We're still three months away from meaningful plays, but play-calling is always a hot topic. Just this week, the Dallas Cowboys officially announced that offensive coordinator Bill Callahan will take over play-calling duties from head coach Jason Garrett. Meanwhile, Sean Payton said the New Orleans Saints have yet to nail down their offensive chain of command.
Obviously, this is an area of chief importance across the league, begging one simple question: Who is the best offensive play-caller in the NFL?
Sean Payton is the top dog, but Kyle Shanahan's nipping at his heelsThe NFL is full of creative play-callers, but Sean Payton is the best of the best. His absence last season from the New Orleans Saints was very noticeable on game days. Payton's scheme is outstanding, but it's his ability to get his QB into a rhythm that separates him from the rest of the offensive minds in the NFL.
One name to keep an eye on is Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He was an excellent play-caller during Robert Griffin III's rookie campaign. Shanahan isn't on Payton's level just yet, but he could get there very shortly.
Greg Roman, Sean Payton, Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak all call a great gameThere are a number of outstanding offensive coordinators in the NFL. I can't really pick one who clearly separates himself from the others. On some teams, it's not always clear who is calling the plays. Also, the people who ultimately decide which plays and formations are in the game plan are just as important as the people who actually call the plays. For the purposes of this debate, I am going to eliminate QBs who call their own plays, like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, because that would just make everything even more convoluted.
Now, there's plenty of praise to go around ... San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman does a great job of mixing formations and motion to keep the defense off-balance. Watching the Niners' offense, I can't help but think of the concepts Joe Gibbs used to win three Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins. Sean Payton does an excellent job of mixing the run and pass and keeping the pressure on the defense. I like his play-calling ability. Kyle Shanahan did a terrific job last year, mixing option concepts with the zone-running game to keep the defense on its heels. Lastly, I think Gary Kubiak is as good a play-caller as there is in football. I also like the Houston Texans head coach's ability to integrate the passing game with the running game.
Sean Payton is in a class of his ownSean Payton is the top offensive play caller in the NFL, and it's not even close. Now, that's not a slight to the other great play-callers across the league, but no one matches Payton in the preparation and in-game-adjustment phases. He cleverly uses a mixture of formations and personnel groupings to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent, while operating at a rapid tempo. The Saints are one of the quickest teams to the line of scrimmage following a play, which speaks volumes about his ability to think two or three steps ahead as a play-caller.
Additionally, Payton has an outstanding feel for the game and how to set opponents up for big plays off schematic complements. Watching the Saints on tape, I've always been impressed with how well they use the "First 15" script to set up home-run plays in the second half. While most offensive coordinators attempt to utilize this approach, few can match Payton's sense of timing, awareness and anticipation when it comes to dialing up explosives.
Lastly, Peyton deserves the top spot because he is brilliant with in-game adjustments. He shows tremendous patience in sticking with his original game plan, but will make minor tweaks and adjustments to take advantage of defensive coordinator's tactical plans. This routinely results in the Saints catching fire in the second half after experiencing a series of three-and-outs early in the game.
Bruce Arians is finally getting his due as an offensive geniusIt's Bruce Arians, and everyone else. Now you know why, without a marquee running back, the Pittsburgh Steelers were so dominant while he was calling plays for them. He finally got his credit last season, as the Indianapolis Colts surprised everyone by winning 11 games with a rookie quarterback, average talent at wide receiver and tight end, and below-average talent in the backfield. And remember how the Colts did it? By driving long distances late in games to beat Minnesota, Green Bay, Tennessee and Detroit -- in addition to being able to salt away other games late with time-consuming drives.
Arians is what you'd call a late bloomer, but it's terrific that he's at the party. And even though he hired Harold Goodwin to be his offensive coordinator in Arizona, Arians will still call the plays for the Cardinals in 2013. I can't wait to see what he does, as I expect Larry Fitzgerald to return to prominence, and Carson Palmer to turn into Kurt Warner with a late-career desert resurgence.
Peyton Manning truly is a coach on the fieldHow 'bout Peyton Manning? Throughout his career, his own coaches all tag him with the same complimentary moniker: "Coach on the field." And no one in the NFL has proven more consistently capable of putting up big offensive numbers than No. 18 -- no matter the actual skill of the so-called "skill-position players" around him.
Yes, Peyton's right arm has let him down in more than one January, but his football mind is ... beautiful.
Mike McCarthy's aerial assault is something to behold; Darrell Bevell deserves praiseI was all set to hand the crown to 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, but his play-calling at the end of the Super Bowl sticks out in my mind. So I'll go with Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. This guy's a gamer's dream: He ignores the run, just like the rest of us who play Madden. (Even if Aaron Rodgers disagrees with the sentiment.)
I would also like to give a nod to Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who helped make Russell Wilson a star in his rookie season. I've been impressed with the way the Seahawks call a game.
Payton juggles play-calling, coaching duties with aplombSean Payton gets my vote as best play-caller in the NFL. The New Orleans offense has been nothing short of dominant since he and quarterback Drew Brees came aboard in 2006. Both deserve the credit, as they worked together to pick out the most effective plays versus the defenses they were playing. So much of play calling is working with your quarterback, and what 50 or so plays the offense will focus on. Often this is determined by Friday before the game. Payton and Brees have done that the best over the years, which is why the Saints finished first, fourth, first, first, sixth, and first in yards per game in their years together. The offense finished high again last year, sans Payton. But whose offense do you think the club was running?
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, Payton being both head coach and play caller is not ideal. Trying to manage game situations and figure out what the defense is doing schematically can be a little much. But Payton has handled it deftly, which is why the club made the playoffs the past three years he coached the team. I don't see any reason he can't pick up where he left off in 2013.