In the world of offensive coordinators, you either get hired as a head coach, or you stay an OC long enough to see yourself become the villain. Just look at Ken Dorsey. Dorsey was hired by Buffalo in 2019 to become the Bills quarterbacks coach. He was charged with overseeing Josh Allen’s development, and within a year, he helped Allen become an MVP candidate. That work earned Dorsey a promotion to offensive coordinator in 2022, and that season, the Bills offense improved in every major statistical category despite a tough schedule and a midseason injury to Allen’s throwing arm. Not a bad four years of work for an NFL assistant.
But this year, Dorsey’s second at the helm, the offense experienced some inconsistency; avoidable turnovers turned winnable games into losses, and Dorsey was unceremoniously fired last week following the team’s late-game meltdown against Denver. And Bills fans weren’t upset about it! Despite the offense’s success under his watch, Dorsey’s play-calling had become a point of frustration in Buffalo, with complaints ranging from “They’re throwing it deep too often” to “They’re throwing it too short.” And while there was never much substance to those criticisms, the offensive coordinator is always a good scapegoat when the head coach’s seat heats up—or when the first-round quarterback isn’t playing well. Matt Canada learned that lesson this week when the Steelers fired him following another Kenny Pickett stinker.
Such is the life of an NFL offensive coordinator. You have a job that 99 percent of fans and analysts don’t really understand. Sure, the position can become a fast track to a head-coaching job if you do it well (especially if you’ve ever worked alongside Sean McVay). But there’s also a chance that you’ll get fired if the vibes are off—whether or not the data supports that conclusion. If the quarterback stinks? It’s on you for not calling the right plays to allow him to play better. If the offensive line can’t block? It’s your job to figure out how to protect the quarterback. And if a receiver drops a wide-open pass? It’s your fault for drawing up a play for the wrong guy.
#Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada spoke to the media earlier today when a phone dropped off of a stand.— Arye Pulli (@AryePulli) October 31, 2023
“I didn’t touch that, but somehow somebody will find a way to say I did.”
: @BePryor pic.twitter.com/AosWnszfBB
“It’s a tough position to manage,” former Vikings coach Mike Tice told me earlier this month. During his long coaching career, which spanned from 1996 to 2017, Tice worked above an offensive coordinator as a head coach, under one as an offensive line coach at various stops, and even as one with the Bears in 2012. Juggling the egos of players and coaches while also trying to keep the head coach happy can be hard on its own, Tice said. And “then you have to answer to the media when shit doesn’t go right. When your game plan looks like kindergarten kids drew it up. And that shit happens. … It’s a very, very, very tough job.”
It is a tough job, even when things seem to be going well. Dorsey’s story isn’t unique by any means. Greg Roman was replaced as offensive coordinator in Baltimore this year following a stretch of productive seasons that was interrupted by injuries to Lamar Jackson. In 2021, Seattle let Brian Schottenheimer go because Russell Wilson wasn’t feeling the offense—despite the fact that the unit had finished sixth in DVOA. I’m surprised Chargers fans didn’t throw a parade after the team replaced Joe Lombardi with Kellen Moore this offseason. You’d be hard-pressed to find the last time an offensive coordinator was let go and fans didn’t celebrate the news.
But what actually makes a good offensive coordinator? And in a year when offense is down across the league—and coordinators like Canada and Press Taylor have become the villains in their teams’ stories—are we experiencing a dearth of them? Maybe it’s that we don’t actually know what all goes into the role; or that the duty offensive coordinators are most associated with and scrutinized for—calling the plays on Sunday—isn’t what’s most important.
First-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken isn’t interested in discussing how his offense differs from the one Roman ran in Baltimore’s previous four seasons. The team has just wrapped up a midweek practice ahead of a game against the Seahawks, and we’re talking about how an increase in pass calls has allowed Jackson to bounce back into MVP form—he’s currently on pace to set career highs in completion percentage and yards per attempt. “Well, it’s more fun when it works, I’ll tell you that,” Monken offers before deflecting credit to his assistant coaches and Jackson. I ask whether calling plays during the first year on a job differs from calling plays in the second or third year. Once again, Monken steers the discussion away from play-calling.
“I wouldn’t even say [it’s as] a play caller as much as [it’s] our first year together,” Monken explains. “That’s part of what you do, but as a new staff, players, system, … even two or three years from now, we’ll be still striving to be elite in everything we do: how we meet, how we teach, the notes we take, how we practice, how we take care of our bodies, how we carry that over to the field, how we get lined up, how we execute at a high level.
“All of those things are a big part of that [and] fall under that umbrella, and no one really gives a shit.”
Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy shared a similar sentiment this summer when I asked him about working under Andy Reid in Kansas City, where Bieniemy did not call plays. “There’s a lot that goes into being a coach, right?” Bieniemy said. “Because not only do you have to be a leader, you have to be a role model. Sometimes you got to be an uncle [and] be an ear for a guy. Sometimes you got to be a disciplinarian. Sometimes you got to be a teacher. Sometimes you got to be a provider. So you have to wear all the hats. And then on top of that, you got to be a leader.”
If you’re not in the building, it’s nearly impossible to evaluate how a coach carries out those duties on a day-to-day basis. We see only the final product. We see the play design that helped set up a long touchdown but not the film study that told the offensive coordinator what coverage the defense would be in. We see the receiver running wide-open downfield but not who taught him to run his route in a way that takes advantage of the secondary’s assignments. We see the quarterback call an audible before making the throw, but we don’t see the midweek film sessions that went over the exact presnap look that triggered the preplanned adjustment. The offensive coordinator is most known for calling the plays, but their main job is really managing the weeklong process that determines what goes into the game plan in the first place. People who have done the job will tell you: If you do that part right during the week, you’ll look like a genius on Sundays.
In early October, for example, after Pickett called an audible that resulted in a late go-ahead touchdown pass against Baltimore, the cameras cut to an emotionless Canada in the booth. Steelers fans wondered if he wasn’t celebrating because Pickett had adjusted his original call—as if the result of Pickett’s presnap change was an indictment of his coach. If anything, the opposite is true. When asked about the play, Pickett said the Steelers had worked on the adjustment during practice. “They went zero. I wanted to make sure we were protected and gave George [Pickens] the route,” he told reporters. “He went and made a great play. It’s something that we’ve worked all week on, so it’s awesome when you put a lot of time into something and it comes up in a crucial moment.” That Pickett recognized the “zero” look from the defense, and that he and Pickens were able to get on the same page in a matter of seconds, is the product of loads of midweek planning.
After all, which plays are being called in a game isn’t nearly as important as why they’re being called. The quality of a play call cannot be determined in a vacuum. And the more you ask around, the more you realize that the strategic aspects of the offensive coordinator job are often less important than the political aspects of it. Fancy play designs might help an OC earn a promotion to a head job, but the ability to connect with coaches and players is what gets them into the coordinator job in the first place. I asked Tice, who hired an offensive coordinator in his first year as a head coach in 2002, how much time he spent asking candidates about play-calling. He said while he did ask broader questions about offensive philosophy—like what kind of personnel they might prefer—he was more concerned with a candidate’s ability to connect with the locker room. The only play-calling question he was interested in? “How are you going to get Randy Moss the ball?” Tice said.
Due to budget constraints, Tice said he primarily looked for under-the-radar OC options, and his final two candidates were Scott Linehan and Bill O’Brien. He ended up hiring Linehan—who led top-10 scoring offenses in each of his three seasons—but O’Brien eventually landed the same title in New England. And both coaches parlayed their work as coordinators into head jobs down the line, thanks to their ability to work with other assistants to help build a vision for the offense.
An offensive coordinator’s “got to lead a room with a whole lotta coaches with a whole lotta opinions,” Tice said. “He’s got to be able to take suggestions or ideas and meld them into his vision for the [game plan]. And then he’s gotta be able to let them down politically when their ideas aren’t used without pissing them off.”
The main job of an offensive coordinator is to oversee the weekly construction of the offense. Tice said that every NFL team installs a game plan differently, but generally, positional coaches will be in charge of handling different situations—like the red zone, third down, etc.—and suggesting potential calls to take advantage of the defense’s tendencies or matchups they can attack. It’s up to the offensive coordinator to curate those suggestions and put together the final plan. Then, once the coaching staff agrees on an approach, the offensive coordinator can build their call sheet for the week. A call sheet is exactly what it sounds like: a menu of plays available for that week’s game. The calls are broken down into situational categories. Here’s a shot of Sean Payton’s call sheet from a game this season against the Chiefs, which includes “2 Minute” and “Red Area.”
Remember when Denver's two-minute call sheet was caught on TV? https://t.co/6IDdBe6h4M— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) November 14, 2023
“The rhythm of calling a game, to me, comes down to how you lay out your call sheet,” Tice said. “You watch TV, you see all these guys staring at that call sheet. I mean, you’ve been through the game 100 times in your head—and you have situational plays—and you gotta trust your call sheet.”
Tice said Brian Billick, the Super Bowl–winning Baltimore head coach who coordinated the historic 1998 Vikings offense, was the best he’d ever seen at building a call sheet because he was one of the first NFL coaches to pay close attention to the opponent’s defensive tendencies. This was back in the 1990s, when that information wasn’t readily available from Pro Football Focus or Next Gen Stats.
“That’s how they’re calling the game [now],” Tice said. “They’re calling the game based on the percentages. But I was on the headset with Brian in 1998, and he was really good at doing that every week, and we set the NFL scoring record. Of course, we had Randy Moss, Cris Carter, and Robert Smith, but we also had a guy that understood how to attack defenses and attack the weaknesses based on percentages.”
Billick’s play-calling brilliance, which later earned him the Ravens head job, wasn’t the product of game-day intuition or feel. It was forged during long hours in the office, poring over defensive tendencies and studying game tape.
We just have to execute better is a common refrain you’ll hear from coaches getting questioned about their play-calling. And while that may just sound like coach speak, longtime NFL quarterback Colt McCoy—who’s played for an impressive list of coordinators that includes McVay, Brian Daboll, and Roman—agreed when I suggested that maybe fans and analysts are too concerned with things like run-pass ratios or play-action rates. McCoy said those numbers are often determined by the defensive looks offenses are getting.
“You may call three play-action passes in a row and not get the look, so it becomes three runs,” McCoy said. “It’s hard for even me on the couch watching and trying to figure out all the things teams are doing. But I know that there’s so much strategy going on.”
The best coordinators, McCoy said, aren’t necessarily the ones who are running cool RPOs or jet sweeps—but rather the ones who comprehend strategy on both sides of the ball and can help their players understand it too. It’s not enough for the coordinator to know the defense will be playing Cover 3 if the quarterback doesn’t also know it—or fully grasp how to attack it. McCoy credits Daboll with teaching him how to read defenses during his rookie season in Cleveland, the same way Daboll taught Tom Brady in New England, where the coach got his NFL start. “Understanding defenses, understanding zones, understanding pressures, where the weak spots in defenses are based off the fronts, what the coverage is going to be” are some of the things McCoy said he learned from the future Giants head coach. “It was a lot of information. But it was amazing because I really felt like I gained an understanding of defenses and why we do what we do on offense.”
Playing under Jay Gruden, McVay, and Kevin O’Connell in Washington helped McCoy expand that knowledge. McCoy said those coaches didn’t just understand the game at a high level—they were able to teach the quarterback to see the game through a similar lens. When a quarterback can do that, the coordinator can trust him to make the right calls at the line and get the offense in the best play possible, which makes the play-calling look much better.
“The complexity of NFL defenses is crazy,” McCoy said. “Those guys understand, ‘No, we can’t just always run pure progression plays. Let’s give ourselves two calls in the huddle, figure out what the coverages are, figure out what the pressures are, and give you answers every time.’”
That wasn’t the standard for NFL offenses when McCoy entered the league in 2010. “Early in my career, you were probably running a West Coast [offense], pure progression [pass game]. Your feet and your timing had to match up with the routes. There were no adjustments if you got pressured or if there was a different coverage. Half the time you dropped back, everything was covered. There was nowhere to go.”
Before this latest era of offense, quarterbacks were mostly asked to find answers after the snap. Now, good coordinators are going out of their way to ensure their quarterbacks have those answers before the play starts—and the process of getting to the right answer begins long before a call is relayed through the headset.
With McVay in Washington, “Kirk [Cousins] was never asked to drop back when he didn’t essentially know what the defense was playing,” McCoy said. “We were going to call a man beater or a zone beater in the huddle. Based on what they’re doing, we get to the right one, and all of a sudden it’s wide open, and you’re like, Holy cow, what a great call. But, no, they’ve been planning for that all week. They’ve practiced this situation over and over and over.”
Defenses are doing that same work, and offenses have tendencies of their own. McCoy said with “the good offensive coordinators, you’re not going to get a feel for what they’re doing. What they’re doing is dictated by the defense.” So a low pass rate on first down, or below-average play-action pass rate, isn’t necessarily a bad thing if defenses are presenting the looks those concepts typically work against. Longtime OC and now 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, for instance, was praised in the 2010s for being an innovator in play-action usage. A few years later, he’s using this supposed cheat code at a below-average rate, and the 49ers offense is doing just fine.
The best defensive tacticians have countered by becoming more complex. That means more tendency breakers, more coverage disguises, and more exotic pressures—anything to make the quarterback and opposing offensive coordinator think twice about what they’re seeing. Some version of that battle has been going on throughout the history of the sport, but it’s ramped up in recent years, which has made finding coaches who understand both sides of the X’s and O’s battle a lot harder. Maybe that’s why it feels like there’s a shortage of quality offensive coordinators in the NFL right now, but these things tend to work in cycles: Offenses get out ahead of defenses, counters are found, and roles are reversed. A few years ago, it felt like you couldn’t find a good defensive coordinator anywhere; now, there are a bunch of them.
The rapid increase in defensive complexity has made life miserable for NFL offenses in 2023. But McCoy predicts a turnaround will come in the second half as offenses gain more information about defenses—which should in turn lead to improved play-calling. “[Offensive] coaches have a playbook now,” he said. “They have a tendency chart of all the things that defenses are doing. And unless those defenses start breaking tendencies, you’re gonna see offenses start lighting up.”
If that is the case, that improvement will have been sparked by what offensive coordinators are doing from Monday to Saturday—on the practice field and in the meeting rooms, far away from the public eye. That’s 90 percent of the job—the parts that “no one really gives a shit” about, according to Monken.
Accepting an offensive coordinator job is accepting the frustrating reality that much of your work will never be fully appreciated. “Ultimately, it’s what you show on Sunday that matters,” Monken said. “That’s what we’re paid to do.” But even if you’re putting up results on game day, it may not be enough to secure your job. Just ask Dorsey.