clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Football 101: The Playbook And Game Plan

This game of NFL football is like a huge chess match with large humans being the chess pieces. How good are the grand masters? They start by coming up with a playbook, or tweaking an existing one, and then a game plan.

Looking at the playbook
Looking at the playbook
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One of the people in an NFL football organization is called the "Quality Control" person. His job is to look for his own teams tendencies and make sure the coaches are aware of just how predictable they are when it comes to the competition being able to game plan for the team. The competition will analyze plays from the previous season and look for tendencies as well, and I believe this should be happening during the season and not just after it ends.

I have always thought we were sorely lacking in that department and I am not sure we have made it much better still as you will see at the bottom of this article in the link I provided to the article over at the mothership.


A game plan is taking plays out of the playbook and putting them into a game plan for a given opponent. In other words, the game plan is a subset of the playbook

The process of putting together a game plan for a team starts at the beginning of the season, (which you might say begins when the previous season is over), when the coaches come up with their playbook which may contain up to 1,000 plays in it, and then from that playbook they will take about 80-100 plays each week and make them part of the game plan for that week.

Keep in mind that a team usually only gets to run about 60 plays a game and after the season ends the staff will go through all the plays that were run for the season that was just over and they will usually determine which plays worked and why, and which plays didn't work and why.

They will then pare down the plays that worked well, add some new plays and come up with a scaled down version of the next years playbook. Then as soon as they can they will go over those plays with the quarterback and ask him if he had any favorites that he liked and why. They will then usually come up with about 100 or so plays that should be considered for each opponent based upon the weaknesses of each opponent and their tendencies.

At the same time the coaches will look at the current roster and try to tailor the plays to the strengths of not only the guys that are returning, but also the new guys that were added as the season progresses, and the playbook can change all the way up to the start of the season as the coaches learn more about their individual players throughout the summer, training camp and the preseason games. They try to have it printed around the middle of June and try not to change it too much after that because they want to pass it out to their players on their Ipad so they can be studying it as long before the season starts as possible.

Usually they try to install the playbook during the 55 or so practices they have. The coaches will usually wait until the last game of the preseason before installing the game plan for the first game of the regular season. They will look at things like what type of tendencies do they have in the various defensive alignments. How do they normally line up against trips right, and trips left. What type of alignment do they like for two tight ends, etc, etc, and then they dig out of the playbook the plays that work for those types of situations.

Brian Billick wrote a very nice article on "Practicing and Implementing" the game plan. You can read that article here.


For each game they will prepare the play chart that is usually laminated in plastic with the various down and distance situations they might encounter during the game. This is a defensive play chart that Rob Ryan had for one game. See below:

 photo Ryan_PlayChart_zps4ec96a6a.jpg

I wonder what play that one that is singled out is? I am pretty sure it isn't one of Kelly's cartoon characters that Kelly signals in. Maybe it is, and Rob borrowed it?

The staff will also consider the skill and experience of the players on his own team. How many rookies are starting or going to play in the game? What are strengths of his skill players and of his line? Does the line play better doing zone blocking or power man blocking? With all of this information he will take those 80-100 plays that he initially had scheduled for that week and pare those down to about 40 or so plays that he needs to devote practice time to and have maybe 20 other staple plays that he feels the guys are very well familiar with already.

He will usually only have time to do 4-5 repetitions of the 40 or so core plays for the coming week as again, he will not have the practice time to go over all of the 80-100 plays that he has in that weeks playbook. The 60 or so plays that he is comfortable with will be in the game plan for that week. He will have more available to pick from, but the players will be focused on those plays in the game plan for that week.

Tom Landry would add at least one and sometimes two plays to the game plan that were "trick" plays, because he used to say that when it is all said and done, often the games hinge on two or three big game changing plays and he knew that often those trick plays could very well be one of those two or three plays.

He didn't always use one, but he had one ready if he felt the situation was right. Not doing one every week might have been a good thing because that made it not predictable, but then I often wondered if he used one every week would it over shadow that disadvantage because it would still be unpredictable as to when during the game he would use it.


One of the considerations in the playbook is to insure that you get favorable match-ups and move players around so as to make sure there is enough unpredictability in the game plan. So, that means having enough different formations in the game plan. For example, having two tight ends in the game at the same time forces the defense to decide if the offense is going to run the ball or pass the ball. If the offense has been predictable that every time it was in that alignment it ran the ball 93% of the time, then that needs to be corrected in the current years game plan.

There are several things the coordinators are suppose to do to insure that they are not predictable, or at least not too predictable.

  • First, is to try to stay what Garrett calls balanced. About the same number of runs and passes.
  • Next, is to not always run the same play out of a given formation.
  • Put in different plays from week to week and do not rely on the same plays.
  • Sometimes run on first down and sometimes pass on first down. Try to mix that up as well.

I have observed that with a lot of NFL teams, and the Cowboys are just as guilty, there is a pattern as to how teams try to stay balanced. Here is the pattern that is way too often too prevalent and it has to do with what happened on the previous play as to what happens on the next play.

If the first play was unsuccessful, then the next play will be just the opposite. As an example, if the first play was a pass, and it was unsuccessful, then the next play will be a run, and vice versa.

The next point is also not supposed to be predictable, but it was. In 2012, when the Cowboys were in the shotgun, they only ran the ball a little over 7 percent of the time.

So, one way that the Cowboys were successful was to run from the spread formation and pass from the I-formation. Of course this makes sense, because the defense will expect the pass from the spread and the run from the I-formation.

Over at the mothership, Jonathan Bales put together a nice statistical analysis of the tendencies of the 2012 seasons offense HERE, and it points out things that I hope were corrected last year because if they haven't been corrected, it will be one of the reasons we will struggle this year.

YPP = Yards Per Play

YPC = Yards Per Carry

"As has been the case every season since 2009, the ’Boys were superior when they ran the "unexpected" play in 2012. The offense managed 4.6 YPC on the ground when running from spread formations, compared to just 3.3 YPC from tight formations. For passes, it was just the opposite; Dallas totaled 8.0 YPP when passing from tight formations, compared to only 5.4 YPP when throwing from spread formations."

And as Bales points out:

Sometimes lining up in a "predictable" formation isn't a bad thing; on third-and-10, for example, using a five-wide formation isn't disadvantageous because the defense will play you to pass no matter what. It’s the other situations – first-and-10, second-and-5, and so on – when the Cowboys could potentially benefit from mixing it up a bit more often.

Also, those plays that are predictable could continue to be successful just because of our scheme and talent, so that also must be taken into consideration.

Let me conclude with a disclaimer, I have not been at Valley Ranch to observe this process, but my understanding is based upon what I have read and heard, and if someone knows where I am wrong, please let me know so I can update my human storage called a brain and make corrections where needed.

BTW, below is a link to some of my previous Football 101 posts.

If you liked it, you know what to do (The FPW's love tweets, likes on Facebook, and rec's.)

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Blogging The Boys Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your Dallas Cowboys news from Blogging The Boys