When Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was learning to call plays early in his 13-year playing career, he practiced while driving.
On the way to and from practice, Garrett, a backup quarterback, would go over the plays in his head and shout them out loud.
"People thought I was crazy, but I still do it," Garrett said.
Garrett is one of seven coaches who for the first time are entering the maddening realm of an NFL playcaller, where, if you're lucky, you have about 12 seconds to process hundreds of plays and decide which will work against that all-out blitz the Baltimore Ravens are about to throw at you.
Or is that a fake blitz masking a quarters zone coverage?
From Dallas to Baltimore to San Francisco, men like Garrett, Rick Neuheisel and Jim Hostler will take their turn at being ridiculed and second-guessed by media and fans.
"The first thing I learned in watching guys like Mike McCarthy and Norv Turner is that you better have pretty thick skin," said Hostler, the 49ers' new offensive coordinator. "The only time you're really going to hear if you did a good job is from the other coaches and the players. The fans, even the media, don't really notice because they're expecting everything to go right."
That toughened exterior had better come with an ability to make quick decisions. The art of play-calling requires carefully formulating a plan and then being willing to deviate from it.
"You spend a whole week working on a plan that you think is going to work and then the other team comes out in some defense you haven't even scouted or seen them play in years and the whole thing goes out the window," said Turner, the San Diego Chargers' head coach who also calls the plays. "It's happened to me plenty of times."
Even in the best circumstances, play-calling requires an approach that is part discipline and part impromptu.
"The idea is to get the ball to your best players, just start with that. That's what the best offensive coordinators do," said veteran 49ers backup quarterback Trent Dilfer. "The first job during the week is to figure out how to change up what you normally do so that the defense can't take away your best options. … Indianapolis is probably the only team that can come out in the same sets every week and do what they do no matter what because Peyton Manning is smart enough to see what the defense is doing at the line of scrimmage and get into the right play."
From there, Dilfer said, the art of being a good playcaller comes down to guts.
"The best playcallers are fearless," he said. "They don't think about what's going to go wrong with a play or why it's not going to work. They think about why it's going to work"
So without experience, how does a first-time play-caller know how to go about the job? Culled from conversations with those who have been there, here's a basic list for any rookie to follow:
• Know your personnel.
Too often, coaches fail by trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
"Coaches always want to run these great systems and big plays, but if you don't have the players to do it, it's not going to work," Turner said. "If you have a quarterback who's not good throwing the deep ball or vice versa, you have to adjust. If you don't have receivers with great speed, you can't run (deep) routes all game. Once in a while, yes. But you have to set it up and play to the strength of your players."
• Keep it simple.
During the days when Dan Marino used to sling passes to receivers he had played with for years, offensive coordinator Gary Stevens had immense freedom. His weekly game plan featured 100 reversible plays, essentially giving him 200 plays to pick from, even though most teams call 35-40 unique plays per week.
On Sundays, Stevens would take it a step further, sometimes calling a play the team hadn't run in five or six weeks, if not longer. The Dolphins could do it because of the team's overall experience.
Today, with free agency in full bloom, less is more.
"In the offseason and in training camp, you're throwing a lot of ideas out there to see what works," Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "You want to find the two or three things that you do really well and then lean on that. … Around here, we give everybody a voice, a chance to say what they think will work. Then we narrow it down. Inevitably, I'm going to upset somebody on the staff by not running their idea, but you can't have too much."
• Seek knowledge, but don't ask for too many opinions.
Giving assistant coaches a forum is ideal, but it can lead to a play-calling trap: information overload.
"During the week, I'm consulting with our assistants all the time about what they see and what's going to work," Holmgren said. "I meet with our running game coach early in the week to get his ideas … but when I put the game plan together, I do it by myself. It's not a group effort at that point because if I'm the one calling it, I have to be completely comfortable with what I'm calling. If it's an idea I don't understand, that's not going to work."
• Have conviction if the head coach isn't an offensive guy.
One of the most consistent problems in play-calling is when the head coach doesn't trust his offensive coordinator.
"You see it happen all the time, especially when the head coach is a defensive guy," Dilfer said. "The defensive coach starts to interfere with the play-calling and that's when you get a lot of that fear of failed plays."
The solution is that the offensive coordinator has to take control.
"You need to have a guy with a strong opinion who knows when to tell the head coach to back off," Dilfer said. "It's hard, really hard, but that's how it has to be."
- offensive coordinator
- Jason Garrett
- Jim Hostler