In the 10 years since he left the playing fields of Wake Forest, Karl Sweetan has worked as a quarterback—mostly intermittently and inauspiciously—for the Toronto Argonauts, the Pontiac (Mich.) Arrows, the Detroit Lions, the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. A fortnight ago, having been released by the Rams and having failed to make it with the Edmonton Eskimos, he decided to change careers and try his hand at selling. He did not distinguish himself in that field, either.
Sweetan, along with a cousin, attempted to peddle a 1971 Ram playbook for $2,500 to J. D. Roberts, the head coach of the Saints. Roberts pretended to go along with the deal and informed the league, it called the FBI, which wired him up with a transmitter in one of football's more unusual plays. "All I did was ask questions," Roberts said after completing his agent's role. "The FBI did a helluva job." U.S. Attorney Gerald J. Gallinghouse said Roberts had, too, adding that the coach "executed each play the FBI called to perfection." Sweetan and his cousin were jailed, charged with interstate transportation of stolen property and fraud by wire and released on $5,000 bond each.
The case shocked pro football's coaches, largely because they could not see why a playbook could be thought to have such value. Dan Devine of the Green Bay Packers says he would not pay $5 for one. Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins says, "What secrets are there, really? A book gives you a system, not a game plan."
What is a pro team's playbook, and could it have any value to a rival coach? Presumably, what Sweetan would have had to sell was an offensive playbook (pro teams have two—one for the offense, one for the defense). The books—usually loose-leaf notebooks—contain plays and variations, formations, audibles, nomenclature, house rules and, in some cases, exhortations to the players to give 110%.
The book Sweetan was accused of trying to sell was compiled by Tommy Prothro (see cover) after he took over the Rams last year. Ironically, Prothro is not an advocate of playbooks. "I believe in them less than anybody," he said last week. "I really don't learn by reading things. I learn by seeing something and talking about it. Consequently, I've never believed in writing it all down. But all our other coaches believe in it, and if these young, smart guys believe in it, I'm all for having one."
Prothro said that the most valuable information to be gleaned from a rival's playbook is not what a team does, but what it doesn't do. "You never know when they are going to do something," he said, "but if you know something they won't do, then you don't have to protect against it."
Prothro admitted that he has trouble recalling the nomenclature in his own playbook. "I'll ask an assistant every once in a while, 'That pitch where the quarterback swings around end and we trap the first man from the tackle's nose outside, what the hell are we calling that now?' In the same way I don't remember what I had to eat tonight for dinner, but I know what happened on the second play of the third quarter of a football game in 1954."
Indeed, there is little variation in play-books from team to team, except in nomenclature. With the wholesale exchange of game movies, teams are thoroughly conversant with the plays their adversaries run. In fact, they often know their opponents better than themselves and have to "scout" themselves every few weeks to make sure no predictable tendencies are showing.
Paul Brown, the part-owner and coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, does not place much value on an opponent's playbook as a secret weapon, either. "There is very little in a playbook that could help one team against another in a given game," he says. "Better you should have a quarterback who can throw the ball." The Rams, incidentally, probably have an old Brown playbook handy, in case Prothro should need it. "I often give a player—a deserving player—a playbook if he's ending his career and going into coaching," Brown says. "You can study a playbook in the off-season and pick up little ideas of nomenclature, little things you might like better than the way you're saying or doing something. But it's meaningless in preparing for another team. You can get everything you ever would want from a game film."
Hank Stram of the Kansas City Chiefs tells of a flight he once took from Dallas to Fort Lauderdale. "The plane stopped in New Orleans," he says, "and a bunch of youngsters got on board. They were members of an eighth grade team going to a postseason game. While on the flight they took examinations on the plays they were to use in the game. I was surprised to hear that they were using our plays and terminology. Their coach had followed our team as a fan, liked our variety offense and had been given a copy of our playbook by one of our former players."