In the 10 years since he left the playing fields of Wake Forest, Karl Sweetan has worked as a quarterback—mostly intermittently and inauspiciously—for the Toronto Argonauts, the Pontiac (Mich.) Arrows, the Detroit Lions, the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. A fortnight ago, having been released by the Rams and having failed to make it with the Edmonton Eskimos, he decided to change careers and try his hand at selling. He did not distinguish himself in that field, either.
Sweetan, along with a cousin, attempted to peddle a 1971 Ram playbook for $2,500 to J. D. Roberts, the head coach of the Saints. Roberts pretended to go along with the deal and informed the league, it called the FBI, which wired him up with a transmitter in one of football's more unusual plays. "All I did was ask questions," Roberts said after completing his agent's role. "The FBI did a helluva job." U.S. Attorney Gerald J. Gallinghouse said Roberts had, too, adding that the coach "executed each play the FBI called to perfection." Sweetan and his cousin were jailed, charged with interstate transportation of stolen property and fraud by wire and released on $5,000 bond each.
The case shocked pro football's coaches, largely because they could not see why a playbook could be thought to have such value. Dan Devine of the Green Bay Packers says he would not pay $5 for one. Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins says, "What secrets are there, really? A book gives you a system, not a game plan."
What is a pro team's playbook, and could it have any value to a rival coach? Presumably, what Sweetan would have had to sell was an offensive playbook (pro teams have two—one for the offense, one for the defense). The books—usually loose-leaf notebooks—contain plays and variations, formations, audibles, nomenclature, house rules and, in some cases, exhortations to the players to give 110%.
July 23, 1972
The book Sweetan was accused of trying to sell was compiled by Tommy Prothro (see cover) after he took over the Rams last year. Ironically, Prothro is not an advocate of playbooks. "I believe in them less than anybody," he said last week. "I really don't learn by reading things. I learn by seeing something and talking about it. Consequently, I've never believed in writing it all down. But all our other coaches believe in it, and if these young, smart guys believe in it, I'm all for having one."
Prothro said that the most valuable information to be gleaned from a rival's playbook is not what a team does, but what it doesn't do. "You never know when they are going to do something," he said, "but if you know something they won't do, then you don't have to protect against it."
Prothro admitted that he has trouble recalling the nomenclature in his own playbook. "I'll ask an assistant every once in a while, 'That pitch where the quarterback swings around end and we trap the first man from the tackle's nose outside, what the hell are we calling that now?' In the same way I don't remember what I had to eat tonight for dinner, but I know what happened on the second play of the third quarter of a football game in 1954."
Indeed, there is little variation in play-books from team to team, except in nomenclature. With the wholesale exchange of game movies, teams are thoroughly conversant with the plays their adversaries run. In fact, they often know their opponents better than themselves and have to "scout" themselves every few weeks to make sure no predictable tendencies are showing.
Paul Brown, the part-owner and coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, does not place much value on an opponent's playbook as a secret weapon, either. "There is very little in a playbook that could help one team against another in a given game," he says. "Better you should have a quarterback who can throw the ball." The Rams, incidentally, probably have an old Brown playbook handy, in case Prothro should need it. "I often give a player—a deserving player—a playbook if he's ending his career and going into coaching," Brown says. "You can study a playbook in the off-season and pick up little ideas of nomenclature, little things you might like better than the way you're saying or doing something. But it's meaningless in preparing for another team. You can get everything you ever would want from a game film."
Hank Stram of the Kansas City Chiefs tells of a flight he once took from Dallas to Fort Lauderdale. "The plane stopped in New Orleans," he says, "and a bunch of youngsters got on board. They were members of an eighth grade team going to a postseason game. While on the flight they took examinations on the plays they were to use in the game. I was surprised to hear that they were using our plays and terminology. Their coach had followed our team as a fan, liked our variety offense and had been given a copy of our playbook by one of our former players."
Several years ago Paul Brown briefly experimented with shortwave transmissions from sideline to quarterback as an alternative to his system of messenger guards. The quarterback had a tiny transistorized speaker in his helmet so that Brown could talk to him in the huddle. According to a perhaps apocryphal story, the year Brown went electronic an assistant quit his club to work for the Giants, and during a New York-Cleveland game tuned in on Brown's frequency. Since he knew Brown's playbook, he shouted advice to the Giant defenders as soon as Brown called a play. The Giants won 21-9.
If true, this may have been the only instance in which a playbook helped an opposing team. In truth, scouting, movies, even tipoffs—inadvertent indications by a member of an offensive team that allows the defense to anticipate the type or direction of an upcoming play—have always been overrated.
In 1950 the Rams had a divisional championship team, but they could not seem to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, coached by Greasy Neale and quarterbacked by one-eyed Tommy Thompson. By assiduous study of Eagle movies, they discovered something about Thompson. If he was going to hand off for a run to the right, his right foot was in back of his left, and vice versa. If he was going to pass, his feet were parallel to one another. It was a perfect tip-off since it was visible to the defense well before the snap of the ball.
But at the half the Eagles led the Rams 28-0; at the end of the game it was 56-20. "We knew where they were going," said Ram Linebacker Don Paul, "but they went there anyway." Which brings to mind something an NFL scout said after watching one of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay teams dismantle an opponent. When the game ended, he was asked what he had discovered. "Hell," he said, sadly, "how do you scout blocking and tackling?"
It is surprising that the Saints made a federal case out of the Sweetan matter. "This whole incident is sadly blown clear out of importance," says Paul Brown. "It's certainly not worth bringing in the FBI. I think those Saints were living up to their name. If Sweetan had approached me, I would have told him I wasn't interested in the book. I'd have also told him he was making a mixed-up mistake, and I would have tried to talk him out of it. Then I'd have called the Rams to let them know what was going on."
Norm Van Brocklin of the Falcons says he would have done the same thing, adding that his book is already being used around the league—the defensive volume by Minnesota and Philadelphia, the offensive by St. Louis.
Billy Wilson, once a star end for the San Francisco 49ers, has a garage full of playbooks. "I've got them from every year I played football," he says. "What's the going price? $2,500? I think I'll have a garage sale now. Two for $4,000."
Dick Nolan of the 49ers expresses the majority view of his fellow coaches. "Another team's playbook is not worth $2,500," he says. "My own playbook is beyond value, in a way, because a lot of hard work and thought went into it. What it really contains is one's own interpretation of the game. It is the philosophy, what I want from my players and what they are expected to give me in the way of effort. So that part of it is not of much value to the opposition. I mean, you learn that anyway—the other coach's philosophy—over the years. You see his films, you watch his games, you get your computer reports, and patterns begin to establish themselves.
"Sometimes you learn more from all the things put together than any playbook can ever divulge. And that's another thing. I don't have everything in our playbook. There are things we decide the week of a game, things we don't put down in writing."
Of the 300-odd plays in a playbook, most teams use from 15 to 30 in a specific game, those being tailored for the clubs they are playing. Had Sweetan, on a Friday before a Sunday game against the Rams, sold the ready list, it conceivably could have helped the Saints.
The audibles in the playbook would not. An audible signal allows the quarterback to change his huddle call to meet a different defense at the line of scrimmage. It is preceded by a live call in the huddle. The quarterback might mention the color orange as the live audible; if he wants to change the call at the line of scrimmage, he repeats "orange." Any other color—green, red—means the huddle call goes. The defense would have to know the live color and the meaning of the numbers called after it to know what the play would be.
The crux of the matter is that pro football is an incestuous business. Nolan, who was for years an assistant to Dallas' Tom Landry, has a playbook which varies little from the Cowboys'. There is a whole school of coaches in the league who received their early training from Paul Brown, including Weeb Ewbank of the Jets and Shula. All of them think alike, and when something new comes up, it appears on film and is immediately adopted by the rest.
Playbooks change with the game from season to season, probably about 20% a year. And very likely 80% of all playbooks are similar, with the exception of nomenclature. As Hank Stram points out, "It's a game of people, not notebooks. The Chiefs' playbook is a volume of communications so that the team can have a common language when we talk football both on and off the field. The only basic difference in the plays used by pro teams is in terminology."
"The first thing in the playbook is a new language," says Prothro. "Nomenclature and semantics. There are so many things you want to talk about in football, both verbally on the field and in writing in a playbook, that we must have a form of shorthand. We must give things terms."
For instance, the Ram playbook uses "Switch" to indicate a linebacker dropping off in pass coverage opposite to his normal drop. "OX" means an end and a linebacker switching assignments. "Roger" is the right tackle looping to the outside, "Rinny" the right tackle looping to the inside.
Although Paul Brown is usually credited with creating the first playbook, it is more likely that Clark Shaughnessy, who coached the Rams in 1948 and 1949, originated the idea. Shaughnessy arrived in Los Angeles with trunks full of play diagrams that he had put into books. He had more than 300 plays in his collection and variations off each. "For a long time, the guards used to meet just behind the center on a running play," Norm Van Brocklin says of those Ram days. "They were pulling in opposite directions. I had to drop back in a hurry just to avoid being mashed."
Because of its complexity, the playbook can be a frightening thing for a rookie, so Prothro feeds the Ram newcomers theirs a page at a time. "If we gave a rookie a four-inch playbook when he hit camp, he would be overwhelmed, completely demoralized," says Prothro. "Our original playbook is almost just the binder. Then, as we put in plays and variations, we give them the pages on those. The book builds."
George Allen, Prothro's predecessor with the Rams and now head coach and general manager of the Washington Redskins, has no such tender feelings for rookies, but then he has never held them in much esteem. Under Allen, the Ram playbook was the handsomest in the league. It was bound in red and looked like an encyclopedia volume. It cost Allen a great deal of money to have his playbooks bound like library books, but he has never been one to scrimp.
Aside from the extraordinary amount of memory work a playbook demands of a rookie, it can be costly to him in other ways. Most clubs fine a player from $500 to $1,000 for losing a playbook. Explains Stram, whose rate is $500: "It's a part of the overall program of discipline. We give them the responsibility for the property and we expect them to take care of it, just like any other equipment we issue."
And when the Turk comes to call at training camp the playbook is the invariable symbol of dismissal. If an assistant tells a rookie—or a failing veteran—to see the head coach and adds, "And bring your playbook," that means the player is being cut.
Even Sweetan turned in his playbook when he was dismissed from the Rams. That was a Xeroxed copy he and his cousin were trying to peddle in New Orleans.