Coming to terms with the system
What's in a name? Ask NFL players
By Ron Borges, Globe Staff, 09/01/00
Brian Billick has made the Baltimore Ravens' playbook Y2K compliant.
The first playbook was a spiral notebook created by former Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown, so it is somewhat fitting that it's the Ravens, the direct descendants of those Browns teams of the 1950s, who have moved the playbook into the computer age.
While every team still has a thick notebook filled with hundreds of pages of diagrams, lists, and explanations of every imaginable act on a football field, Billick has also equipped his coaches with laptop computers and what is known as Power Point learning.
It is something he used in Minnesota as well, where he created one of the league's most explosive offenses before taking over as the Ravens' coach a year ago. His belief is simple. While the plays his team will run are still drawn in the traditional playbook for his players to learn, the laptop gives him and his assistants many new ways to reinforce the lessons at a time when the youth of America knows much more about Gameboys than libraries.
Gone is the "open your playbook to Page 127'' speech, replaced by a scene like this one, which occurred last week in Baltimore. In the middle of a lecture on the importance of each player just doing their job on a play and not worrying about other things around them, Billick leaned over, pushed a button on his computer and up on a screen at the front of the team's meeting room was not a diagram of X's and O's but rather Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive'' reaching the end of a long tunnel with Tommy Lee Jones pursuing him.
Ford turned and screamed "I didn't kill my wife!'' Jones, the federal marshal in hot pursuit, replied, "I don't care.''
Billick's coaching point on the play was simple: "I don't care what you're thinking. Just do your job.'' You wouldn't find that in Paul Brown's playbook. Or in Bill Belichick's, for that matter.
These days systems of offense and defense are so complex and time consuming to learn that any way to speed up the learning curve is used, including computer disks that Billick can give quarterback Tony Banks to put in his home computer. On them might be every Steeler defense in third-and-long situations, with video showing what they do.
Or, while other teams are still diagramming plays on an overhead projector, the Ravens' coaches are using Power Point to move those X's and O's around on the screen. Or, better still, instead of having the players study the diagrams in their playbook, they can watch the actual play running on their computer screen as they study, reinforcing the lessons in the playbook with the thing kids born in the 1970s seem to understand best - moving pictures.
Yet even the dawning of the computer age of coaching doesn't change the difficulty of learning a new system, especially when it is layered over the top of several others already memorized.
In New England, Drew Bledsoe has had four offensive coordinators and four offenses to learn in the last five seasons. Banks is learning his seventh in eight years, dating back to his days in junior college.
That is a lot of rote memory, a lot of hours spent studying playbooks and learning terminology that is often merely another way to say what you've already said in a different language.
That's why when Mike Heimerdinger went from Denver to Tennessee this offseason to coordinate the Titans' offense, he left his old terminology behind and adopted what was used last year by Les Steckel, who's now running the Falcons' offense in Atlanta.
"It's a lot easier for one guy to learn a new language than for 43 guys to learn a new language,'' Heimerdinger reasoned. "All offensive plays are fundamentally the same. If you're running a dive, you're running a dive. It's how you communicate what you're doing to the team that's the difficulty. So I just learned what they already knew.''
Not all coaches are quite so willing to alter their approach. Retired coach Nick Nicolau plied his trade for a lifetime in the NFL, working as an offensive assistant on some of the league's best teams in Denver and Buffalo. While in Denver, he learned that some languages must be learned even if they are deader than Latin.
Every team in football at the time numbered their holes from left to right, with the numbers increasing as you go. Every team but one. Every one but Dan Reeves's team.
"It was confusing to players who came in from another system or for coaches who were used to doing it the other way everywhere they'd been,'' Nicolau said. "So I went to Dan one day and asked him why we numbered our holes from right to left instead of left to right. He said because that's the way they did it in Dallas [when Reeves played and coached under Tom Landry in the 1960s and 1970s]. I knew who the boss was, so when a player would ask me why we did it that way after that, I'd just tell him where Dan's office was.''
Although the plays NFL teams run are basically the same, their variants are not. How the play is communicated from the playbook to the quarterback's head to the team's ears is perhaps the most daunting challenge. For Bledsoe, that has led to some interesting exchanges in the huddle this summer when new coordinator Charlie Weis has called for one play and it has come out of Bledsoe's mouth in Ernie Zampese speak or Larry Kennan language.
"A lot of the terminology we're using in Charlie's system is like Ray Perkins's [his first coordinator's] system and a lot of Ernie's was like Larry's,'' Bledsoe said. "It's not as complicated learning a new system as you might think because a lot of the things we do are similar. It's like learning a new language. When you're studying French there's a long period where you're translating everything in your mind to English and then speaking it back in French, but at some point it clicks over and you're thinking in French. That happens faster in football.''
Faster but not always fast enough.
"With Ernie's offense every play called was designed to work against any defense you faced,'' Bledsoe said. "We didn't do a whole bunch of formations and personnel groupings because there were a lot of options within every play if it was run right.
"In Charlie's system we use a lot more groups, formations and motion, and the terminology is different. In Ernie's system, the formations had names and the pass routes had numbers. In Charlie's the formations have numbers and the routes have names. It can be confusing at first.
"There have been a few times at first when I called a formation by its old name or a route by its old number. Once I went back to some terminology from four years ago. You do that, you get some funny looks in the huddle.
"Some of the guys who had been there like Max [Lane], Briz [departed Vincent Brisby] and Troy [Brown] laughed. They knew what I was saying. But the younger guys were totally baffled. Fortunately I realized it pretty quickly.
"Really, the transition came pretty quickly for me with Charlie because a lot of it was similar to what we did with Perkins and [Bill] Parcells, when Charlie was here before.''
When Weis was here before, he wasn't running the offense as he is today. The system then was basically Perkins's. Now it is Weis's, a variation of what he's learned over the years from Perkins, Parcells, and even the defensive coaches he's known like Belichick, Al Groh, and Romeo Crennel. Together that knowledge has produced a thick playbook, but not one as staggering as Bill Walsh's tome in San Francisco during his days as the league's guru of offensive football.
"Really there are only about five systems of offense out there,'' Weis said. "And there's no original system any more. There's the Ron Erhardt-Ray Perkins system and it's gone to other places as coaches moved. They use the same terminology in Jacksonville and Cleveland. Miami has a lot of it because Chan [Gailey, the new offensive coordinator] got it from Ron.
"There's Walsh's system, although I don't know if it was really his or LaVell Edwards's [the longtime coach at Brigham Young University where Walsh disciple Mike Holmgren cut his offensive teeth]. They call that the West Coast offense, but why call it West Coast? Their verbiage is all over the league. Is Green Bay on the West Coast?
"Then there's Ernie Zampese's system, which is really Don Coryell's, which was really Sid Gillman's. That's in St. Louis, Dallas, Washington.
"The biggest difficulty when a new system is going in is how you call the formation, how you get them lined up and how you tell them when to motion. A lot of times the way to do it is to adopt the terminology that was already there, like Mike did in Tennessee. After you put your foundation in you can use whatever terminology you want.''
To Weis, the most difficult part for a player like Bledsoe is not the changing playbooks and the terminology, but rather the changing faces instructing him.
"People have talked a lot here about all the different systems Drew has had to learn, but what causes a bigger problem is changing who coaches you every year, especially at quarterback,'' Weis said. "A quarterback coach has to be the quarterback's confidant. He can't be afraid to tell him when he's screwing up. You have to be able to do it matter of factly, but the guy has to understand what you wanted him to do first. Fortunately for us, a veteran like Bledsoe knows what's going on when you tell him the problem.''
Because of that, Weis was able to install his system and its terminology in a more complex way than he would have with a rookie quarterback or an inexperienced one like Tampa's Shaun King, who has started for less than a year.
"The thing is you can have a playbook a foot thick,'' Weis said. "You can have your system, whatever it is. But it better fit what your quarterback can do because if you're asking him to do things he can't do, forget it.''
In that regard, Weis would sit down with Vinny Testaverde when Weis was with the Jets and go over the playbook and what was going to be taken from it for the upcoming game. After several days of practice, they would revisit those plays on Thursday or Friday, and Weis would listen to Testaverde's viewpoint.
"If Vinny didn't like a play, whether I liked it or not, we'd throw it out,'' Weis said. "Vinny, [quarterback coach Dan] Henning, and I would sit and talk about the plan and rather than be hardheaded about it because it was my idea, if the quarterback wasn't confident in it, we'd throw it out.''
In Weis's system, though, there is less to throw out than with many other NFL teams. Weis is more a believer in matchups than trickery, as is head coch Bill Belichick. He believes more in formations and player groupings than the foolproofness of any play in his playbook, a marked departure from a place like San Francisco, where they might have 55-100 plays on a list for any game and 400 or more in a playbook that looked like Volume A of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
By contrast, Weis's looks more like Volume V. There's still plenty there, it's just a little thinner and easier to carry, both by hand and in your mind.
"San Francisco could call 400 plays,'' Weis said. "I have a different philosophy. I think you can cut down on the plays and get different looks from your formations and who's in them. It's easier for the players to learn. It's easier for the quarterback to learn. You get different looks without changing his reads. You don't need an open-ended number of plays.''
What you do need, Weis said, is a number of plays designed for the young quarterback as well as for a veteran guy like Bledsoe or Testaverde. Because Bledsoe has played seven years in the NFL and every minute as a starter, Weis understood which playbook to hand him when they first began to work in spring minicamps. He gave him the thicker one.
"You have a volume of plays for the inexperienced guy and for the experienced guy,'' Weis said. "When Vinny went down, you couldn't ask Ray Lucas to do the same things we'd ask of Vinny. The more experienced a guy you have running your offense, the more mental pressure you can put on him.''
A former high school teacher, Weis understands, as Billick does, that rote learning of a playbook is not the way an offense is learned. The playbook ultimately must be translated into a system the player understands and doesn't question.
Such learning takes time but with "most of our offense'' installed, Weis is confident that when he sends it out to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, he can call anything and be confident Bledsoe and his teammates will understand what is being asked. Although once in a while, even Weis might relay his message to Bledsoe in an old language.
"For Drew, coming to this offense is like someone who learned Spanish, then forgot it, and now is relearning it,'' Weis said. "He's familiar with a lot of it already from when we were here before. He just needed a refresher course, but every now and then I signal him a play using [hand] signals from the olden days. He gets it.''
Even without a laptop computer to assist him.