Here is my Thursday column on play calling in the NFL.
It won’t happen, but I wish it would: NFL coaches should throw away the headsets and let quarterbacks call their own plays.
Football has become more like a chess match or a military campaign than a sport. Coaches orchestrate the entire game from the sideline or the coaches’ booth like generals at the U.S. Central Command, or like teenagers playing Madden ’14.
Just about every other sport is player-oriented – baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer. You name it. Football has become completely coach-dominated and something has been lost. Call it the human element.
“The quarterback has become a joy stick in a video game,” says a former longtime NFL assistant coach and offensive coordinator who requested anonymity. “Today, most quarterbacks are radioed two or three plays in the huddle and told how to choose between them at the line of scrimmage. It’s a series of commands.”
Quarterbacks used to give the commands in the huddle before coaches started wearing headsets in the ’80s. Jim Plunkett, Kenny Stabler, Y.A. Tittle – they all called their own plays. If they played today, they’d be taking orders.
Tom Flores called his own plays when he was the Raiders quarterback from 1960-1966. When he coached the Raiders from 1979-1987, he encouraged his quarterbacks to call their own plays, as well. Today, he’s the Raiders’ radio analyst.
“Paul Brown was the first coach who sent plays in with the guards,” said Flores. “And then when Coach (Tom) Landry started coaching in the ’60s, he sent all of his plays in. But other than that, every quarterback called their own plays.
“As the quarterback, you had a game plan and you had the quarterback meetings and you had a series of plays that you preferred, and then you had a series of plays for first down, a series of plays for the middle of the field, goal line, short-yardage plays, big plays – you categorized them all and it was up to you after meeting with the coach to decide which ones fit the situation. And plus, you talked about it on the sideline. The first play of every series, usually you talked about that with the coach before you went in. And during a timeout, if a coach wanted a particular play at a particular time, he would send it in.”
Bill Walsh also sent in his plays with the guards before he had a headset. But Flores preferred to give his quarterbacks autonomy, even in the ’80s. And it worked for him. He won two Super Bowls with Plunkett calling the plays.
“Jim Plunkett probably was the last of the dinosaurs,” Flores said. “I’m not sure that anybody at the end of Plunkett’s career was calling their own plays, other than teams that called their plays at the line of scrimmage. Jim was used to calling his own plays, he always had. And when he was winding down in his career, we started calling all of the plays for him because we realized every quarterback we were getting – at the time, we had Marc Wilson backing up Plunkett – had never called his own plays at any level.”
One reason NFL quarterbacks don’t call their own plays is coaches call them even in high school. Quarterbacks have no experience at calling plays. This applies to most quarterbacks since the ’80s who never called plays in high school or college. Only a few quarterbacks in the past 30 years have been granted autonomy.
“Marv Levy let Jim Kelly call his own plays,” said the former offensive coordinator. “He ran the up-tempo, no-huddle ‘K-Gun’ from a single personnel grouping. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are the last two QBs who do that.”
A big reason Manning is a fan favorite, even if fans don’t realize it, is he always has called his own plays. He’s a throwback. He is not a joy stick.
“They’ve taken a lot of the individuality and natural creativity out of the game,” said the former offensive coordinator. “It’s more about the play caller and the substitutions and the personnel groupings. With all of these subs, the players can’t get a feel for the flow of the game or a feel for the opponent or a feel for the one-on-one matchups. It’s become robotic.”
Jim Harbaugh’s offense substitutes players almost every play. After games when answering questions about his quarterback, Harbaugh routinely refers to “our eyes,” as if he’s in the quarterback’s head. He won’t even let his quarterback have his own eyes.
Bill Walsh was a micro-managing head coach, too. He called all of Joe Montana’s plays. So, Walsh got credit for being a genius and Montana got credit for “executing” Walsh’s offense.
“Montana probably would have loved to call his own plays,” said the former offensive coordinator. “Look at how effective he was in two-minute situations when time restrictions prevented coaches from calling plays. Steve Young, too.”
Even though Walsh and Montana mostly shared eyes, they didn’t always share ideas. An offensive lineman in the Bill Walsh era once confided, “One time Joe (Montana) came into the huddle after he got the play from Bill, shook his head and said to us, ‘You’re not going to believe this . . .’ ”
It would be fun for all of us to see quarterbacks who call their own plays, but it’s not that simple.
“It’s hard for the quarterback to call his own plays these days because so many of his receivers, running backs and tight ends are situational players,” said the former offensive coordinator. “There are substitutions practically every play. The sideline looks like a turnstile at Macy’s for a white sale. If a quarterback wanted to call his own play, he’d first have to look around the huddle, figure out who’s in it and what plays they can run.
“Also, under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement there are restrictions as to how much time players can spend with coaches. If a quarterback wanted to call his own plays, he’d have to do a tremendous amount of homework. Peyton Manning takes film home with him and studies it. He understands not only his offense, but opposing defenses, too.
“And ultimately, coaches aren’t going to willingly give the game back to the players, because if the team doesn’t win, the coach is the one who gets fired. And once you go this far to remove the human element, you can’t go back. It will only get more robotic. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next step was putting headsets in every player’s helmets so they can receive constant instruction from the position coaches.
“I think they should simplify the game and get rid of the headsets. Put football back in the hands of the players. Allow them to play the game.”
Flores agrees. “Let the players play, and let the best players play 80 percent of the time. But, that’s me. I’m old school. I don’t know if it would work, but I’d sure like to see somebody try it for a change.”
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.