Hey, Coach, is that a wig or a wag?

November 15, 1976

That assistant coach down on the sidelines, the fidgety guy acting as though he is infested with lice, is not calling for a bug bomb. He is calling for the bomb. He is sending plays to his quarterback via hand signals, à la a third-base coach.

Despite what the television commentators want you to believe, wigwagging is not new. Little in the NFL ever is. College coaches have wigwagged offensive plays to their quarterbacks—legally and illegally—since the 1950s, and for years the pros have used simple hand signals to call defensive formations. However, the mythmakers have always contended that pro offenses were too voluminous and too complex for sign language. So a former college coach debunked the myth.

Don Coryell, who coached at San Diego State before taking over at St. Louis in 1973, reduced the Cardinals' offensive playbook to contortions of the hand and arm last season, and St. Louis romped to a division championship. Now the Los Angeles Rams have followed Coryell's lead, and other teams are toying with the concept. The Philadelphia Eagles wigwagged for six games this season but have temporarily returned to the conventional system of having Quarterback Mike Boryla call his own plays. "No matter what happens," says Boryla, who requested the change, "I'm going to get the blame, so I might as well call the shots." Boryla called enough right shots to lead the Eagles to a 10-0 triumph over the winless New York Giants two weeks ago, but he was criticized for being too conservative in his play selection.

Boryla called all but "one or two plays" last Sunday afternoon during Philadelphia's 17-14 loss to the St. Louis Wigwaggers. Ironically, the Eagles scored a touchdown on one of the plays sent to Boryla from the bench. With a third and one at the Cardinals' 48-yard line late in the first quarter—an obvious running situation—Boryla stunned the bunched-in defense by lobbing a touchdown pass to Charlie Smith, who had easily sneaked behind Cornerback Roger Wehrli.

"Third and short yardage is the perfect time for a play like that," Boryla said. "I would have called the same type of play myself."

Boryla worked a balanced game, calling 28 passes and 32 rushes. However, he was betrayed by three fumbles, including one by Dave Hampton at the St. Louis 11-yard line in the final seconds. By one means or another, Philadelphia turned over the football at the St. Louis 31, 20, 38, 19 and 11, and when Boryla overthrew Hampton on one third-down play, the Philadelphia crowd turned on the boos.

"There was a lot of negative reactions in the stands," said Eagle Free Safety Bill Bradley, "but I personally think Boryla directed a fine game today."

While the wigwag may be on hold in Philadelphia, coaches have always found ways to impose their wills on quarterbacks, even in college ball where coaching from the sidelines was illegal until 1967. In fact, a crude precursor of the wigwag probably cost UCLA a victory over Michigan State in the 1956 Rose Bowl. Late in that game, with the score tied 14-14, UCLA had the ball near its own goal line. The Bruin coaches wanted Quarterback Ronnie Knox to pass, not run. Assistant Coach Jim Myers, now an aide with the Dallas Cowboys, got Knox' attention and made a passing motion, but an official saw the gesture and penalized UCLA. Capitalizing on strong field position after the ensuing punt, Michigan State won the game on a 41-yard field goal by Dave Kaiser.

Paul Brown is credited with initiating the best-known method of sending in plays, the messenger guards, but there was a time when Brown, too, tried to eliminate the middle man. Brown once experimented with transmitting signals to radio receivers in the helmets of the Cleveland quarterbacks. Unfortunately for Brown and the Browns, the New York Giants tuned in on his frequency and stole the plays. Moreover, the Browns' quarterbacks were hardly enamored of the squawking. "I understand we have a new quarterback coming here," said George Ratterman. "I don't know if he can throw, but I understand he has five years' experience as a wire operator."

A study of the wigwags that Philadelphia flashed to Boryla helps explain why pro football waited all these years before adopting the system. The Eagles have more than 80 signals and sometimes need a series of 10 of them to call a complicated play, such as "I-right Tim play pass 47 653." If you think that's a mouthful for a shuttling guard, imagine translating 10 separate hand signals and still remembering what the second one was.

Most pro plays break down into six elements: formation, strength, motion, type of play, blocking scheme and pass routes. For example, I-right Tim play pass 47 653 means I-formation, strength right (i.e., tight end lined up on the right side), tight end in motion (abbreviated as Tim) and a fake run leading to a pass. The phrase "play pass" dictates the type of blocking. The 47 tells the backs which run to fake, and the 653 tells the three receivers which routes to run.

To simplify matters for Boryla, the Eagles devised a different "vocabulary" for each of the elements of the play. Understandably, they won't reveal the exact sign language, but arm positions could be used for strength, arm movements for formations, hand signals for blocking schemes, and numbers may be given by tapping the body in various places.

The coach who wigwags does not actually call the plays; assistants up in the press box usually do. The Rams' play-caller is Receiver Coach Leeman Bennett, who earned a game ball for his upstairs quarterbacking in Los Angeles' 31-28 win over Miami early this season. Bennett spreads the game plan, which lists certain plays for every possible situation, in front of him. He also uses Polaroid pictures of each play to determine if the opponent is employing the pass coverages on which the game plan was predicated. Analyzing these aids, he phones plays to the sideline to Offensive Coordinator Ken Meyer, who then wigwags them to the quarterback.

The quarterbacks have ways to indicate that they didn't receive—or didn't understand—the signal. The Rams quarterback, for example, slaps his hand to his helmet, indicating "please repeat."

Unlike baseball strategists, football coaches have rarely attempted to steal the opposition's signals, obviously fearful that an incorrect "steal" would send all 11 defensive players heading in the wrong direction. Opponents have tried to confuse the issue, however. Miami vexed the Rams by substituting one new player the instant Meyer had finished his wigwagging to Quarterback James Harris. "That's why you have to have an audible program built into your system," says Ram Coach Chuck Knox.

Except for Boryla, the wigwagees like the wigwag. "You can get the signals quicker and there's less chance for human error," says St. Louis' Jim Hart. "You'd be amazed how 'strong right' can become 'slot left' in the course of a shuttling guard's run from the sideline to the huddle." "The only reason we call plays is so we can follow the action," says Coryell. "We don't call plays because we think we know more than the quarterbacks. Most quarterbacks are probably smarter than the coaches anyhow. And we don't call them to take pressure off the quarterback. The coaches are the ones who get fired, not the quarterbacks. You can't do an intelligent job of coaching if you don't know what play is going to be called. It handicaps you because you don't know how to correct the plays."

As with any new system, wigwagging has resulted in some unexpected benefits. For instance, in one Philadelphia game it served as an excellent early-warning sign of a concussion. Assistant Coach Carl Peterson wigwagged a conservative running play to Boryla after the quarterback had scrambled to a first and goal at the St. Louis five-yard line, but Boryla threw a dangerous pass that fell incomplete. The Eagles checked and, sure enough, Boryla didn't have the foggiest notion of where he was.

On another occasion, though, Boryla had more of a notion than his coaches imagined. With the Eagles trailing Atlanta 13-7 late in the fourth quarter and coming up to fourth-and-goal at the Falcons' nine, Head Coach Dick Vermeil suggested a play that Peterson wigwagged to Boryla. Then Vermeil remembered his play was not in the game plan and, fearing that the call would confuse his players, he decided to change it. Peterson madly waved his arms in a no, no, no gesture and signaled a second play. Vermeil had third thoughts, however, so Peterson waved frantically to Boryla again and wigwagged a third play. Boryla calmly watched this hectic pantomime, then called the first play—a post to Wide Receiver Charlie Smith. The Eagles scored and won the game 14-13.

Maybe Coryell is right about quarterbacks being smarter than coaches.


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