What’s so important about those play calls?
Back in the late 1960s the Cleveland Browns, with Bill Nelsen at quarterback, were in a big game and had the ball on the opponent’s eight-yard line. It was goal-to-go. Big game, because the Browns, after winning the championship in 1964, actually had contending teams from 1965-72 and reached the playoffs in six of those years.
In those days, quarterbacks had far more play-calling responsibility than in this modern era of offensive coordinators, advanced analytics and helmet radio receivers. Bill Nelsen was one of the great field generals in the history of the game. Perhaps his multiple knee surgeries and his near complete lack of mobility forced him to employ play-calling wisdom over scrambling valor, but, in any case, Nelsen’s football smarts would later earn him jobs as an assistant coach for the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, as the quarterback coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and as the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions. It was also reported that he considered an offer to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
On this particular day, however, after one or two unsuccessful plays, Nelsen called a draw play. The draw had been around for years, but no one commenting on the game could remember it ever being called in such tight quarters, inside the 10-yard line. The unorthodox call evidently shocked the defense because the hole that opened up for Leroy Kelly seemed to be the size of an airport runway. The play went for a touchdown.
The 2015 Cleveland Browns have made no secret about the importance they place on having a successful run game as a critical precondition to having a successful quarterback. But it’s already becoming evident that the Browns are trying to avoid having their priorities translate into predictability. This is essential because there are very few teams, in very few instances, where an NFL offense can succeed without some element of surprise. That, friends, is the reason we have huddles in the game of football.
Of course, there are old-fashioned huddles (gather round, boys, here’s the plan) and virtual huddles (the ones out in the open with secret hand signals and code words).
The function of the huddle is to conceal your team’s intentions, which, if known to the enemy, could spell your defeat. And yet, countless NFL commentators over the years have insisted that the first order of business for any NFL offense is to “establish the running game” even when the defense knows that’s what you’re thinking and planning and is crowding eight defenders along the line of scrimmage, virtually screaming at the offense, “Go ahead, establish your running game!”
If you’re after a momentous history lesson on the subject, there’s Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On July 3, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was convinced his soldiers could punch a hole through the center of the Union lines, even though Union Major General George Meade (and tens of thousands of others) knew the charge up the middle was coming. It went down in history as “Pickett’s Charge” but, in truth, it was Lee’s charge because he’s the one who insisted on the strategy, even as one of his trusted Lieutenant Generals, James Longstreet, warned of the futility of such an attack.
That kind of obstinacy in the relatively trivial world of professional football got Paul Brown fired. As my late, dear old dad used to say on occasion while we sat together watching Paul Brown’s Browns, “Sure the defense knows what we’re gonna do. WE know what the Browns are gonna do and we’re just sitting here on the couch watching on TV.” No amount of logic, persuasion or entreaty could convince Paul Brown that his quarterbacks should have the authority to override his play call, to avoid what they (and tens of thousands of others on their couches) could clearly see as a futile attempt at rushing, even with Number 32 carrying the ball. It wasn’t until Jim Brown and several other veterans took their case to Art Modell that Paul Brown learned he was neither omnipotent nor untouchable.
Predictability can make a good team seem quite average and an average team dreadful. The hackneyed pattern of run-run-pass-punt is discouraging to everyone; to fans, to the team’s offense and to its defense. Is there anything more discouraging to a team’s defenders than to turn the ball over to your offense only to watch them run for no gain, run for two yards, pass for three yards … and then punt? Of course, you have to be able to run the football, not because you’ll be telegraphing your intentions, but because it prevents your team from being predictable and one-dimensional, totally reliant on the more modern, glamorous passing game.
Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr ran a pretty conservative offensive attack in his day under Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi. But every team knew that, at any moment, particularly when another run looked obvious, as on second- or third-and-1, Starr could fake to his fullback, Jim Taylor, and throw long. Lombardi could be a dictator, too, in his own way, but Bart Starr called the plays.
Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar was never shy about opening up his offense in an effort to stun an opponent. In 1986 against the Bengals, Kosar’s first play of the game was a 66-yard bomb to Reggie Langhorne. The Browns clinched the division with a win that day by a score of 34-3.
Kosar’s ability to read and exploit opposing defenses was well known. In 1991, Kosar ignored Bill Belichick’s play call, drew one up in the dirt, and threw a touchdown pass to Michael Jackson. Imagine that, “diminished skills” and all. Belichick later regretted giving Kosar hell after that play and for his poor handling of Kosar near the end of the quarterback’s career.
Coaches are generally not very good at unpredictable play calling. At measureofdoubt.com advanced analytics show that most NFL coaches (being humans) are “notoriously bad at mimicking true unpredictability.” One analyst, while studying play calls on second down, noticed a spike in the number of run plays called on second-and-10. (Not second-and-8 or second-and-9, just 10.) It was concluded that second-and-10 is most likely after a failed pass attempt and, being vulnerable to the “hasty generalization bias” and the “recency effect” in which people overgeneralize from a small amount of data, especially recent data, the tendency in such cases is “let’s try something else.” OK, pass didn’t work? Let’s try a run.
Yes, we’re human. Years ago, after a season of sandlot touch football games, an old friend let me in on a secret of my own biases which was affecting my efforts at being an unpredictable play-caller. He knew I didn’t like to have any of my teammates feeling left out, so I would almost never throw to the same receiver twice consecutively. Really? I do that?
Another website, rotoviz.com, cites a study of play-calling predictability for the 2013 season. That was the year (the one year) Rob Chudzinski was the Browns head coach and Norv Turner the offensive coordinator. Chud’s team was one of the most predictable in the NFL. (I know; you could have predicted that.) Not far from the top as most unpredictable was Bill Belichick and, interestingly, Kyle Shanahan, then with the Washington Redskins. Actually, the Browns in 2014, with Shanahan as OC, had some of the most unpredictable play calling seen in many years.
When the Browns defeated the Steelers a year ago on October 12, the two biggest plays of the game (and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin agreed with this) were big surprises. Both were in the second quarter. On first-and-10, the Browns ran a naked bootleg left by Hoyer that resulted in a 42-yard pass to a wide open Jordan Cameron to set up a five-yard touchdown run. A few minutes later, on a third-and-2 play-action, Hoyer hit Cameron on a 52-yard touchdown pass right down the middle of the field.
Following that second touchdown, Brian Hoyer and Kyle Shanahan congratulated each other with an in-the-air shoulder bump. They were having fun. After another defensive stop, Crowell began the next drive with a sweep around right end for an 11-yard gain and then, again on first-and-10, Hoyer hit Taylor Gabriel for 20-some yards on a play-action pass. Not only did we fans have no idea what was coming next, the Steelers, likewise, were guessing badly. Troy Aumua Polamalu, in particular, was looking like he would rather be at the barbershop.
After the next play, a short gain on the ground, an injury timeout stopped the clock just as Hoyer was trying to take charge of the no-huddle huddle. A closeup of Shanahan at that point (speaking of helmet radio receivers) looked like was telling Hoyer, “It’s Mack.” A few minutes later, Alex Mack was carted off the field.
Those moments of surprise and unpredictability may very well have been when the Browns peaked in 2014. The passing game was not supposed to be the strength of the team, especially, the long game, yet in that first half against the Steelers, Hoyer averaged 29 yards per completion. What defensive coordinator could have planned for that?
FFrom the very beginning of this year’s training camp, the Browns have made it clear that, where the offense is concerned, “… everything starts with protection of the quarterback” (Mike Pettine). If someone actually keeps statistics on such things and if Jon Gruden was correct during the Browns-Bills exhibition game on August 20, Josh McCown absorbed more hits per pass attempt than any other quarterback during the 2014 season. To start with the quarterback’s protection, therefore, you’d better have a very good line, one that’s good at blocking for both the run and the passing game.
Notice, Pettine didn’t say, “everything starts with a good running game,” although we all know that’s exactly what the Browns are striving to possess. Even with the best running game in the NFL, however, you still have to be able to throw the ball, and not just for three or four yards at a time. Those short passes serve a purpose but too many of them just keeps more defenders around the line of scrimmage and makes the defense more brazen.
Good teams have to have the ability to surprise and stun opponents at least once in a while with long throws down the field. If a defense is over-defending against the run, daring you to throw, you’d better be able to throw the ball. If defensive backs are over-defending against the short pass, you’d better be able to go deep. And if a defense sends seven or eight players after the quarterback, you’d better have a backup plan. It’s easy to see why Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine have stated their preference for having multiple skills in each position room and with as many individual players as possible.
You’d love to have an offensive line that is so dominant that it comes out of the huddle announcing, “We’re running off right tackle, try to stop us.” But that has no part in the real world of sports. One of most satisfying post-game remarks that can be heard following your team’s win (and this applies to both your team’s offense and defense) is hearing opposing players and coaches say, “Man, we had no idea all game what they were doing. They really kept us off balance. We just couldn’t get into a rhythm.”
You’d also love to have a stable of wide receivers with world-class sprinter speed, but it’s not essential. Creative play-calling, intelligence and sound fundamentals can go a long way in overcoming the deficits of pure athleticism.
Let’s face it, defeating your opponent by giving him a concussion is being frowned upon more and more. So every part of your team better be smart in order to maximize every opportunity. That means cutting down on the dumb penalties, such as jumping (or worse, lining up) offsides, being suckered into unsportsmanlike conduct, or blocking someone in the back fifty yards away from the ball.
It would also be nice to avoid the kind of dumb plays that disciplined high school players don’t seem to have trouble mastering. Example: Against Buffalo last week, in the first quarter, Travis Benjamin caught a punt … on the two-yard line. He made a nice runback to the 19-yard line but a holding penalty took the ball back to the nine. Every season, it seems, guys earning a few hundred thousand dollars a year or more, can’t remember the simple basics of when to catch a punt and when to leave it alone.
Another characteristic of an intelligent, well-coached team is creativity. Thinking outside the box. Not being unduly influenced by the tepid, conventional wisdom of “establishing the running game” without any pretense of deception or surprise. How many times must we run into that brick wall before we think of a more creative strategy?
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There are several versions of a famous quote that sums it up, but I choose that of the Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, George Santayana, because he was born a mere five months after Pickett’s Charge: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
How delighted we are, then, that Bill Nelsen had the ingenuity to call that draw play … and grateful that Robert E. Lee did not.