why.

     Down on the field, the coaches and players on the sidelines -- if they are smart -- are carefully studying pictures from their previous time on the field. I had a friend from high school who spent a season as a photographer for the Oakland Raiders. He shared how the team took two pictures on every play -- the first came pre-snap, the second came after the main action of the play (i.e. a hand off, a pass, a kick, etc). The position coaches would go over the pictures with the players as they all tried to decide if what they thought they saw from the opposition pre-snap was in fact what had happened. Then the players and coaches begin to make adjustments.

Halftime Is NOT Hollywood

     I think most fans are probably like me in that their understanding of what goes on during halftime has been erroneously filtered through the football films of Hollywood. We can all think of a favorite football movie in which the team we want to root for is losing and the coach takes them into the locker room and delivers a fiery, inspirational speech that motivates the team to go out and win the game. While that may occur in the locker room at halftime, it is not the primary activity that goes on.

     Typically, the staff that has been analyzing the game from the booth will precede the team into the locker room. The booth coaches will lay out sufficient information about what has gone on in the first half that the rest of the coaching staff can make adjustments to the game plan. The coordinators will note which plays worked and bear being repeated in the second half and which did not and should be abandoned. They will also note which plays were not run at all so that they can be used in the second half. The coaches will then adjust the list of plays on the play calling sheet. The players will meet with their position coaches just prior to returning to the field to go over any adjustments that need to hopefully, the team will be able to go out, make the corrections and win.

A Final Thought

Until I started asking questions and looking into how the Broncos got from an encyclopedic collections of plays to the twelve that led to a win over the Texans, I had had no real concept of what went into the preparation for game day. I've also gained an appreciation for the task facing John Fox and his staff.

Fox and company are facing a monumental task. They have to review Denver's last season with an eye to discovering what worked and why it worked. They need to discern the reasons that certain things did not work. They will have to evaluate the roster to determine what holes they will need to fill.

Unlike previous years, they will be forced to face the prospect of making their preparations without the benefit of free agency, OTAs, minicamps, Training Camp and preseason games. Should it play out that way, the options will be greatly limited when it comes to game planning and play calling. It will be interesting to see how the coaches adjust to deal with the uncertain situation.