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BTB Mailbag: The Language Of A Play-Call

What exactly goes into the language of the play call and the cadence by the quarterback at the line of scrimmage?

Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE

BTB-member Allan Uy sent in this mailbag question: "Would you be able to translate the language used in a play call and at the line of scrimmage?  For example, Romo often says "180"  before snapping the ball. I understand that the team doesn't let anyone outside see their playbook, but maybe you know of some playcalls either for us or another team. I'd love to better understand what's being said in the huddle and at the line."

This is a great question from Allen, and something that, once you understand it, can really make you sound like a football genius with your buddies around a TV or at your favorite watering hole.

Before we get too deep into the nuts and bolts, I will point out that the language used in the huddle and at the line are some of the primary differences between offensive "systems" we hear so much about. For example, a west coast offense like the one run by new Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden will have a play call like "Green Right Slot Spider 2 Y-Banana" while an Erhardt-Perkins offense like the one run by the Patriots play call will look like "Six Zing, 82 Ole- Read Circle".

So for the purposes of this discussion I will speak in either general rules across offensive systems or Cowboys specific methodology, and attempt to distinguish between the two.

In The Huddle:

When a QB steps into the huddle to call the play, he has to communicate several elements within the play call. For example, a pass play call needs each of the following components to be relayed.

  • Base formation + adjustments to the formation (WR splits, TE flex, etc)
  • Shifts/Motions
  • Protection
  • Base route concept + Adjustments or tags to the concepts
  • Snap count

While a run play call needs to relay:

  • Base formation + adjustments to the formation (WR splits, TE flex, etc)
  • Shifts/Motions
  • Ball carrier
  • Target location of the run
  • Blocking scheme
  • Any packaged pass route that may be included
  • Snap count

Knowing how much has to be relayed you can see why these play calls can be so wordy. Lets look at a couple of play calls that Tony Romo might make in the Cowboys' huddle this year and break them down.

First our pass play: "Double Right Open. Z-Orbit, Scat Left, 787 F-Drag On 2."

This call breaks down as follows.

Formation Tag Motion Protection Routes Tag Snap Count
Double Right Open Z-Orbit Scat Left 787 F Drag On 2
  • Double Right is a single back 2x2 formation, with the #1 TE or the Y to the right and the slot receiver or 2nd TE to the slot on the left.
  • Open tells the TE he is split away from the core of the formation.
  • Z- Orbit tells the Z receiver he will motion towards the middle of the field before turning and returning to his original alignment.
  • Scat Left is a six-man (5 OL, 1 RB) protection.
  • 787 tells the three main receivers what routes to run. X and Z will both run corner routes, and Y runs a post.
  • F Drag tells the slot guy to run a shallow crossing route.
  • On 2 means they go on the second hut.

When we put it on the Chalk board, it looks like this:


Now let's look at a run play call : "Stem to Trips right, Belly Right X Flash on 1".

Shift Formation Run Scheme Tag Snap Count
Stem to Trips Right Belly Right X Flash On 1
  • Stem is a shift that moves the F which could be the second TE or FB from an alignment in front of the tailback (think I formation), to the formation that is called.
  • Trips Right is a 3x1 formation with the #1 TE (Y) set to the right, and a wing (F) outside of him.
  • Belly Right is the "Split Zone" scheme we've discussed here before, where the ball carrier and blockers go to the right, while the "F" flows against the grain to cut off the backside edge defender to allow a cut back lane.
  • X-Flash gives the QB the ability to throw a quick 1-step pass to the X receiver if the defense packs the box. This was the call that gave Tony Romo the ability to throw the ball to Miles Austin that was intercepted in the fourth quarter of the Green Bay game in 2013.
  • On 1 means they go on the first hut.

On the chalkboard it looks like this:


At The Line:

Once the team breaks the huddle and gets to the line, there are several calls that are made. Usually the first call is when the QB or center declares who the "Mike" LB is. This may or may not be the middle LB for the defense, but this is used to set the protection, because each protection call designates a player to have responsibility for the LBs if they rush. By designating the Mike, all responsibilities in the protection can be pointed out with one call.

If the QB sees that the look he's getting from the defense for the play that is called in the huddle is unfavorable, it is his job to get his team into a better play. In this case, one of several scenarios will occur.

  • Alert System: Many times a team will make a call in the huddle that goes something like "Near Right Belly Left ALERT Slant Right". In this case the quarterback will make an "Alert" call prior to beginning his cadence. This lets everyone know they are going to the second play that is called in this case the base outside zone run play.
  • "Check With Me" System: Some teams use the check with me. In the huddle the QB calls two plays, but instead of using an alert call, he will alter his cadence. For example, Tony Romo's base cadence is "WHITE 80, WHITE 80, SET HUT!" This might be what people are hearing as "180". In the check with me system, the team would have a "live color" for example, green could be live. Then if Romo wants to check to the second play, he doesn't have to use a special alert call. He simply has to change the cadence to "GREEN 80 GREEN 80" which tells the offense they are moving to the second play call. If he uses any color besides green, the first play called is run. Some teams use the QB's cadence to help reinforce the play call, for example they may have a run play called "45" in their offense, and the QB may come to the line, and use the Cadence "Blue 45, Blue 45" and he may change his cadence to "Green 58 Green 58" (using green as our live color again), and he has changed the play from 45 to 58.
  • Audibles: This is what you see regularly from QBs like Peyton Manning and Tony Romo, who have "full control" of the offense, and can call any play at the line of scrimmage. Of course different teams use different systems for this purpose, but one of the common ones is simply word association. For example in one AFC playoff game this year, the TV audio captured Manning as he checked out of a play. The call he was using was "Fat Man", the play they ran was the belly run play we discussed earlier. I don't think I need to explain the association between belly, and a fat man.
  • Dummy Calls: In order to keep the defense guessing, QBs will use dummy check or alert calls, in this case he will let his offense know he'll give a dummy call, or he can give a "Disco" (disregard the color) call at the line of scrimmage if they're using

One line of scrimmage call used regularly by several NFL teams, is "OMAHA". For most teams, this call tells the team that all motions and shifts are off, and that the ball should be snapped on the next sound by the QB. This is commonly used when the play clock is running low. In this case the QB may be at the line, maybe adjusting the protection, based on the front the defense is showing, and sees only 5 seconds left on the play clock. He would call "Omaha! Omaha! GO!" and the team would run the play from the initial alignment.

So there we have it. Allen, I hope you feel as though this response is sufficient, and might help you have a little bit better understanding of what is going on from a verbiage standpoint on Sundays this fall.

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