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The Misunderstood Art of Play-Calling

How do some of the NFL’s best offensive minds design their game plans—and gain a sense for when to abandon them?

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As we’ve already told you, football can be hard to understand. Playbooks weigh as much as physics textbooks, and when you hear a quarterback barking in the huddle, it can sound like you’ve intercepted an alien transmission. For there to be order in the chaos, the game requires people who have mastered its specifics. Welcome to Masterminds Week, where we’ll spotlight those who have shown expertise in various aspects of the sport—from the big and all-encompassing to the random and hyperspecific.

In his new book, The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians spends a chapter discussing his history and methodology as a play-caller. He gets into his background calling plays as a high school and college quarterback, and emphasizes its importance throughout his football life. “It’s something that I’ve always done and have enjoyed doing,” Arians writes. “Probably, if I had to give it up, I’d get out of coaching.”

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Now entering his fifth season in Arizona, Arians is one of the dozen or so NFL head coaches who calls his team’s offensive plays—a list that counts X’s-and-O’s savants like Sean Payton, Adam Gase, and Andy Reid. This fall, first-year head coaches Kyle Shanahan, with the 49ers, and Sean McVay, with the Rams, will join those ranks. “I think it’s important that some of the reasons that you get the job, you keep doing that stuff [as a head coach],” Shanahan said at a press conference during this March’s combine, in regard to holding onto play-calling duties. “I enjoyed being a coordinator; I enjoyed calling plays. And I will always do that if I feel it helps the team.”

Most offensive coordinators who become head coaches rise to that level largely on the strength of their play-calling résumés, and the appeal of retaining that responsibility in the top job often goes beyond pragmatism. Great play-callers fall in love with the process and mechanics that go into formulating a call sheet and building the perfect game plan. Calling plays is equal parts probability, practiced precognition, and spur-of-the-moment improvisation. And for this breed of coaches, the sense of satisfaction when a call comes together is the most intoxicating part of what they do.

“There’s nothing better than when you call a play, you get the look that you want, and you put your players in a position where they’re able to execute,” McVay tells The Ringer.

To hear a trio of the league's best offensive minds—Arians, McVay, and Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt—tell it, play-calling is an art form. It also requires a rare blend of dedication and flexibility. The best play-callers are not only adept at crafting the ideal scripted approach to a given game; they also know when and how to abandon that plan.

The concept of scripting offensive plays came to the NFL with legendary 49ers head coach Bill Walsh. Entering each game, Walsh would devise a 15- to 25-play script for his offense to follow. “Scripting is planning; it’s contingency planning,” Walsh told The New York Times for a story on play-calling in 1996. “The fewer decisions to be made during the game, the better. You don't want to live by your instincts. It’s isolating each situation that comes up and establishing what comes up.”

At the start of every game, Walsh would simply move down his list of plays until a specific situation—like a third-and-short, for example—arose that necessitated straying from the script. For most play-callers, that’s the way that the system still works.

During the week leading up to a matchup, the Cardinals jot a few hundred plays on the whiteboard in the quarterback room. The goal for Arians is to sift through that swath of calls and whittle it down to 30: 15 runs (picked by offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens) and 15 passes (selected by the quarterbacks). Of the six “shot” plays Arians brings into every game, designed to beat defenses deep down the field, four are typically scripted. “Unless the quarterbacks didn’t pick them,” Arians says, cracking a smile. “Then I’ve got to talk them into it.”

After the list is finalized, Arians’s challenge becomes deciding how to order the 30 plays at his disposal. For Walsh, the script was a means of staying committed to the game plan he’d built throughout the week; for most coaches these days, the ordering of a script’s plays comes with a lot of competing motivations. “[I want] to get [an opponent’s] substitution patterns early,” Arians says. “A lot of times, you [want] to get a receiver or two involved quickly, if you can, just to get their spirits up so they’ll block.”

In their 31-19 win over the Saints in Week 1 of the 2015 season, Arizona started the game with consecutive completions to wide receivers John Brown and Michael Floyd. The ensuing drive was a picturesque use of an introductory script: The Cardinals didn’t face a third down until the final play of the possession, and by then, they had already moved into their red zone menu. Running seven plays before reaching the New Orleans 20-yard line likely meant burning a considerable chunk of Arians’s script in the game’s first five minutes, but that’s a problem the coach would welcome any time. “You’ve had a great two drives if you’re running out of stuff early,” he says.

One of Arians’s primary objectives in the first quarter is figuring out how a defense will respond to the various personnel groupings that the Cardinals use, and that means cycling through different formations and concepts as a means of collecting information. In setting his script’s order, Arians also studies his habits as a play-caller. When preparing for a familiar opponent, Arians likes to go back through tape of Arizona’s past six games against that team and search for any revealing tells. “Was it run-run-pass-pass, how [the plays] unfolded?” Arians says. “You’re always self-scouting for tendencies.”

McVay notes that he comes into each game with 20 “openers” or “priority plays”—calls that “knowing we’re in normal down-and-distance, operating where you’ve got your run-pass balance, [that] we know at some point we want to get it called.” For most coaches, third-down plays have a separate section on the call sheet; in fact, many are broken down into subsections depending on the circumstance. “If things go great, you’re going to just go right down that list,” McVay says. “[But] it’s not realistic.”

That last part is key: What’s misunderstood about play-calling scripts is that they’re rarely followed in order. Building that perfect initial game plan comprises a considerable portion of a play-caller’s job in the days before a game, but it can take one only so far. The need to react and riff on concepts is equally critical, and that’s where things can get dicey.

“You’ve got to be mindful about staying on schedule but also being ready to adjust to the different situations within the framework of a drive,” McVay says.

Before serving a stint as the 49ers general manager in the late 1990s, John McVay, Sean’s grandfather, worked as a member of the franchise’s front office during Walsh’s head-coaching tenure. One lesson John picked up and passed along to Sean is the importance of “playing the game before the game,” or imagining every outcome that may arise days before it could conceivably happen. Between his own 5-yard line and the opponent’s 20, McVay knows that any second-and-8 play that doesn’t result in a turnover has two outcomes: a move to the third-down menu of plays or a slide back to his priority call sheet. By knowing on Thursday what plays might work best in that situation, the stress on Sunday weighs less.

McVay got his first crack at calling plays as Washington’s offensive coordinator in the 2015 season, at just 29 years old. As he reflects on that experience, he recalls too many moments when he was caught on his heels. “It’s the plays where you get caught off guard that really bother you the most,” McVay says. “That’s where you go back and you say, ‘I didn’t prepare the way that I should have to be ready for this situation when it comes up.’”

He specifically points to the second half of Washington’s 34-20 loss to the Jets in Week 6. His offense faced a series of similar third-down situations, and McVay feels that he went back to the same passing concept too often. “I don’t think I did a good job of mixing it up,” McVay says. “I kind of stayed vanilla, in terms of repeating a couple calls.”

Part of that problem can be alleviated through extra preparation. McVay devotes an entire section on his call sheet to “get back on track” plays installed explicitly for situations in which the offense is stonewalled on first down and needs a chunk of yards to steady itself. But part of it is knowing how to find a play-calling rhythm, a state that’s revered among the game’s premier play-callers. For Arians, the pursuit of finding this rhythm seeps into the script-creation process. “When I put that script together, I tried to do it as I’m going down the field in my mind, not just grabbing plays off the board,” he says. “If we’ve got the ball on the 25, [after this play] we should be right about the 40. What do I like here? What runs are going to set up passes? One leads to the other.”

The game’s exceptional play-callers distinguish themselves by regularly ascending to this exalted sense of flow. Chargers coordinator Whisenhunt describes it best. When asked about settling into his rhythm, he stops and poses what seems like an odd question—“Are you a Seinfeld fan?”—before going on to explain. In an episode from Season 2, “The Busboy,” Elaine raves about a frantic drive to the airport that involved her weaving in and out of heavy traffic, anticipating openings before they appeared.

“To me, it’s a little bit like that,” Whisenhunt says. “Sometimes you’ve got to get in an area where you know what you want to do. You get on a string, and you’re seeing two or three plays ahead.”

That type of groove may sound like it’s predicated on an ability to see the future, but in reality, gaining a feel for dialing up the perfect play is honed over time. It’s based on the ability to predict what coverages a defense will use in certain scenarios, and as games go on and teams move further off-script, play-callers hope that they can use their understanding of an opponent’s core coverage tendencies to their advantage. In the second halves of games, creativity and feel for the moment truly shine.

By that point, play-calling is best left to the experts. The challenge is calibrating the right combination of plays that worked in the first half and presenting them with a twist in order to keep a defense off-balance. Arians tries to avoid calling for the same pass from the same formation twice in one game, while simultaneously returning to the concepts that are working. McVay calls this balance “the illusion of complexity,” a notion he picked up from Jay Gruden during their time together in Washington. By forecasting how a defense will respond to formations and tweaking successful attempts to attack them, play-callers can maintain the upper hand.

“I think as a play-caller, you’re always trying to play percentages and put your players in great situations,” McVay says. “But what you realize is that it’s an imperfect deal.”

The best moments for a play-caller often come directly before the snap, when an offense lines up and gets the coverage and front it planned for given the personnel. The challenge—and the reason the best play-callers in the league can never rest—is that even those moments can sometimes lead to failure. That’s when it’s back to the whiteboard, and the process begins anew. “As long as you’ve thought through your decisions, and you’re not just throwing stuff by the wayside, I can always live with it,” McVay says. “As long as you try to give your players an answer.”


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