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Football Basics: Gameplanning & Scripting

We have heard a lot of talk about Tony Romo's increased involvement in the Cowboys game planning for the 2013 season. But what exactly goes into this? Let's talk game plans and scripting...

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For many of the early years of football, the quarterbacks called their own plays on the field. No one used game film to learn about their opponents, and thus they didn't really plan out how they would be attacking their opponents. That all changed when Paul Brown was the head coach of the AFL's Cincinnati Bengals in the late 60's and early 70's. He hired a full time coaching staff, and started watching film to help plan for his opponents. One member of his staff became particularly well known for his ability as an offensive coach and a game planner, Bill Walsh. The Hall of Fame coach was on that Bengal's staff, which is where he developed his short horizontal passing system which later became known as the "West Coast Offense."

Walsh carried Brown's philosophy of planning ahead to his remaining stops, most notably, as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980's. This philosophy is now the most widespread philosophy in the National Football League. Let's talk about how teams prepare for games from an offensive perspective, and why they script the opening plays of a half.

Of course teams watch film of their opponents, usually the most recent three games played by their opponent, as well as your game vs. that team from last year (if applicable). They do this for two reasons, first to learn the personnel of the opponent (strengths/weaknesses), secondly to learn the opponents schemes in order to determine how they feel they can attack said opponent. As they continue to study the film, looking for tendencies and tells, they also begin to form their plan. Who's the weak link on defense, how can we get our best players in favorable match ups with opportunities to make big plays, what formations give us the opportunity to run the ball, or throw it against coverages we like, and how will we address specific situations(3rd & 8+, 3rd & 3, 3rd & short, red zone, coming off the goal line, etc).

These questions and other similar questions help formulate your plan, providing a framework to build upon. Which then as our own Rabblerousr pointed out in his practice recaps as well as his podcast conversations with KD during his time in Oxnard, teams use to build their practice plans.

So we take the answers to these questions and build our play sheet. You know that humongous laminated sheet of paper we used to see Jason Garrett carry that looked like it has "War & Peace" written on it? One side of that sheet contains our answers to each of the questions above, specifically the situational answers, grouped together.

The other side of that sheet, contains the second piece of our conversation, the scripts. As far as I am aware, every team in the NFL scripts a set of plays at the beginning of each game, and usually the beginning of each half. As far as the actual number of scripted plays, that varies from team to team, many times you'll hear a magic number of 15, but some coaches scripted even more, even as many as 25 plays per half. In an average game that contains +/- 65 plays, that means Walsh was scripting 77% of the plays his offense ran. So why in the world would a coach script so much, and take out the "feel" of the game?

Walsh's philosophy was, it's easier to think clearly, and make good decisions on Wednesday or Thursday night, than it is on Sundays in the heat of a game. In addition to this fact this allows you to do some different things in those early series that can help you get going through out the rest of the game. Let's look at a few reasons teams use these scripts.

  • Lets you practice plays on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, in exactly the same order they'll be run on Sunday - The more times you do something the more comfortable you become,
  • Set up plays for later in the game - Maybe you have a play-action "shot" play in your plan for the second half. You know you need to set that up by running the corresponding running play a few times in the first half. By scripting your first 15-25 plays, you guarantee that you are able to do that.
  • Run your "special" plays - One of Walsh's philosophies which he got from Paul Brown, was that if you had a trick play you wanted to run, you HAD to run it first. If on film you see their DE driving hard from the back side to attack the RB, and you want to try a reverse to take advantage of that, you have to get that reverse run before your opponent has the chance to run their trick play. If you run yours and gain 5+ yards your opponent will likely not run their own specials. This also guarantees that you don't waste practice reps on a trick play during the week that you never run in the game.
  • Set your base offense - You go into a game with an idea about how you want to attack the defense, and how you think you can beat them, so you want to begin to assert that early.
  • Helps you see how your opponent will adjust to different formations, motions, & personnel groups - This will be a big key for the Cowboys in 2013. The scripted plays give you a chance to see how the opponent will play vs 12 personnel, how they will adjust when you shift one of those guys into, or out of the back field or out wide. Will they flip their corners to match the alignment of your WR's or will they leave them on a specific side? Do they automatically blitz when you go empty backfield? The answers to each of these questions give you insight into whether your assertions from the tape during the week were correct.

So we know some advantages of planning and scripting, but what happens if your first two plays result in no gains or losses, and you have 3rd and 11, and you look at the script and there's a run play listed? In this situation, you flip the play sheet over to the side with the situational plays, and call the first play in the 3rd and long box. If that play works, you go back to your script and call the next play from the script. If it doesn't work, you punt, and your next play starts with that next play on the list. It happens that way with any of the special situations listed on the back of the sheet. You go to the back, call that play, and then go back to your list.

This approach to game planning and play calling takes a lot of the art and variability out of the play calling equation. Which is why many people around the Cowboys downplayed the importance of the switch to Bill Callahan as the primary play caller. The work is done during the week, and the game day stuff is simply reading from a list.

If you want to read some more about Bill Walsh's game planning and scripting philosophies and practices, check out some notes from a Walsh Clinic talk over at posted by Chris back in 2007.


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