Most pro plays break down into six elements: formation, strength, motion, type of play, blocking scheme and pass routes. For example, I-right Tim play pass 47 653 means I-formation, strength right (i.e., tight end lined up on the right side), tight end in motion (abbreviated as Tim) and a fake run leading to a pass. The phrase "play pass" dictates the type of blocking. The 47 tells the backs which run to fake, and the 653 tells the three receivers which routes to run.
To simplify matters for Boryla, the Eagles devised a different "vocabulary" for each of the elements of the play. Understandably, they won't reveal the exact sign language, but arm positions could be used for strength, arm movements for formations, hand signals for blocking schemes, and numbers may be given by tapping the body in various places.
The coach who wigwags does not actually call the plays; assistants up in the press box usually do. The Rams' play-caller is Receiver Coach Leeman Bennett, who earned a game ball for his upstairs quarterbacking in Los Angeles' 31-28 win over Miami early this season. Bennett spreads the game plan, which lists certain plays for every possible situation, in front of him. He also uses Polaroid pictures of each play to determine if the opponent is employing the pass coverages on which the game plan was predicated. Analyzing these aids, he phones plays to the sideline to Offensive Coordinator Ken Meyer, who then wigwags them to the quarterback.
The quarterbacks have ways to indicate that they didn't receive—or didn't understand—the signal. The Rams quarterback, for example, slaps his hand to his helmet, indicating "please repeat."
Unlike baseball strategists, football coaches have rarely attempted to steal the opposition's signals, obviously fearful that an incorrect "steal" would send all 11 defensive players heading in the wrong direction. Opponents have tried to confuse the issue, however. Miami vexed the Rams by substituting one new player the instant Meyer had finished his wigwagging to Quarterback James Harris. "That's why you have to have an audible program built into your system," says Ram Coach Chuck Knox.
Except for Boryla, the wigwagees like the wigwag. "You can get the signals quicker and there's less chance for human error," says St. Louis' Jim Hart. "You'd be amazed how 'strong right' can become 'slot left' in the course of a shuttling guard's run from the sideline to the huddle." "The only reason we call plays is so we can follow the action," says Coryell. "We don't call plays because we think we know more than the quarterbacks. Most quarterbacks are probably smarter than the coaches anyhow. And we don't call them to take pressure off the quarterback. The coaches are the ones who get fired, not the quarterbacks. You can't do an intelligent job of coaching if you don't know what play is going to be called. It handicaps you because you don't know how to correct the plays."
As with any new system, wigwagging has resulted in some unexpected benefits. For instance, in one Philadelphia game it served as an excellent early-warning sign of a concussion. Assistant Coach Carl Peterson wigwagged a conservative running play to Boryla after the quarterback had scrambled to a first and goal at the St. Louis five-yard line, but Boryla threw a dangerous pass that fell incomplete. The Eagles checked and, sure enough, Boryla didn't have the foggiest notion of where he was.
On another occasion, though, Boryla had more of a notion than his coaches imagined. With the Eagles trailing Atlanta 13-7 late in the fourth quarter and coming up to fourth-and-goal at the Falcons' nine, Head Coach Dick Vermeil suggested a play that Peterson wigwagged to Boryla. Then Vermeil remembered his play was not in the game plan and, fearing that the call would confuse his players, he decided to change it. Peterson madly waved his arms in a no, no, no gesture and signaled a second play. Vermeil had third thoughts, however, so Peterson waved frantically to Boryla again and wigwagged a third play. Boryla calmly watched this hectic pantomime, then called the first play—a post to Wide Receiver Charlie Smith. The Eagles scored and won the game 14-13.
Maybe Coryell is right about quarterbacks being smarter than coaches.