Note: The following Is an excerpt from Pat Kirwan's forthcoming book, Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look (Triumph Books/NFL Publishing). For more information, click here.
With 2 seconds left in his third game as Minnesota's quarterback, Favre pumped, scrambled, dodged, and eventually launched a 32-yard touchdown pass to Greg Lewis (whose catch and footwork in the back of the end zone was every bit as impressive as Favre's perfect pass) to culminate a comeback win over the San Francisco 49ers.
The play immediately became part of team lore, right up there with any Bobby Bryant interception, Cris Carter catch, or Adrian Peterson touchdown run. It was a one-in-a-million play in the eyes of anyone wearing purple and gold.
In reality, it was just one of 127 plays in that game between the Vikings and the 49ers, and one of 1,988 offensive snaps in Week 3 of last season. Others were critical to that Minnesota win -- specifically Favre's two third-down completions to Percy Harvin inside the final minute that kept the winning drive alive. But that improvised play and its legendary outcome will be the only one of the Vikings' 75 plays that anyone will ever remember.
Roughly 125 offensive plays are run during the course of an NFL game. And while fans are quick to question the wisdom of almost any play called in a given situation, few have any sense of the time and attention to detail that goes into preparing for every decision a coach will make over the course of a game.
BIRTH OF A GAME PLAN
A coach's master playbook can contain about 1,000 plays -- pretty much anything he would ever consider calling in a game. Every bomb, blitz and blocking scheme is in there somewhere, along with every gadget play and goal-line scenario. And every call has its roots somewhere in that all-encompassing bible, which every coach is forever adding to and carrying with him from job to job.
The process of paring down that playbook into a single Sunday's game plan begins pretty much as soon as the previous season ends. Coaching staffs spend most of January (if they're out of the playoffs) and February going through some critical self-analysis, evaluating what they did well and what they did poorly during the season, and starting to decide what they're going to retain or change for the following year.
At the same time, they are preparing for the start of free agency and the upcoming draft. The personnel plan takes shape based on what the coach envisions being able to do in the upcoming season. He'll want to target players and prospects who will fit what he plans to run. You better believe Brad Childress' plan for 2009 changed once the possibility of acquiring Brett Favre first became real. Those early decisions are the building blocks of an eventual game plan.
As a team's personnel changes and its personality evolves through free agency and the draft, the overall game plan is steadily refined. Through organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps, coaches whittle away at their playbook, identifying the plays that best fit the team they'll have to work with. They try to maximize the strengths they see emerging, eliminate the obvious problem areas, and anticipate the matchups they'll be facing. Coaching staffs meet after practice every day, debating the pros and cons of every play they can imagine using in a game situation. The accumulation of those plays becomes the playbook for the next season, and by June 15, that actual playbook goes to the printer. A coach is now committed to his philosophy for the year.
FROM THE PLAYBOOK TO THE PRACTICE FIELD
Once the playbook is officially down on paper, it then has to be taught.
A coach will develop a summer camp installment schedule, during which he takes everything in that playbook and practices every bit of it with his team. Much of it will have been carried over from the previous season (a real benefit to teams with minimal roster turnover), some of it might have been introduced in the spring, and all of it will be reviewed during the preseason. But every play will be installed during the 55 or so practices -- from walkthroughs to double sessions -- that make up training camp. What a team does there determines what it's going to be that season; by this point, it's already too late to dramatically change what a team is going to do.
Heading into the last week of the preseason, it's time to develop the game plan for Week 1 of the regular season. A coach might look at his opponent and see, for example, that he's going to face a 4-3 defense. The first thing he does is scour the playbook for plays he thinks will work against a 4-3; suddenly, his options have been roughly cut in half.
He next considers his own roster. Let's imagine he has two rookies in the starting lineup and three veteran free agents who are still learning his system. As a result, he culls the playbook further, settling down to about 100 plays -- only he can't practice 100 plays in the week leading up to a game. There's only enough time for four or five repetitions, including practice and walkthroughs, for each of about 40 plays. That's it. Those 40 plays he's been able to practice are the core of the game plan.
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Some coaches might disagree with that number. Guys coaching a West Coast offense will tell you they have 250 plays in their game plan every week. Technically, that's true, if they count all the various formations out of which they can run the same play. If they run a particular play out of an I-formation, with a single back, a split, or maybe even an empty backfield, they might consider that four different plays.
Next, a coach will sit down with his quarterback and go over the full menu of possible plays. The quarterback provides his input -- which plays he's most confident in, which plays he hates running, and which plays he feels his teammates might not be ready to run. That feedback will eliminate perhaps a quarter of the remaining plays. At the end of the day, the team is down to about 30 or 35 plays that make up any given week's game plan. The play-call sheet will sort them by down and distance -- five or so first-down plays, seven plays for second downs between 5 and 7 yards, and so on. The 60 to 65 plays a team is likely to run on Sunday will come from that game plan -- and opponent-specific play-call sheet.
The best coaches pare down their game plans more than most fans realize, but not at the risk of making themselves predictable. There is great potential for coaches to become overwhelmed by too much information -- the classic case of paralysis by analysis. If he's not careful, a coach will wind up preparing a little for everything he could possibly face rather than learning his opponent's true tendencies and preparing to take away the things his foe does best. For the most part, if a coach hasn't seen an opponent do something in its last four games, he's not going to practice against it.
I'm not suggesting a game plan should be simple. It needs to be smart, and it needs to generate matchup advantages against a particular opponent. That is the name of the game in the NFL -- matchups.
It's important for a coach to pinpoint the plays he's most likely to use so that he doesn't waste valuable practice time working on something that won't pay off in the upcoming game (plus, players absolutely hate practicing things that they never use). Come game day, it's not what the coach knows that matters, it's what the players know. Or as Marty Schottenheimer used to say, "When you're in trouble, think players, not plays."