Calling the shots: NFL head coaches who refuse to give up playcalling
Mike McCarthy climbed the ranks in the NFL because of his work with quarterbacks and his playcalling.
He made sure that when he became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2006, he stayed true to that skill. Save for a 12-game stretch in 2015, when McCarthy felt it necessary to pay extra attention to his defense and special teams, he has always been the one to decide which play Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and a handful of other quarterbacks will run.
He would tell any first-time head coach to do the same, with one caveat.
“If he’s good at it,” McCarthy said during a recent interview about playcalling. “There’s so much of our offense that’s identified with our quarterbacks, and rightfully so, because we’ve had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks play here in my tenure, but the system of offense is to make the quarterback successful. It’s a philosophy I learned in 1989 from Paul Hackett and through Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense. That’s how I learned it, and I believe wholeheartedly in it.
“If you’re known for something as a head coach, I feel your team should emulate that. That’s why you got the job.”
Sure, that makes it more difficult to have input into the other parts of the game, but it’s why McCarthy hired veteran coordinators on defense (Dom Capers) and special teams (Ron Zook). Both have been head coaches, Capers at the NFL level and Zook in college.
Here’s a look at playcalling through the eyes of several NFL head coaches:
‘The best part of my job’
By the time McCarthy lifts the laminated card over his mouth — opponents read lips, remember — and radios in the first play of a game to his starting quarterback, the Packers’ coach already has called the game twice, maybe three times.
With video of that week’s opponent on his screen, reams of data on his desk and the call sheet he has built for that week in hand, McCarthy closes his office door and goes into playcalling mode a full 48 hours before kickoff.
He’s all alone, and it’s him versus the defensive coordinator.
“I’m all about Teryl Austin right now,” McCarthy said of the Lions’ defensive coordinator during an interview two days before the Packers played Detroit on Monday Night Football earlier this month. “I’m calling it against him.”
Friday’s session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes, McCarthy said. He does it again Saturday for another 2-3 hours, and then goes over it one more time the morning of the game.
“The best time is on the road because I just sit in my hotel room and do it,” McCarthy said. “I always try to save two hours of work for Sunday before the game because I don’t like the time before the game. I like to be actively working my brain going into the game.”
The 54-year-old coach, who has been calling plays ever since 2000 when he became the New Orleans Saints‘ offensive coordinator, calls it “the best part of my job.”
“I love it because it’s about putting your guys in better position than he has his guys in,” McCarthy said.
It was an exercise he missed during those 12 games in 2015 during which his former associate head coach Tom Clements called the plays, but there was a benefit.
“I worked out more,” McCarthy said chuckling.
Sure, McCarthy had his reasons for giving up playcalling after the 2014 season, and they were justified given his desire to spend more time to ensure that defense and special teams weren’t lagging behind. But when the offense struggled in 2015 — the loss of receiver Jordy Nelson didn’t help — he knew what he had to do. It was after that season that he said, as long as he’s a head coach, he will always call plays.
McCarthy always knew he would want it to be that way when he became a head coach. As an offensive coordinator with the Saints and 49ers, he always worked for a defensive head coach — Jim Haslett in New Orleans and Mike Nolan in San Francisco.
It was Haslett, however, who warned him about the time constraints that come with being a head coach and the playcaller.
“He goes, ‘Trust me, being a head coach, it’s everything you accomplish as a coordinator, then you become a head coach and then you’re pulled away from the things that made you successful,'” McCarthy said. “Coordinator is the hardest job in coaching. That’s why it’s so difficult being a head coach and calling it. You’re calling it, but really you’re coordinating it, too. And that’s where the workload capacity is the challenge.”
McCarthy might never divulge what, exactly, is on his call sheet, but he explained how it’s organized.
“There’s a labeling of plays,” he said. “I have a color sequencing I go through, where they all mean something, then I have labeling sequence I go through. I refer to it as, ‘a lap around the call sheet.’ I have a coloring sequence and then I have a labeling sequence that goes after the coloring.”
— Rob Demovsky
Needing the microphone
Sean Payton has given up playcalling duties twice during his 12 years with the New Orleans Saints — only once by choice.
“Well, the first time it wasn’t a decision. I got run over in Tampa and I was in the hospital,” said Payton, who broke his leg in 2011 when Jimmy Graham got tackled into him on the sideline.
Longtime offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. did so well while Payton was stuck up in the coaching booth for the next few weeks that Payton let Carmichael keep the reins for the rest of that season as New Orleans finished 13-3 and set the NFL record for yards in a season.
Payton took the job back in 2013 after he served his one-year bounty suspension. Then Payton gave the job back to Carmichael in 2016 when the team was in a rut, but took it back later that season when he was particularly excited for a grudge match against former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (which the Saints won 49-21).
Payton has always raved about Carmichael and said he would trust him “in a heartbeat” to call the plays since it’s such a collaborative effort between Payton, Carmichael, quarterback Drew Brees and the entire offensive staff throughout the week anyway.
But Payton admits that something always draws him back.
“I think sometimes if I’m not calling plays, I just feel like I don’t have a microphone in my hand,” Payton said.
Payton has long stressed the collaboration that goes into a game plan. The entire staff helps to whittle down the plays that will make the call sheet all the way up until the final review the Saturday night before game day at 11 p.m. — then adds their input into his headset as the game goes along.
“The call sheet’s the same, [only] the font’s gotten bigger as my eyesight’s gotten worse,” Payton said. “That’s really about the only thing that’s changed.”
Payton said there are some advantages to not calling plays — like being able to pay more attention to everything that’s going on with defense, special teams and replay reviews, etc. But the biggest benefit to doing the job himself is probably the freedom to take a risk, since the buck stops with him.
Payton made his mark in the NFL as a playcaller under Jim Fassel with the New York Giants and Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys, but it wasn’t a flawless ascent. Fassel stripped Payton of his playcalling duties in 2002, and Parcells was only half-joking when he cracked that the aggressive Payton would “get the virus” sometimes.
“Look, it’s a lot easier for me to call a flea-flicker on a first-and-10 right after a fourth-and-1 conversion than it is [for an assistant],” Payton said.
Or, say, an onside kick to start the second half of a Super Bowl — as Payton famously did in Super Bowl XLIV.
It’s also a lot easier for any head coach to implement his plan when Brees is the QB.
But that kind of aggression has helped to define Payton and the record-setting Saints offense over the past 12 seasons. His friend and mentor Jon Gruden once raved about the “inventory” of Payton’s playbook, from the formations to the personnel groupings to the talent. He loves to learn about defenses early in the game, then find weaknesses he can exploit.
Payton has shown an ability to adapt over the years. For instance, the red-hot Saints are calling a higher percentage of run plays this season than ever before in the Payton-Brees era.
But one thing has remained constant. Payton is awfully good with the microphone in his hand.
— Mike Triplett
15 plays that set the tone
Andy Reid’s job of calling the offensive plays for the Kansas City Chiefs begins well before kickoff on game day.
A couple of days before each game, Reid begins the process of sorting through everything in that week’s playbook. He has an idea of how every possible call might work having viewed it in practice. He gathers the thoughts of the offensive coaches, including offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, as well as quarterback Alex Smith.
Then Reid sets aside some time to script the first 15 plays the Chiefs will run in their upcoming game.
“It gives the players a little heads up on what’s coming and kind of eases them into it when their juices are going at the start of the game,” Reid said. “And it gives the coaches an opportunity to see some things that otherwise they might not get to see.”
Fifteen plays is a small portion of the Chiefs’ normal workload on game day. The Chiefs have run as many as 73 plays in a game this season, in a Week 5 win against the Houston Texans.
But they’re carefully crafted and often set the tone for the game. As much as anything, those 15 plays are mapped to probe the defense to test for what might work later in the game. The Chiefs also might run a play or two designed to set up the defense for a playcall they will make later on.
“As you’re practicing plays all week long, you kind of get a feel for some plays you like and plays you don’t like,” Nagy said. “If there are some plays that jump out as plays that you think are going to work, you might want to sneak those in, in the first couple series of the game.
“It helps you play the game as you think it might play out early on as far as maybe some tendencies that teams may show or have shown in the past and say, ‘OK, is this what we’re looking at? Is this going to be the theme of the day?’ Sometimes it’s just to see where we’re at with a play we like early on, at any early point in the game.”
Bill Walsh is generally credited for being the first playcaller to script early calls when he was an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 1960s. He later moved on to become the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, where one of his top offensive assistants, Mike Holmgren, picked up the habit.
Reid later worked for Holmgren after he moved on to become head coach for the Green Bay Packers. Reid continued the practice after he became a head coach, first for the Philadelphia Eagles and now the Chiefs.
Reid generally doesn’t fix something that isn’t broken. He believes scripting plays still works for him, even after 19 years as a head coach, so he isn’t about to change now.
That doesn’t mean Reid and the Chiefs are so stubborn as to stick with the script regardless. They’ll go off plan for a variety of reasons. They veered away from the script early in their season-opening game against the New England Patriots when rookie running back Kareem Hunt fumbled on the first play.
The Chiefs made sure to give the ball to Hunt on their next play after getting the ball back. And guess what — that wasn’t in the script.
“If you’re going three-and-out, you might change some things up a little bit,” Nagy said. “But if you’re in a rhythm and you’re going and you score a touchdown, you want to jump back on it. The beauty of a first 15 is that it’s flexible. It’s a feel. If you feel good about it, you stay with it. If you don’t feel good about it, you go somewhere else.”
— Adam Teicher
‘He’s a mastermind’
Ask Sean McVay where his humility comes from and he’ll refer back to when he first started calling offensive plays. It was 2015, and McVay was 29 years old. Jay Gruden handed him the playcalling duties in his second year as the Washington Redskins‘ offensive coordinator.
“You always think you can do it, then you get into it and you realize it’s a lot more humbling than you realize,” said McVay, now leading the Los Angeles Rams. “You make mistakes, you try to learn from those, and that’s when you realize that when you’re around great people, that kind of invest and mentor you, you can learn and kind of accelerate your career.”
McVay is calling the offensive plays in his first year as an NFL head coach — and is making it look easy.
Eight games in, he has taken a Rams team that finished last in the NFL in yards each of the past two years and turned it into one that is averaging the NFL’s second-most offensive points per game. Todd Gurley, coming off a dreadful 2016 season, is thriving. Jared Goff, one of the league’s worst quarterbacks last season, is improving rapidly. The receiver corps and the offensive line, two major vulnerabilities for a long time, are both clicking.
But McVay is not doing it alone.
Gruden identified the time between series as the greatest obstacle McVay would face as both the head coach and playcaller, a task roughly half of the NFL’s head coaches have taken on this season. But McVay is operating under an ideal circumstance, with an ability to entrust defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and special teams coordinator John Fassel when his team doesn’t have possession.
McVay spends a good chunk of that time between offensive series on his tablet, determining whether defenses are reacting the way he wants, seeing if his running backs and offensive linemen are picking up blitzes properly, and analyzing the dynamic between his quarterback and his receivers.
He’ll stay in tune with what’s going on, largely to make decisions on timeouts, penalties and challenges. But he doesn’t feel the need to delegate.
His focus is on the offense, a department few know better.
Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur said McVay “sees the game as well as anybody I’ve ever been around.” Phillips calls McVay, 39 years his junior, “a wunderkind” with regard to his feel for how offenses function.
The Rams’ offensive coaching staff divides the game plan throughout the week. LaFleur focuses on pass plays, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer on running plays, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson on third-down plays and tight ends coach Shane Waldron on red zone plays, with McVay overseeing it all.
Come game time, his double-sided, 11-by-17 play sheet will contain more than 100 plays, but McVay will have most of it memorized. His recall is almost legendary. LaFleur will sit in the booth with receivers coach Zac Taylor and offensive line coach Andy Dickerson trying to anticipate what the defense will do and looking for holes that their offense can exploit. But McVay will be at the controls.
McVay’s the only one in Goff’s headset, and the second-year quarterback has been impressed with the way he dictates plays.
“Just the way he verbalizes things,” Goff said. “The way he’s able to communicate with us and give us little tips and the playcall and stuff to remember, little reminders, is so helpful.”
— Alden Gonzalez
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