Friday, July 29, 2005

the Art of the Call | by Michael

A little bit more about offensive strategy today.

Recently we've discussed some foundational ideas like personnel groupings and the complex simplicity of formations, but now let's talk about where principle turns into practice, and science bleeds into art: the skill of play-calling.

Like an actor who knows his script inside and out but isn't really tested until the curtain comes up, an offensive coordinator on gameday is a real-time performer who takes the blueprint and turns it into points on the scoreboard. Let's look at some of the aspects of play-calling, and see if we can't find a few examples that might give us a little insight into Charlie's experience with the Art of the Call.

1. Preparation makes for good improvisation.

As with many disciplines, what seems off-the-cuff and spontaneous is often the product of a lot of groundwork ahead of time. Even an effortless, seemingly improvised jazz riff follows a strict chord progression and a defined harmonic structure. So too, with play-calling. Brilliant "calls" in the heat of the moment really start with scouting, play design, and plenty of war room strategy for days and weeks beforehand.

Pompei of TSN had a piece on playcalling a few years ago, and preparation was cited by coaches over and over again. "The biggest thing is preparation,'' says Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who has been calling plays in the NFL for about 20 years by his recollection. "When you go through your preparation, you prepare for situations. When they come up, there are no real surprises or mysteries."

And scouting the opposition, breaking down tape, and analyzing strengths and weaknesses is something Charlie really prides himself on. Once he's found some chinks in the armor, he can start putting together his playlist and establish some favorable matchups. An example of this can be seen in Super Bowl XXXVI.

After studying the tendencies of St. Louis corners, Pats offensive coordinator Charlie Weis during the week changed the route from an "out" in the red zone to an "out-and-up." Brady made a nice pump to freeze Dexter McCleon and that allowed [David] Patten just enough separation. Brady lobbed the ball to the back of the end zone, where only Patten could get to it.
Another example comes from last year's AFC Championship game. You might recall that during the first quarter of the game, the CBS broadcasters mentioned that the Patriots coaches told them that the offense would be targeting safety Troy Polamalu's pass coverage. Specifically, they believed he bit too easily against in patterns, which would open up the post behind him. Their plan worked flawlessly.
It was after the big fourth-and-1 stop of Bettis in the first quarter that Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis went for the jugular. Starting at his 40, Brady hit Branch in stride at about the 5-yard line and the speedy receiver stumbled in from there. Brady made the play work when he looked over the middle, which drew Polamalu over and left Branch alone with DeShea Townsend.
Again, it goes back to tape study and being prepared. All the talk of hours upon hours spent game planning is not for nothing; this time it helped the Patriots win Super Bowl XXXVIII.
"I think we had the perfect play called for that coverage," Brady said. "We were really anticipating what they were going to do and Deion ran a great route. I just laid it up there for him and he made a great catch. And it gave us just enough time to call a timeout, and then Adam to run on the field."
It's not a coincidence that preparation and tape study are repeatedly mentioned when the Patriots talk about plays that really worked well.

2. Be predictably unpredictable.

How many times have seen "unpredictable" in descriptions of the Patriots' offense under Weis? Surprise and fear (along with ruthless efficiency and now, a fanatical devotion to the Pope) are all weapons in Charlie's arsenal, and nothing keeps a defense off-kilter than throwing them for loops, play after play.

In last year’s AFC Championship game, two of the Patriots’ biggest pass plays occurred on first down bombs downfield to Deion Branch. The first was a 60-yard touchdown, and the second was a 45-yard completion that later set up a David Givens score. What's more, the 60-yarder was set up by some conservative play-calling (three runs and a short pass) on the previous series.

One example of smart, first down play-call in a big-game from Super Bowl XXXIX:
Game scoreless, the Patriots had first-and-10 on their own 3. New England came out with four wides; Tom Brady took three steps back to pass, then handed to Corey Dillon on a fast-draw action, 7-yard gain and now the Patriots are not in jeopardy of surrendering a safety. This play had no major impact on the game; it's an example of New England's ability to have well-designed plays ready for any down-and-distance.
The Patriots, backed up against the end zone, knew they would have trouble running successfully against the Philly front, so they showed pass and surprised the Eagles with the draw. While this wasn't an aggressive play-call like the others, showing four wides put the defense in an uncomfortable situation. Most offenses in that similar situation come out in a heavy or jumbo look, but Charlie is keen on bucking the norm.

Pompei writes, "If a play works, some play-callers will use it as many as 10 times in a game." Charlie will often run the same play two or three times in a row, although usually out of different formations. (One time against Pittsburgh, Weis called 25 pass plays in a row. Brady called it "a great game plan"). Most recently, he did this in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Eagles.
Philadelphia has taken a 7-0 lead at 9:55 of the second quarter, and to this point the Eagles defense had dominated, holding New England to one first down. What do you do against an aggressive pass rush? Throw screens. On first down, New England screens right to Corey Dillon for 13 yards. Now, they'll never make the same call on back-to-back plays, will they? Screen left to Dillon for 16 yards. Note to Notre Dame opponents: Charlie Weis likes make the same call on back-to-back plays, which NFL defenses never caught on to.
Of course, it's hard for a defense to catch onto this practice when an offense runs a complementary play that sets up a lot like a previous play. In the same game...
New England lined up with four wides, then Corey Dillon went in motion from the slot left to wide left. Three receivers were on the right. Earlier in the game, the Patriots had shown this formation and then thrown a slant to the closest man of three on the right. This time Tom Brady pumped toward the closest man on the right and threw to the middle of three, Troy Brown, for a 12-yard gain that gave the Patriots first-and-goal. When New England came out in this set, I immediately looked toward the closest man on the right. It worked on me, and worked on the Philadelphia defense!
The only two-play combo that I can recall from the 2004 season was the fake slip screen pass to Rhema McKnight that allowed Matt Shelton to get behind the Washington secondary for an easy touchdown. Kudos to Bill Diedrick for that one, and he should definitely try to get it in the Ottawa Stampeders' playbook this season. These types of "sister" plays should be a much bigger staple of our offense this year.

3. Don't jump ship.

Per Pompei, "Sticking with a plan that was conceived over hours of midweek preparation isn't always easy, but Fassel believes it's the smart way to go. 'The worst thing you can do is just put a collection of plays together,' he says. 'And then the tendency is if you run a play that doesn't work, let's move on to something else.' "

A good offensive coordinator doesn't ignore the countless hours of tape study that helped to develop the game plan in the first place, and he doesn't bail out at the first sign of trouble. Having a contingency is essential, but it's important not to switch gears too soon. Check this out from the Houston Texans game in 2003.
On a day full of imaginative calls, the one that stands out is the fourth-and-1 bootleg Weis called with 48 seconds left from the Houston 4.

"To be honest with you, we had a lot of discussion right before that play," divulged Weis. "We were talking about running the ball but at the last second I said, 'Listen, we went into this game and that play was our lead goal-line play. Why will we go through all this planning and then change and go to a different play?' It didn't turn out the way we planned, but Tommy [Brady] made a play, made a good throw, Daniel [Graham] made a good [touchdown) catch and we won it in overtime."
Composure under fire is essential. Lesser coordinators will wilt under the pressure and cause their offenses to implode, when all they had to do was stick to the gameplan. Notice in this play-by-play account of the game-winning Super Bowl XXXVI drive how Charlie not only anticipated how the Rams would defend but also how he calmly managed his quarterback. Some selected excerpts:
"(Head coach Bill Belichick and I) talked for 5 seconds. Maybe 10 seconds. We just said, 'We gotta go down there and kick the field goal and win the game.' First play, we called a pass with a seven-man protection. A safe way to start. If they played man, we wanted to score on that first play to David Patten down the left sideline. If they zoned, we wanted to look to Troy Brown. If he wasn't available, then J.R. All we wanted to do was make positive yardage. What we weren't going to do was make a mistake."

"We waited 5 or 10 seconds to let Tom [Brady] gain composure and understand the situation, so we took 5 or 10 seconds off the 40-second (play) clock. The headset from coordinator to quarterback turns off with 15 seconds left, so we had time to let him settle and call the play.

"We called a play where they expected us to throw to the outside and we had a play called to the inside. We wanted to attack their Cover-2, figuring they wouldn't blitz twice and they went back to their bread and butter. Fortunately for us, Troy cleared the linebacker and Tom made a great throw."
By contrast, how often have we seen ND abandon the running game too soon? In some cases, a running game that was actually working?

4. On the other hand, if you're taking on water, don't be afraid to launch the lifeboats.

Even the best-laid plans can fail, and a good coordinator will know when to chuck the blueprint and go with something else. Napoleon once said that "over-preparation is the foe of inspiration", and in the heat of the battle, it's essential to realize when things aren't working and be able to smoothly switch gears.

Again, preparation is the key. Check out the following bit from Super Bowl XXXIX:
Weis said the Super Bowl's extended halftime show, which lasted 25 minutes, gave him the opportunity to devise a strategy to combat blitzing linebackers and safeties.

"They were blitzing up the middle in an attempt to take Brady out of the pocket, so we had something to combat it," said Weis, whose offense managed nine first downs in the first half. "We started using screens and the shorter passing game and it really opened things up for us."
5. You've got to have thick skin.

Outside of referees, there's nobody on the football field who takes more abuse from fans than the offensive play-caller. Second-guessing a play is a thriving cottage industry, and entire call-in shows are predicated on this populist pastime. Pompei writes, "Play-callers are like presidents in that they are blamed for everything that isn't working. It's easier to identify bad play-calling than good play-calling."

Despite three Super Bowl wins in four years, Charlie's playcalling hasn’t been immune to criticism. There's been the occasional ill-tempered rant, but there's also been some legitimate criticism of Charlie's decisions from time to time, and it's only fair to address it. In fact, an interesting pattern emerges. First, from a Providence Journal account of a 2003 game against Miami:
What an awful day of play-calling. You want it in chronological order or from end to beginning? Why, in the name of all that's sensible, would any offensive coordinator at any level think a toss was a good idea with less than a minute left in the game and no timeouts? Even if Faulk breaks out for a 10-yard run, the clock still runs. That is a wasted possession and -- given that it was a bonus possession, thanks to Richard Seymour's blocked field goal -- it should have been treated with even greater care...Weis has good days and excellent stretches. Forget '01, the work he did after the Pats dipped to 4-5 last season was outstanding, considering there was no Daniel Graham, no Branch, a limping Brown, a porous offensive line and seemingly no options. That was Weis at his best. Sunday was Weis at his worst. The Patriots are surviving his work.
Complaints about Charlie's choices in short yardage situations are commonly found in conversations with Patriots fans and on message boards.

Or take a look at this critique of Weis from a 2004 game against Arizona. Charlie likes to be aggressive and take chances downfield, but he might have gone a little overboard here. Had an Irish receiver been injured on such a risky pass, would Irish fans be that forgiving?

Another example of risky playcalling on Charlie's part from an '03 game against the Texans. The play ultimately worked, but I think it again illustrates Charlie’s preference to be the aggressor. He likes to avoid predictable tendencies and surprise defenses; in the NFL, this often meant throwing instead of pounding the ball in short yardage situations. Notice, too, how this writer came away with a completely different take on Charlie's playcalling despite the fact that both writers watched the same game.

Finally, the Larry Centers draw play. Down 20-17 with time running out and outside Adam Vinatieri's range, Charlie called for a draw play on 3rd & 3 which got stuffed. They then threw deep on fourth down but the pass was incomplete. This is the perfect example of Charlie out-thinking himself, a complaint you'll hear sometimes from Patriots fans. SI's Dr. Z ranted about some of Charlie's peculiarity and suggested that he was trying too hard to live up to his offensive genius reputation. "He is desperate to get a head-coaching job, and you don't convince people you're a genius by running the ball, by sticking with the conventional."

The common trend is fairly easy to spot; by constantly trying to out-think his opponent, Charlie will occasionally ignore the lower risk call. He likes to roll the dice and take his shots downfield, perhaps at inopportune times, and he likes to pass on third and short. You can't argue with Charlie's overall successes, but some of the detail work was a little sketchy.

If you think about it, Charlie's play-calling in short yardage situations might actually be the the most dramatic change he makes going from the NFL to college. In the pros, without a dependable running back, and playing with a patchwork line of mid-to-late round draft picks and free agents, it was much harder to pick up first downs running the ball. At Notre Dame, Charlie shouldn't have any difficulty recruiting some of the best linemen and running backs in the country, so a good short-yard running game should be easier to implement.

But hey, it's his call, right?