As an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach I get asked all the time to share my favorite drill to help quarterbacks handle pressure and read defenses better. My answer is always the same, “playing in a game.” There is no substitute for the accelerated learning of “In Game” experience. The hard reality of this fact is that game experience is not very forgiving. For a quarterback to earn more of this valuable “In Game” experience he must win, and keep winning.
Confronted with this same “in game” experience dilemma as an offensive coordinator, I realized 3 things:
- Game experience is a non-negotiable to becoming a great play caller.
- The key to increasing game experience is to limit your mistakes.
- The best way to limit your mistakes is to learn from others.
In my effort to improve as an offensive coordinator through others I discovered a common problem. It’s very difficult to find offensive coordinators open to discussing their mistakes and weaknesses as play callers.
My hope is to bridge that learning gap for other play callers out there with 10 mistakes I’ve made as an offensive coordinator.
- Negative plays, and self-inflicting wounds hurts the worst
What stands out most after losing a big game is not being out-played by the defense. It’s the penalties, failed execution, bad routes, and missed assignments that we inflicted on ourselves. All these miscues lead back to me, the offensive coordinator. Over the course of a long season, these failures increasingly tempted me to install new plays as the solution. I could have been second guessing our athletic ability to execute our playbook, letting paranoia creep in as I believed that opposing defenses had me figured out, or I was bored running the same plays and I assumed my staff and players felt the same. While new plays may have given me a feeling of security during a game week, that security often faded quickly with in-game mistakes stemming from a lack of meaningful practice reps for those new plays. I’ve learned that lasting security that limits negative plays comes from spending more time working on our snap counts, ball security, reads, route running and blocking technique. Instead of scheming new plays, I needed to create fun and effective ways to do the little, boring, mundane fundamentals that win games.
- The off season is the time for game planning new plays
I’ve made the mistake adding and game-planning new plays and schemes during the season. During the season, I only have four days to prepare for an upcoming opponent. By the time the playoffs arrive I’ve been working 12 hour days for 7 days a week for 3 months. I’m sleep deprived, stressed out and not in a good state of mind to see things as clearly as I would in the off season. Building sequential play packages and situational plays in the off season have saved me an enormous amount of time and headaches during the season. It also allows me to teach the connectivity of concepts to the kids in the spring and summer so when the season hits I don’t have to cram a new series of plays in four short days. Because of this off-season discipline, in-season scheming has moved from new play installation to taking existing concepts and changing how we present them by formation, motion and personnel so defenses don’t recognize them.
- The game plan can’t stay in your head
As an OC, a big mistake I made was keeping my game day ideas and flow of play calls to myself. Maybe it was insecurity in my plan, a fear of not being able to get buy in from other staff members, or maybe I just didn’t know how to easily communicate the how and why to others. Nevertheless, just because I let my assistants see the plays on the practice script and call sheet didn’t mean I communicated properly. They needed to know the thought process of why I would make these calls. I must be able to paint a compelling picture and tell the story of how a game will be called against a specific opponent. If my game plan cannot be easily distilled to the coaches and players it will crumble under pressure.
- You need a system that can adapt to your personnel
Every year a new offensive style or scheme becomes the latest craze in the game of football. The temptation to emulate these new explosive styles each year was always a challenge for me. The two biggest factors I used to resist these new offensive schemes were talent and time. Being in high school, I couldn’t legally recruit the athletes I needed, and our time with the players we did have was very limited. I learned in adding new offensive schemes each season that I was working backwards trying to rebuild a race car with duck tape and chicken wire. Before I could build the race car I needed to understand the basic engine parts and how to assemble a combustible engine.
My single biggest breakthrough came in understanding the relationships of run and pass concept families. It allowed me to adapt my offensive race car engine to the talent of my players instead of trying to adapt my players to a new, specific “in vogue” race car offense of the year. Understanding concept family relationships accelerated my ability to assess whether my talent and time was sufficient to implement any new concept or strategy. Also, I was quickly able to determine what family a new offensive scheme related to on arrival. This helped me give the new addition a clear context and role in our existing offensive scheme, helped me justify its inclusion to my staff, and helped me explain why it would work to my players.
- You have to be able to analyze the success or failure of a play in real time
My first couple of years as OC, I was good at scripting the first 15-20 plays of a game. While this enabled me to enjoy calling games in the first half, that wasn’t always true in the second. While I sort of knew who to look at, what to generally look for, and what to possibly call next, I lacked the accelerated ability to understand in the moment why a play failed, or was successful. This weakness severely hindered my ability to make the proper in-game adjustments so critical for offensive success. I wrongly assumed the outcome of the play, yardage gained or lost, dictated whether the play was worth calling again. I couldn’t quickly discern what was done by the defense, or our players, to affect the result.
This is probably the most important trait of a great play caller. It was very frustrating during film review to see myself call the same play into a bad look, see the same player bust his assignment, or see how a defensive player was taking it away and not have adjusted on the spot. It was even more frustrating to see how a play was, or could have been, successful only to realize I never came back to it. This was either because I forgot to come back, or I didn’t like it because it didn’t get enough yards the first time I ran it.
The problem I found was that I didn’t have a process for determining a good play. I could adjust away from good defensive players and generally call plays into expected looks, but once the play was executed, I wasn’t able to discern the positive potential of that play the rest of the game. I ended up guessing what would work, rather than scheming. I compounded the problem by not having a common language for the staff and players to quickly communicate the reality of what they were seeing and what play or adjustment would fix it. Every coach was just following the ball, watching the game, and suggesting plays based on their perspective of what they thought might work. The development of this common language, sequential process, and turn-key system for everyone was a breakthrough that helped me the most in accelerating my ability to call better plays for an entire game.
- You have to be able to eliminate the noise during a game
As a play caller I have to trust my preparation, planning, and intuition on game day. Early on, I allowed my play calling to be easily influenced by things like momentum, the head coach yelling at me, the offensive line coach wanting to run the ball, the receiver coach wanting to throw the ball, etc. Questioning play calls, arguing, and blame-shifting are all things best addressed after the game. During the game I have to focus on the next play. I’ve learned it’s helpful to have a few “best” base plays to call when I get stuck, or am unsure what to do next. I learned to have thick skin as an OC and believe in the work I’ve done during the week. I’ve watched more film than anybody. I have the title. I need to act like it in keeping my confidence high. I’ve found that strong self-talk like this, an open mind to reasonable input, and having a few key “go-to” plays is critical to reducing the distracting “noise” of the game.
- It’s all about winning on 1st
Starting out, I mistakenly spent a lot of time game planning and practice time on 3rd down situations. That all radically changed when I met Mike Eayrs. (Green Bay Packers Head of Anyalytics) According to Earys, NFL offenses that gain at least four yards on 1st down convert that series of downs 73% of the time! That was a breakthrough moment for me and it took an enormous amount of pressure off my perspective of 3rd down. It was a lot easier to scheme plays to generate four yards on first down than to prepare multiple plays and protections for 3rd down and 10. It also helped our players to understand the importance of 1st down, which drastically increased our offense’s ability to stay on the field.
- Script plays for 1st and 15-20
One mistake I’ve corrected more recently is to script plays following a 1st down penalty. This is so important in big games. Coaches strive for players to play perfect, but false starts and holding penalties are going to happen. 1st down penalties are drive killers. I’ve found it is good to have a few plays set aside for these negative situations that can occur in the game. Regardless of what I call, I need a plan to get half of the yards back and stay on schedule to convert.
- Unless you are the superior team, you must be able to both run and throw the ball to win
I’ve learned there is nothing worse than getting to the post season against a better team and being forced into doing something I know we aren’t good at doing. I’ve learned in multiple post-season situations that when our team is evenly matched, or even over-matched, we must be multi-dimensional to win it all. Honestly, it’s easier to run the football. There are less variables of failure involved. Developing a passing game takes time under game pressure. I’ve learned the best time to develop our passing game is in the three non-district games at the beginning of the season. We want to win every game, but winning in district play is what matters most. I’ve found it helpful to use our non-district games to develop the reads and timing our passing game needs under pressure. Dropped balls, interceptions, and other opportunities may be missed early, but I’ve found the valuable reps of “in-game” passing game experience pay off in the post season.
- The playoffs are all about matchups
The final mistake I made for purposes of this article was thinking that game planning the playoffs is the same as the regular season. Every game a coordinator game plans for is about getting matchups, but in high pressure games, against better opponents, matchups must be the foremost priority. More game planning time needs to be spent on formations, movements, and concepts that get your best player(s) the ball against the weakest defender(s). I’ve learned the margin of victory in the playoffs comes down to about 4-5 plays. I must maximize the probability of turning these 4-5 plays into explosive ones through good matchups. If I have a game plan built around my best player(s) attacking their weakest player(s) then, win or lose, I sleep well at night knowing I did my job in putting my players in a position to win. As Bill Belechick said, “It’s a players game…”
I’ve spent the entirety of my experience coaching as an OC seeking to develop a system to be shared. The Complete R4 Offensive System was created to provide a process and a common language that accelerates decision making, game planning and play calling for coaches and players. It’s not an offense, it’s an operating system that enhances your offensive production. We don’t just want to change what you do with new plays, we want to change why you do it with a new process.