Even if the Pitt Panthers had to line up against the Steelers on a September Saturday afternoon, Matt Canada would have a plan in place to attack the NFL foe. It sounds preposterous that any college team — even mighty Alabama — would have even the most remote hope against professional opposition, and it’s certain the folks in Vegas would be more than happy to take the money of anyone who felt that way.
Canada isn’t a dreamer. Better still, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator isn’t delusional. Pitt isn’t beating the Steelers, not if the teams played 100 times. Canada knows that. He also knows that there is always a plan of attack, even if the chances of a positive outcome are practically zero.
“No matter how much better they are than us, there is still a worst guy on their defense,” Canada says. “We might be playing the All-Pro team, but there is still a guy that’s the worst on the team.
“You find that guy, put together a plan and go after him.”
Every week, coaches like Canada perch in stadium press boxes or stand along the sidelines all over the country, hoping their game plans are good enough to offset their opponents’ strategies and personnel. Days of meetings, film breakdown, discussion, revisions and practice produce specific blueprints for three hours — four if it’s a Big 12 game — of successful (they hope) offensive football.
The process begins in earnest the moment the previous week’s game ends. The broad strokes are applied several weeks and even months earlier, as graduate assistants and quality control coaches review tape to determine tendencies and situational responses. From there, it’s up to the offensive staff to create a scheme specific to the next team on the schedule.
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That plan doesn’t radically change each week. It can’t, or teams would be trying to learn new offensive principles before each game. Coaches don’t do the same things against each opponent, but it is vital that a team’s identity is preserved as the strategy is assembled.
“We have a good offensive philosophy that we believe in,” says Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. “It’s so nice that we know who we are. It’s so comforting.”
Once the planning is complete, the coaches take it to the practice field for installation. Come Saturday, it’s about how well the design addresses the problem — provided the problem stays the same.
Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis has been coaching for over four decades and calling plays for more than 30 seasons. He doesn’t boast about his experience or ability, but there isn’t too much that’s going to surprise him come Saturday. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some days when all of the planning and practicing are replaced by adjusting and ad-libbing.
“Some weeks, you get to the ball game, and the defense does exactly what you expect,” Davis says. “Some weeks, you get to the ball game, and the game plan is out the window to some degree. The defense is doing something different or playing a different coverage in a situation you didn’t anticipate.
“But it’s always important you go in with an overall plan, regardless of who you’re playing.”
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The Houston offensive staff isn’t very nostalgic.
No matter how well or poorly things went on Saturday, the game is all but forgotten by about 2 p.m. Sunday. As soon as the grades are in, and the coaches have watched the tape together, the whole thing heads into the archives. There’s another opponent to consider.
“It’s time to move on,” Cougars OC Major Applewhite says.
Each team has its own schedule for creating, revising and implementing a game plan. Davis says most teams assemble and install it “like a crossword puzzle”; it goes in piece by piece, not all at once. At UH, the process begins Sunday when the GAs and quality control folks stand up and brief the full-time staff about the next opponent. Until that point, nobody had been thinking about future rivals. The focus remains on the current challenge. You wonder why programs are devoting more resources to support personnel? It’s so that they can handle some of the preparation each week, taking the burden off people like Applewhite.
The briefing won’t be too complex. It’s more of a starting point, designed to acquaint everybody with the opponent’s personality. What are their tendencies? How do they react to the staples of the UH offensive canon? Which personnel group is the best? The most vulnerable? If there is anything unique the Cougars haven’t seen to that point during the season, it will be emphasized during that presentation.
“Say we’re playing Memphis,” Applewhite says. “[GAs and quality control coaches] let us know the base fronts, the base blitzes and base coverages. They tell us who Memphis is in a nutshell.”
From there, it’s out to the practice field for a brisk, 30-minute session with the players designed to correct mistakes from Saturday and look ahead to the next week. After practice, the Houston coaches reconvene to watch tape of the opponent’s last two games against offenses similar to the Cougars’. By mid-October, that isn’t a problem, but earlier in the season, it can be difficult to locate tape like that, particularly if the foe has faced, say, Navy’s option attack, a pro-style team or an “air raid” outfit that throws the ball 65 times per game. The Cougars employ a “power spread” scheme that is heavy on the run. (UH ran it 237 more times than it passed in ’15.)
Teams with new defensive coordinators are particularly troublesome in September matchups: It’s unwise to consult tape from the previous season due to the change in scheme. In those cases, coaches have to be creative, seeking out film from the rivals’ previous employers or speaking to former colleagues about tendencies and preferences.
“The early part of the season can be a nightmare,” Applewhite says. “Sometimes, you end up talking to friends. Three years ago [while he was at Texas], I was up against a former NFL coordinator. I had to call a guy on his [former] staff and ask what principles the coach believed in.”
Oklahoma OC Lincoln Riley says there are some benefits to facing a new defensive coordinator. His scheme may be unfamiliar to opponents, but it’s also alien to his players. Sure, it’s hard to know what to study, but it’s unlikely defenders will be comfortable with the system right away. “It’s a guessing game,” says Riley, whose Sooner attack was seventh nationally in total yards last season.
On Monday, many staffs complete as much of Davis’ “crossword puzzle” as possible. The Sooners work from 5-8 a.m. on assembling the entire plan. At Houston, Applewhite’s position coaches work on various responsibilities within the scheme. For instance, running backs coach Kenith Pope is responsible for designing answers to opponents’ blitz packages. Tight ends boss Corby Meekins maps out how to attack rival defensive ends. Derek Warehime, the offensive line coach, breaks down the defensive fronts, while Applewhite and new receivers coach Darrell Wyatt will address ways to confront coverages.
The rest of the day is spent applying the staff’s recommendations to specific situations, so that a plan can emerge that addresses all of a game’s possibilities. They draw up regular down-and-distance plays — first-and-10, second-and-8 — red-zone strategies, third-and-long schemes, screens, gadget plays and short-yardage possibilities. Staffs don’t come up with new plays for each game because they don’t want to confuse players who have spent weeks learning and executing one system. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some variations.
Davis points to the Iowa inside zone running play, which he estimates the Hawkeyes ran “260 times” in 2015. It’s going to be in the game plan; that’s no secret. But the Hawks will most likely run it differently against Wisconsin than they do versus Illinois.
“We’re going to run the inside zone, and opponents know we’re going to run the inside zone,” Davis says. “But maybe we’ll make it look a little different. One week, the emphasis will be on using ‘21’ personnel [two backs, one tight end], and the next week the emphasis is on ‘11’ personnel [one of each], with the tight end moving.
“Very few plays that show up on Saturday, especially running plays, are designed just for that week.”
By the time the players hit the field Tuesday — and more and more programs are practicing in the morning — the plan is in place, and it’s time to get the players familiar with the parts of the offense that will be featured. Pitt’s Canada uses Tuesday for “meat and potatoes” — first- and second-down situations — along with any trick plays that might be used and some seven-on-seven passing drills. Houston follows a similar plan, as does Oklahoma. Riley says that if there is a new play for that game, it goes in Tuesday, the better for players to get maximum time to work on it.
The coaches need as many days as possible to evaluate it, too. That goes for every play in the game plan. As the week goes on, staffs spend hours watching practice tape and trying to decide which plays absolutely must remain. The goal is to make sure the players are as proficient as possible in what they will be asked to run, and the more time they can give to a leaner menu, the better prepared they will be. It’s rare to find a staff that is inserting plays as the week goes on.
Applewhite likens his staff to accountants — they measure the cost of every play and ask if it’s worth having it in, or if it’s “too expensive” — and he isn’t alone. Every week, Pitt’s graduate assistants will chart how often plays were run during a game and how much practice time was spent on each. The object is to avoid having spent too much time preparing for things that never are used in games.
“We almost always have too much,” Canada says. “You see things on film and scratch them. There are enough good plays. Maybe you’ll run some of them twice, instead of once. In the average game plan, there are always too many plays.”
As soon as an offensive team crosses the opposing 20-yard line, TV commentators begin to talk about red zone scoring percentages. Applewhite considers those statistics meaningless, because the 20 isn’t a sacrosanct border. For his game-planning purposes, the red zone begins when the defense decides it does, and not when the boys in the booth say so.
“The red zone starts when the defense changes its alignment,” Applewhite says. “It could be the 25 or the 20. A lot of times, it’s the 12- or the 8-yard line. Where do they change their coverage, and where do the blitzes start to change? Some teams don’t change a lick.”
That’s why Wednesday practices are so important for the Cougars. They work on third-down packages, but they also install the red zone strategy. As Applewhite says, it’s quite different every week, due not only to how opponents defend the area, but also to how they define it. Some teams have “split personalities,” according to Applewhite. They may not blitz at all on most of the field, but send everybody but the drumline as the goal line nears.
By the end of practice Wednesday, the players should have ingested the entire strategy. From there, it’s a matter of repetition and figuring out which plays work best together. Many coaches will use Thursday or Friday walk-throughs (there is no universal approach to practicing, although some programs are going with full-speed work on Fridays) to have their offenses replicate drives by running seven or eight plays, with varying tempos. This familiarizes everybody with potential combinations and allows coaches to see what works together and what doesn’t.
“We practice it the way we call it,” Riley says. “We try to fit it together Friday so that it’s close to how we’ll do it in a game.”
Meetings, practices and walk-throughs are important, but at Stanford and a growing number of schools throughout the country, technology plays a big role, too. The Cardinal make use of a virtual reality system that allows players to get extra reps in a classroom by putting on VR goggles and going through practice film to make sure they understand how to attack defenses. If a starter wants more work, he can get it. And if a backup QB wants to see what it’s like to take reps with the first team against the enemy defense, that’s available, too.
“If a coach is there, he can see on the TV in the room where [the quarterback’s] eyes went, and say, ‘Whoa! Whoa! Why are you doing that?’” Bloomgren says. “It gives them extra chances to prepare.”
As the process of installing and fine-tuning a game plan continues, it’s important for the quarterback to feel comfortable with what’s going to be called. To that end, coaches try to get an idea of what they like in certain situations. Canada may give his quarterback six plays that could be called on third-and-5 and ask him to rank his top three.
“So, on the first third-and-5 of the game, if nothing has happened that’s different than what we expected, I’ll call the play that the quarterback likes,” Canada says.
Bloomgren asks his passers what plays they would prefer to be called early on. The answers he has received, whether from Andrew Luck or Kevin Hogan, are the same. Each wants an early, easy completion, and each wants to get hit.
“They want to feel like they are in a game,” Bloomgren says. “I tell them that it’s my job to make sure they don’t get hit, but they say they want to get their pads loose.”
The coaches put together the plan and teach it, but it’s the players who execute it. All of that talk about “Jimmies and Joes” is pretty accurate. No matter how great the scheme might be, it comes down to how well it plays out on the field. It’s easy to look at football as a carefully orchestrated game of parries and ripostes, but rarely does everything proceed according to design. In fact, many games are won by exactly how well teams perform when the whole idea goes to hell.
Davis talks about a running play last year in which the back hit the hole, only to find the cornerback unexpectedly waiting for him. Everything else was proceeding properly, but this rogue agent had emerged to trash the run.
“The running back made the guy miss and went 45 yards for a TD,” Davis says. “Was that a great play? We blocked well, but the cornerback read it, and our back made him miss.
“You’ve got to have a plan, but you have to have the players who can make it work.”
To make sure his players will be ready to do that, Applewhite and his staff administer a video test Friday before practice, during which they ask all their players what their assignments are on a collection of plays. It’s a “very military” approach. A play is announced, and the coaches grill everyone on their roles. This is no time for hesitation or casual behavior. “They are to sit up straight and call out the answer,” Applewhite says. “We fire through it, asking all 11 of them. Then we go to the next play.”
Although the Cougars are encouraged for the rest of Friday to relax, and coaches aren’t grabbing the players for hours of review, Applewhite does remind them that “their preparation doesn’t end until the foot hits the ball on Saturday.” After kickoff, coaches find out just how good their plans are. Davis emphasizes that while offenses are trying to make what they do look different from week to week, the defenses are doing the same thing. If a certain play looks good against what the opponent has done in the past, it might not be successful when called during a game, thanks to an adjustment to a front or a coverage. In those cases, the key is to address the issue without creating a sense of alarm.
“Maybe we thought a certain running play would work against an ‘over’ front, and they are now running a ‘diamond’ front,” Davis says. “We’ll tell the players, ‘Don’t panic. This is still a good play. This is how we have to go about it now.’”
It might just work. And if it doesn’t, the process starts again as soon as the game ends.
In fact, it’s probably already in progress.
— By Michael Bradley