NFL Offensive Play Calling Terminology: Simplify and Minimize


NFL Play Calling Terminology

I was once a proponent of systematic play calling terminology like the NFL. This included formation adjustments, the play and tags. I even had an equation for it. It’s can be very flexible.

For this, Steve Jobs would beat me with his “simple stick”. Over and over again. Why? It’s flexible but it’s complex. It’s not simple.

The Future of NFL Play Calling and Terminology

The NFL will eventually meet an offensive coach who is a much better coach when it comes to communicating. With the way college coaches are calling plays, be them hand signals, 3-5 word max calls or boards with pictures, it’s truly only a matter of time. The big difference is that college football needs these systems, where NFL has the coordinator talking through a headset. So for this moment, let’s start with the actual play call in words and why they’re inefficient and how they can be simplified.

Flexibility Versus Complexity

Flexibility only matters if it’s truly understood quickly. Let’s face it, the game of football is faster than ever before. To understand something quickly, it must be succinct and simple. 8-12 word play calls take time to process. That doesn’t include snap count or anything like that either. If we could cut that in half, we not only save a split second or two on the clock, we save our players processing power for more important things, like the defensive adjustments or remembering the snap count.

What’s the Solution for NFL Play Calling Terminology

I’m not an NFL coach. I didn’t play college football. But if Apple can change the wording for MP3 players from what it technically was, specifically a “four inch, sixty gigabyte hard drive with a USB port” to “1000 songs in your pocket”… then the NFL can change “Brown Right Over 73 Chicago F arrow X curl” to “Rex Chicago Calf”.

How can this be done? Make your most used tags, motions or other adjustments and tie them together as much as possible. “F arrow x curl” is a curl/flat concept tag that is tied to the original play call (“73 Chicago” in this case), so why not make it one word, aka “calf”.

You may be thinking, okay smart guy, but what about pass protections? In the NFL, the center sets them in a lot of offenses. Heck, the Bears took over 20 into some games last year. The center can call them with the appropriate play. The center knows Chicago is a 5 step drop, he can call a five step protection. While your HS center may not know this, hopefully a full time NFL player will.

What about the formation? “Brown right over” became “Rex”. I dropped 2 words. Because of the extra time NFL players have, learning formations could become part of the meetings and be rep’d without the contact for 5 minutes before or after practice. If someone signs in the middle of the season and needs to get caught up to speed quick, his teammates could help him out. Regardless, I could argue learning an extra 20-40 formations would be easier than trying to figure out how each slight adjustment to a formation could affect a receiver. This is probably where my philosophy has changed the most since a few years ago, where I used to believe that receivers/fullbacks should adjust the formation. Quite frankly, this is something we should just make easy because while formations are important, they aren’t as important as the play. I’d rather have them thinking about the play then making sure they adjust the formation correctly.

I know Trent Dilfer would say that a formation is one thing, but personnel is another. That is the added benefit of the NFL system, so they can get personnel matchups. Or wait… can’t I just use a word like a brand of car? Maybe say it before the play? Or use a signal? Or maybe a board? This way I can have slot and flanker switch positions. That seems easier than “Brown Right Over Flip” doesn’t it? I could say “Rex Mustang” instead of all that. On Mustang, slots and flankers flip. Doesn’t matter what the call is. They flip.

You may ask about shifts and motions. That’s easy. Some NFL teams already use this method so it should be even easier. “Rex zac” means the z moves across the formation to Rex. Or vice versa (moves from his spot in Rex to somewhere across the formation).

So, if we take a sample full NFL play call, with my slot and flanker flipped now, like “Brown Right Over Flip Zac 73 Chicago F arrow X curl” (11 words), I could easily make it “Rex Mustang Zac Chicago Calf” (5 words). This has cut 6 words out of the play call, and can easily mean the same thing. Heck, if we just yelled “Mustang” to the players or used a signal (because NFL stadiums are so loud) for that after the huddle, I can cut that word out. So now we’re at 4 words, “Rex Zac Chicago Calf”. Wait… I could probably use a signal for the motion too… since we’re motioning into the called formation anyway so it ultimately doesn’t matter to anyone besides that receiver or the QB. So… “Rex Chicago Calf”…3 words. Mustang and Zac can come separate if the need arises.

So what have we learned? By simply packaging tags and simplifying formations, you can suddenly and drastically impact the simplicity of a play call. But… OUCH… Steve Jobs hit me with the “simple stick” again…

Why Signals and Boards are Still Useful in the NFL

Why did Steve Jobs hit me again? He would look at my process. The offensive coordinator/QB relationship through their headset specifically. Despite the occasional glitch, it’s inefficient for play calling reasons. Why is it inefficient? I’ve added an unnecessary user interaction. My other 10 players on the field have eyes and ears, don’t they? They can see signals from the sideline. They can see a board, or whatever the next cool looking thing will be.

If my play call can be 5 words, then I can easily use 5 quick hand signals. Defensive coordinators, for the longest time at the NFL level, would use more than that and maybe even boards to signal information. So I know us offensive guys, because we are supposedly smarter after all, could do the same thing. And all 11 guys could see it, get lined up, and run the play. Some NFL teams may already be using this in no huddle situations. So why not use it all the time and just line up at the line of scrimmage, skipping the huddle all the time? I’d save my offensive linemen from running 5-10 yards after each play (maybe more even). I’d give myself more time, as the play caller, to give my QB tips through the headset as we watch the defense setup because we’re already aligned. We could easily analyze the play and do it before my “timer” runs out on the headset, if I wanted to do that kind of thing. And if we want to control the clock, we could always huddle again, as useless as that may now seem.

I know, the logical argument would be why did the defensive coordinators want a headset if the signals were so great? I think the logical reason is it’s easier… for the coordinator. Which it most definitely is. I get to make some elaborate call. Let my players decipher it. They’re being paid to do just that, aren’t they? Or, maybe the less cynical person thinks it’s so they defensive coordinator could point out tendencies and such during his allotted time, just like the offensive coordinator could do. Either way, it doesn’t really matter.

Calling plays through the headset is terribly inefficient because it slows down the process and adds an extra step. In this process, you rely on (1) a coordinator to call the play and (2) the quarterback to call the play again and (3) the other players to hear the play. In the signal system, I can (1) call the play and (2) all the players can see the play call. I mean, if you don’t believe me that eliminating user interactions is important, did you ever play that telephone game in elementary school? In it, one person would sit and say “Mr. Teacher is Awesome” and by the last person in class, 20 people later, it would be “Mr. Teacher was caught making out with Ms. Other Teacher at the Movies”. While that exaggerates the problem, it’s the truth. The more interactions you have, the more chances for error. Let’s streamline the terminology and the process NFL.

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Concluding thoughts on NFL Offensive Play Calling Terminology

Some coach, probably pretty soon, will revolutionize play calling in the NFL. You may not think it’s a big deal. However, the NFL is entrenched in this position, so it may seem doubtful that it will change. They were entrenched with playbooks. Now teams like the Packers and Broncos are using iPad apps for their playbooks. It adds video in real time pretty much. Just more efficient process.

Everything can be minimized and reinvented, no matter how entrentched they are. Ask Microsoft about complexity versus simplicity… and how Apple showed how awesome simplicity could be (and how flexible it could be too). You can ask Hudl‘s competitors too the same question. Simplicity, especially flexible simplicity, always wins. It will win the NFL soon as well.