A play calling system in American football is the specific language and methods used to call offensive plays.
It is distinct from the play calling philosophy, which is concerned with overall strategy: whether a team favors passing or running, whether a team seeks to speed up or slow down play, what part of the field passes should target, and so on. The play calling system comprises tactics for making calls for individual plays and communicating those decisions to the players.
In any football play, each of the team's eleven players on offense has a specific, scripted task. Success requires that players' tasks mesh into an effective play. A team maximizes the difficulty for the opposition by having a wide variety of plays, which means that players' tasks vary on different plays. A play calling system informs each player of his task in the current play.
There are constraints in designing a play calling system. The 40-second play clock means a team has 30 seconds or less from the end of one play to prepare for the next play. A complicated play calling system that lets a team tailor a play more precisely is harder for players to memorize and communicate. Noise from the fans in the stadium can interfere with communication, sometimes deliberately. To the extent the opposition can intercept and understand the call, it can prepare for it better.
The design of a play calling system answers the following questions:
Three general approaches to play calling dominate the National Football League:
In the West Coast system, all plays have code names. They indicate the specific formation and tell players where to line up. This code name is followed by modifiers that communicate variations on the play. For running plays, the modifier specifies the blocking scheme and the path that the primary ball carrier takes during the run, usually indicating which of nine numbered gaps, or holes, between offensive-line players he aims for in his run. For passing plays, the modifier indicates what pass route each player is supposed to take.[ citation needed ]
Here are some plays from one specific West Coast playbook, and what the names mean:
The West Coast system has its roots in the system devised by Paul Brown as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. It became known as the West Coast system when Brown's protege Bill Walsh used a similar scheme as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers during their success of the 1980s and 1990s. The West Coast system was designed alongside the West Coast offense, though it is not confined to that offense.
The heart of the system devised by Don Coryell is a three-digit number that gives assignments to each of three pass receivers; for instance, the split end, the tight end, and the flanker, in that order; or the leftmost receiver, middle receiver, and right receiver, in that order. Each digit is a code for one of nine passing routes the receiver is to run, based on a "route tree".Some routes include a change of direction with which to throw off the defender covering the receiver. Through the route tree, the quarterback knows where each receiver will be and can quickly scan to see who is most open.
The nine numbered passing routes tell a receiver to run as follows when the ball is snapped:
The Coryell system is primarily concerned with efficiently devising pass plays, an important factor in the Air Coryell offense. It allows quick and unambiguous communication with each receiver on a passing play. However, if there are more than three receivers or more than 9 pass routes, or to assign a route to additional players, the system must be modified, as done in the West Coast system, reducing the efficiency advantage.In such a modified system, the quarterback might call, "896 H-Shallow F-Curl", assigning numbered routes to the three receivers (the split end, the tight end, and the flanker), while "H-Shallow" and "F-Curl" refer to routes run by the halfback and fullback.
The above two approaches give specific assignments to key players. In contrast, the Erhardt–Perkins system is based on loose "concepts" that adapt to a variety of personnel packages and formations. Given a set of eleven players on offense and their initial formation, the quarterback gives the code name for a play concept that is to be run. Players do not simply learn to receive and execute their assignments; they learn the entire playbook and know what every player does on every play. A player can be lined up in a formation other than his usual one to exploit a mismatch with the defense. (For example, a strong and large tight end can be lined up against a smaller cornerback, or a speedy wide receiver matched with a slower linebacker.) The player must know what his task is in his new position. Every player aims to be interchangeable with every other player, as no player is tied to any one specific route or assignment on any play.
A typical Erhardt–Perkins concept assigns each player a task based on his initial location. For example, "Ghost" is a three-receiver concept: the outside receiver runs a vertical or fly route, the middle receiver runs an 8-yard out route, and the inside receiver runs a flat route. "Ghost" works in any personnel package or formation; it can be run with a five wide receiver set in a spread formation, or "base personnel" in the I formation where the fullback motions into the slot position.
The Erhardt–Perkins system is more flexible than the other two systems. The play call is simple and brief. The team can use the remaining time on the play clock not to assign instructions but to study the defense and adapt its plan. The Erhardt–Perkins system works well with the no-huddle offense. The offense can run at a faster pace, getting more offensive plays in per game, conserving the time on the game clock, and keeping the defense on its heels.
However, the Erhardt–Perkins system requires versatile and intelligent players. The same player may line up as a running back, tight end, or wide receiver on any given play, so players need adequate skills to play several positions. Erhardt–Perkins requires that players memorize the entire playbook. Each player must know every route in every concept, and be able to run each route depending on which position in the formation he occupies. Players who are successful under other play calling systems can become lost in the complexities of Erhardt–Perkins.In 2015, 14-year NFL veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne asked to be released from the New England Patriots after only 2 pre-season games. It was reported that Wayne thought that the playbook was too complicated to learn.
The Erhardt–Perkins system was developed by Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins, two assistant coaches who worked under Chuck Fairbanks for the Patriots during the 1970s. The system was later implemented by the New York Giants in 1982 when Perkins was hired as their head coach, and Erhardt as his offensive coordinator. A third coach who followed Perkins and Erhardt from the Patriots to the Giants was defensive assistant Bill Parcells, who succeeded Perkins as head coach. Being primarily a defensive coach, Parcells retained Erhardt as his offensive coordinator and let him continue to use the Erhardt–Perkins offense and its play calling system. The system was disseminated through the league by various members of the Parcells coaching tree, and is used effectively by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
The quarterback, colloquially known as the "signal caller", is a position in gridiron football. Quarterbacks are members of the offensive platoon and mostly line up directly behind the offensive line. In modern American football, the quarterback is usually considered the leader of the offense, and is often responsible for calling the play in the huddle. The quarterback also touches the ball on almost every offensive play, and is the offensive player that almost always throws forward passes. When the QB is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, it is called a sack.
A running back (RB) is a member of the offensive backfield in gridiron football. The primary roles of a running back are to receive handoffs from the quarterback to rush the ball, to line up as a receiver to catch the ball, and block. There are usually one or two running backs on the field for a given play, depending on the offensive formation. A running back may be a halfback, a wingback or a fullback. A running back will sometimes be called a "feature back" if he is the team's starting running back.
In American and Canadian football, a single-wing formation was a precursor to the modern spread or shotgun formation. The term usually connotes formations in which the snap is tossed rather than handed—formations with one wingback and a handed snap are commonly called "wing T" or "winged T".
The hurry-up offense is an American football offensive style, which has two different but related forms in which the offensive team avoids delays between plays. The hurry-up, no-huddle offense (HUNH) refers to avoiding or shortening the huddle to limit or disrupt defensive strategies and flexibility. The two-minute drill is a clock-management strategy that may limit huddles but also emphasizes plays that stop the game clock. While the two-minute drill refers to parts of the game with little time remaining on the game clock, the no-huddle may be used in some form at any time. The no-huddle offense was pioneered by the Cincinnati Bengals and reached its most famous and complete usage by the Buffalo Bills, nicknamed the "K-Gun", during the 1990s under head coach Marv Levy and offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda.
Strategy forms a major part of American football. Both teams plan many aspects of their plays (offense) and response to plays (defense), such as what formations they take, who they put on the field, and the roles and instructions each player are given. Throughout a game, each team adapts to the other's apparent strengths and weaknesses, trying various approaches to outmaneuver or overpower their opponent in order to win the game.
American football positions have slowly evolved over the history of the sport. From its origins in early rugby football to the modern game, the names and roles of various positions have changed greatly, some positions no longer exist, and others have been created to fill new roles.
In American football, the pro set or split backs formation is a formation that has been commonly used as a "base" set by professional and amateur teams. The "pro set" formation features an offensive backfield that deploys two running backs aligned side-by-side instead of one in front of the other as in traditional I-formation sets. It was an outgrowth of the three-running-back T-formation, with the third running back in the T becoming a permanent flanker, now referred to as a wide receiver.
A formation in football refers to the position players line up in before the start of a down. There are both offensive and defensive formations and there are many formations in both categories. Sometimes, formations are referred to as packages.
An H-back is an offensive position in American football. The H-back lines up similarly to a tight end, but is "set back" from the line of scrimmage, and is thus counted as one of the four "backs" in the offensive formation. The H-back, while similar in name, should not be confused with "halfback" or "running back", which are used to denote a separate, primary ball-carrying backfield position. The position was made notable in the National Football League (NFL) by the Washington Redskins under head coach Joe Gibbs, who ran a two tight end system. The position was named F-back when used later in Norv Turner's offensive system. The position is similar to that of a slotback.
Single set back is an offensive base formation in American Football which requires only one running back lined up about five yards behind the quarterback. There are many variations on single back formations including two tight ends and two wide receivers, one tight end/three wide receivers, etc. The running back can line up directly behind the quarterback or offset either the weak side or the strong side.
A trick play, also known as a gadget play, gimmick play or trickeration, is a play in gridiron football that uses deception and unorthodox tactics to fool the opposing team. A trick play is often risky, offering the potential for a large gain or a touchdown if it is successful, but with the chance of a significant loss of yards or a turnover if not. Trick plays are rarely used not only because of the riskiness, but also to maintain the element of surprise for when they are used.
A halfback (HB) is an offensive position in American football, whose duties involve lining up in the backfield and carrying the ball on most rushing plays, i.e. a running back. When the principal ball carrier lines up deep in the backfield, and especially when that player is placed behind another player, as in the I formation, that player is instead referred to as a tailback.
In American football, the specific role that a player takes on the field is referred to as their "position." Under the modern rules of American football, both teams are allowed 11 players on the field at one time and have "unlimited free substitutions," meaning that they may change any number of players during any "dead ball" situation. This has resulted in the development of three task-specific "platoons" of players within any single team: the offense, the defense, and the so-called 'special teams'. Within these three separate "platoons", various positions exist depending on the jobs that the players are doing.
Safety, historically known as a safetyman, is a position in gridiron football played by a member of the defense. The safeties are defensive backs who line up from ten to fifteen yards from the line of scrimmage who can play as linebackers or deep as normal safeties. There are two variations of the position in a typical American formation: the free safety (FS) and the strong safety (SS). Their duties depend on the defensive scheme. The defensive responsibilities of the safety and cornerback usually involve pass coverage towards the middle and sidelines of the field, respectively. While American (11-player) formations generally use two safeties, Canadian (12-player) formations generally have one safety and two defensive halfbacks, a position not used in the American game. As professional and college football have become more focused on the passing game, safeties have become more involved in covering the eligible pass receivers.
The triple option is an American football play used to offer several ways to move the football forward on the field of play. The triple option is based on the option run, but uses three players who might run with the ball instead of the two used in a standard option run.
The New England Patriots generally run a modified Erhardt-Perkins offensive system and a Fairbanks-Bullough 3–4 defensive system, though they have also used a 4–3 defense and increased their use of the nickel defense.
The Veer is an option running play often associated with option offenses in American football, made famous at the collegiate level by Bill Yeoman's Houston Cougars. It is currently run primarily on the high school level, with some usage at the collegiate and the professional level where the Veer's blocking scheme has been modified as part of the zone blocking system. The Veer is an effective ball control offense that can help minimize mismatches in a game for a team. However, it can lead to turnovers with pitches and handoff option reads.
A pro-style offense in American football is any offensive scheme that resembles those predominantly used at the professional level of play in the National Football League (NFL), in contrast to those typically used at the collegiate or high school level. Pro-style offenses are fairly common at top-quality colleges but much less used at the high school level. The term should not be confused with a pro set, which is a specific formation that is used by some offenses at the professional level.
The following terms are used in American football, both conventional and indoor. Some of these terms are also in use in Canadian football; for a list of terms unique to that code, see Glossary of Canadian football.