Sunday, May 02, 2010

Rambling about plays

So, question; with all these rookies turning up for mini camps and trying to get their heads around the new terminology, just how big of a playbook is too big? Well to be honest, if we're talking about the NFL then we're looking at 350 pages. Admittedly that includes several pages taken up by diagrams of all the formations, a few more taken up explaining how all the routes should be run, even more soaked up by explaining all the coverages etc, but by and large you are looking at a tremendous number of plays, easily in the order of 70-100 per team. That seems like a lot. Which is because... it is a lot. Most teams will carry something like 25-30 different run plays into a season, along with at least as many drop back passes, some screens (shall we say 15?) and some play action (probably another 15). Obviously exact amounts vary from team to team, but this is a pretty reasonable average. What makes this even more mind numbing is the way playbooks are put together. Take Bill Walsh and the 49ers (not a fifties blues group) for example. Bill was widely regarded as one of the more intellectual and competent of his coaching contemporaries. But to read an old 49ers playbook (specifically the '85 copy) is to delve into the realms of unnecessary and confusing repetition, liberally interspersed with random out of place information. In short, we have a book that desperately needs an editor. Putting all these things together it's no wonder that some rookie QBs struggle mightily to learn the subtle nuances of their new systems. But could it be helped. Is there another way? To go right to the opposite end of the spectrum is to arrive at an offensive theory that is built around a few core plays, ones that you hammer in practice until the team can practically do it by feel with their eyes closed. Of course running an ISO lead play up the middle all day wont work forever and must be supplemented by what are now gradually becoming known as 'constraint plays', leading handily to the title "Constraint theory of offense". The premise is simple. Pick a play that you love to run and that you believe your team can execute pretty well. Now liberally throw in a few plays that look almost identical to the core play at first, but in fact are designed to exploit the defenses over reaction to it. In our ISO lead play example, the defense might counter this (for arbitrary explanation reasons) by bringing the SS down to stand by the MLB, thus helping to stuff the run up the middle. But now there is a glaring weakness in the secondary that can be exploited with a play action play that gets a receiver or two into that gap where the SS should have been standing. Thus, you're able to punish the defense for taking away your favourite play, and will continue to do so until they adjust once more and let you have your play back again. Now in theory this is great. Certainly at the high school level there is little to condemn this approach, especially as it allows you to maximise time spent working a small group of plays to perfection. But at the NFL level, where there is so much film to be watched and so much time that can be spent making adjustments to everything you do, including your adjustments, it now becomes necessary to expand things a little more. But if 100 plays is too many and a handful of plays is too few, where do we draw the line? The obvious answer might be the middle ground, but before we reach it, let's stop off in Lubbock, Texas, to meet footballs resident Blackbeard impersonator. I am of course talking about the now former Texas Tech Red Raiders Head Coach, Mike Leach. Obviously without a copy of his playbook we'll never know for sure, but it's widely believed that Leach only had about 30 or so pass plays in his repertoire. This is worth noting mainly because of the outstanding success that Texas Tech found under Leach, tearing up passing records for fun. The key was a combination of his minimalist (by comparison to peers) playbook and the coaching methods used to teach the reads of these plays to the players. Here then is proof to some degree that a huge playbook isn't always necessary to find success. But given the amount of practice and film time in the NFL and the guaranteed high levels of speed and talent on NFL defenses, can 30-ish plays suffice? I'm gonna throw a number out there. 60. Sixty is around the average number of plays that an NFL team runs in a game, excluding special teams. 60 gives you the scope to run a few plays twice, probably from different formations, or with slight tweaks such as tagging one players route. 60 gives you plenty of scope to include around 20 runs, 20 drop back passes and 20 play-action plays, give or take a few depending on your style (I'd probably want less passes and a few more runs). I think 60 is enough to cover a multitude of situations and to attack a defense in a variety of ways without becoming stagnant. Now you're probably wondering where this is going or what pithy comment I'm going to make to wrap it all up and bring the whole thing home. Unfortunately, I lost track of that about a half hour ago. So I'll finish simply by saying have a great day everyone and I promise to think things through and be more coherent in the future.

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