Going by The Book

So you think playbooks are just diagrams with lines going this way and that? You'll be amazed at what coaches stuff in them and how much the poor player has to learn
September 04, 2005

In 1982 Dick Vermeil, then the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and his wife, Carol, spent the last two days of their summer vacation at Veterans Stadium. They went into a room with a long conference table and separated 56,250 photocopied sheets of paper into 75 playbooks, with 750 pages in each. As many as eight plays were printed on one side of a page, maybe 2,000 plays in all. "I hand drew all of them with a template," Vermeil recalls. Twenty-three years later Vermeil

is the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and four team employees do the job that he and Carol did--and much more. This year Vermeil gave his players a 75-page binder when the 14-day Organized Team Activity period began in May; a playbook binder with 100 pages at the start of minicamp in June; and a third binder with some 300 pages at the start of training camp. Once the season starts, each player will get a new binder every Wednesday containing plays that will be used against that week's opponent. All the books are printed in color. If players prefer to study the plays on their laptops, they can get them downloaded onto a CD and also get a DVD with video of the plays being run in practice.

The game-plan book that each player receives on Wednesday opens with the itinerary for the weekend--in detail, down to the menu for the team snack on Saturday night--and ends with the plays the Chiefs will choose from if the offense faces a fourth-quarter goal line situation.

Vermeil is not alone in the extremes to which he goes to prepare his team. "I'm not even sure what to show you," Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora says of his playbooks. "We've got so many." Mora starts pulling them off the shelves in his office. There's the Defensive Concept Book ("Teach and demand Falcon standards for effort and tempo," it reads at the beginning. "SWARM"). The Quarterback Transition Book, which includes core plays and off-season schedules. The minicamp playbook, the defensive playbook for training camp ... and finally the 300-page weekly playbook with 16 sections, each of them color-tabbed.

"The phrase information overload is real," says Mora, who pulls out the playbook for last season's NFC Championship Game against Philadelphia and flips to a page in the Formations section, pointing out this bit of information: In the four games before the NFC title game, the Eagles ran a total of 21 plays out of what Atlanta calls the Base Green Left formation (two backs, one tight end to the left, two wide receivers split one to each side)--12 pass plays and nine run plays.

So technical, yet so imaginative, NFL playbooks reveal more about the pro game --and the people in it--than anything else.

New York Jets coach Herman Edwards has a section in the front of his playbook that shows players how to huddle. "If one guy doesn't get [an assignment], then you're playing with 10," Edwards says. "We go into every season thinking we're starting from scratch. We teach everything again."

From the section tabbed Huddle procedure/calls: "Nose [tackle] sets huddle two yards from the ball," begins the description below a diagram. The Mike, or middle linebacker, calls out the defensive signals to, from left to right, the strongside linebacker (Sam), end, nosetackle, defensive tackle, weakside linebacker (Will), left cornerback, strong safety, inside linebacker (Jack), free safety and right cornerback. "Signal-caller [Mike] does the talking," it goes on. "All others listen. Make the call only when all players are in the defensive huddle. Talk straight out, not up in the air or down at the ground."

Jets middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been huddling and calling signals for years, before he even got to the NFL in 2004. Why does he need instructions on how to do it? Vilma seems to find the question odd. "At the beginning of the season," he says, "we know nothing."

Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick has a section in his playbook that lays out how every minute of every training-camp practice will be spent. This year the Ravens were scheduled for 310 minutes of individual fundamental drills over 21 camp practices; tight ends, for example, would work on pass protection, blocking and escaping coverage. The offense was to take 1,542 snaps, 215 against nickel defenses. "We will design every throw Kyle Boller makes in training camp," Billick says. "If you want to know what he's going to be doing on August 9 at 10:42 a.m., I'll tell you."

Let the record show that on that date and time Boller was starting a 10-minute seven-on-seven drill. At 10:46 Boller broke the huddle to run Bunch Right Liz Cincy, a pass play out of a three-wideout set.

But that's nothing compared to the fine points driven home by Houston Texans coach Dom Capers. While Baltimore has five nights of classroom-style playbook instruction, Houston has about 20 such sessions. "If Dom Capers ever came to work here, he'd end up in a mental hospital," Billick says. "He's so detail-oriented. He'd come here and think, 'I'm at a country club.'"

St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz has a page in his playbook dedicated to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. Well, not exactly. "We don't have a playbook," Martz says. One of the top offensive minds in the game doesn't have a playbook? "It's just too much," he says, explaining why his players are not issued phone book--sized playbooks at the start of training camp. "We can't do it. The plays we've used here, and may use again, are in 10 volumes. So we teach the base plays, we look at ourselves every day, and we find the right plays to run against our opponents." Each week of the season the Rams get 250-page binders containing the game plan and diagrams of plays for that week.

On the desk in Martz's office is a piece of loose-leaf notebook paper on which is written CAT PLAYS with details on five plays. These are pass plays to Manumaleuna, a 288-pound tight end who is an emerging force in a wideout-dominated offense. In the Rams' terminology, Cat is Manumaleuna (a former Arizona Wildcat). In the play Cat Right, Ace Right 816 F-8 H-Drag, for instance, he is split right and runs an 8 pattern, which in Martz's offense is a deep post.

"We signed another tight end, Roland Williams, in the off-season, and I think Brandon was a little down about it," Martz says. "He thought he was being replaced. The first practice we had this summer, Brandon was unbelievable. We threw him eight balls, and he caught every one. Some were tough catches too. So [offensive coordinator] Steve Fairchild and I figured, let's put two wide receivers left and isolate Brandon right. All the receiving talent on this team, and we'd have our big tight end all alone on the other side of the formation. We think there are some advantages for a play like that in scouting our first couple of opponents this year. How will they cover him? How will they defend the run? And that's what we like to do here. Players know if they have a good day at practice, we might draw something up for them. And if it doesn't work in practice or the game, the play goes into the trash can."

In 2000, when Mora was the San Francisco 49ers' defensive coordinator, coach Steve Mariucci assigned him an off-season project on defending mobile quarterbacks. "We came up with a philosophy," Mora says. "Rush thoughts, blitz thoughts, coverage thoughts. We explained to our players what a quarterback under pressure is taught to do. How he escapes, who he's likely to look for, how an offense practices its scramble drill."

Mora took the information with him when he became the Atlanta coach last year. Now there's a slick, seven-page section in his playbook complete with photos of Falcons chasing Donovan McNabb.

Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and his coaches installed the section before last season. In three games against Atlanta before 2004, McNabb had scrambled a total of 12 times for 107 yards. When the Eagles and the Falcons met in the NFC title game, McNabb scrambled 10 times for 32 yards.

The Eagles have sections in their playbook that give wide receiver Reggie Brown, a rookie second-round draft pick out of Georgia, a massive headache. In college Brown would step into the huddle and hear two words. If the quarterback said, "70 Bench," Brown would do a 12-yard square out. With the Eagles, Brown steps into the huddle and hears, "Red Left Switch Close, A Right Motion, Sprint G, U-Corner HB Flat," and he has to know that he goes in motion from left to right before the snap, then runs a square-out.

"I hate my alarm more than anything right now," Brown says. "It goes off at 6:50 every morning, and I'm like, 'No! No!'"

That's because most nights in training camp, Brown was up till midnight or later, trying to process the 20 plays the Eagles had installed that evening. Rookie or not, a player's mental mistakes are not tolerated by the coaches. "My body's totally worn down, and it needs sleep," says Brown. "But I can't afford to go out there tomorrow and screw up. In college the play was a couple of words. Now it's almost a paragraph. So I just keep going, as long as I can stand it."

One question keeps coming to mind: How do the players remember everything they need to know?

In fact, some don't. In 2003 the Rams and the New England Patriots each waived a recently acquired veteran who had struggled to learn the offense. But most players don't have a problem mastering the language, assignments and techniques, and that's where coaching comes in. Mora tells his assistants that if they can't teach a player what he needs to learn to play well, it's their fault. "I reject the notion that players can't learn an NFL scheme," he says. "I will not allow the word dumb to be used in this building."

Mora hires coaches who can not only teach but also understand that voice inflection and imagination are keys to helping players learn. When the game plan is unveiled on Wednesday morning, the coaches take five- to 10-minute turns in the PowerPoint presentation, sprinkling jokes and quick quizzes throughout the instruction to keep the room alive. When he was with the 49ers, Mora had a player who had trouble learning the defense. To boost the guy's confidence, Mora would tell the player on a Thursday, "Better study your second-down tendencies in the red zone," then the next day he'd ask the player, in front of his teammates, "What does St. Louis like to do on second down near the goal line?" The guy had it down pat, and he gained confidence.

Vermeil uses parables as a teaching tool. His favorite, included in this year's training-camp playbook, is about a carpenter, who just before he retired built a home without his usual care. Then, shocked when the contractor gave him the house as a retirement gift, the carpenter thought of how he would have handled the job differently.

"You are the carpenter," the parable reads. "Your attitudes and choices you make today build the house you live in tomorrow. Build wisely! Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody is watching."

Says Vermeil, "I tell guys, 'You're tired, you think you've got nothing more to give, and all of a sudden it's cut day. What would have happened if you pushed yourself just a little more? Then maybe you wouldn't be cut. You'd be in the NFL.'

"You have a lot of ways to teach what's in that playbook," adds Vermiel. "And you better use them all."

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PHOTOPhotographs by Greg Foster TEACHING TOOL Mora's playbook includes not only the Falcons' offensive sets but also tips on how to defend a mobile quarterback. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO HEAVY READING Vermeil has always inundated his players with information, but he includes inspirational material as well. PHOTOPhotographs by Greg Foster