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Going by The Book
PETER KING
September 05, 2005
So you think playbooks are just diagrams with lines going this way and that? You'll be amazed at what coaches stuff in them and how much the poor player has to learn
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September 05, 2005

Going By The Book

So you think playbooks are just diagrams with lines going this way and that? You'll be amazed at what coaches stuff in them and how much the poor player has to learn

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In 1982 Dick Vermeil, then the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and his wife, Carol, spent the last two days of their summer vacation at Veterans Stadium. They went into a room with a long conference table and separated 56,250 photocopied sheets of paper into 75 playbooks, with 750 pages in each. As many as eight plays were printed on one side of a page, maybe 2,000 plays in all. "I hand drew all of them with a template," Vermeil recalls. Twenty-three years later Vermeil

is the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and four team employees do the job that he and Carol did--and much more. This year Vermeil gave his players a 75-page binder when the 14-day Organized Team Activity period began in May; a playbook binder with 100 pages at the start of minicamp in June; and a third binder with some 300 pages at the start of training camp. Once the season starts, each player will get a new binder every Wednesday containing plays that will be used against that week's opponent. All the books are printed in color. If players prefer to study the plays on their laptops, they can get them downloaded onto a CD and also get a DVD with video of the plays being run in practice.

The game-plan book that each player receives on Wednesday opens with the itinerary for the weekend--in detail, down to the menu for the team snack on Saturday night--and ends with the plays the Chiefs will choose from if the offense faces a fourth-quarter goal line situation.

Vermeil is not alone in the extremes to which he goes to prepare his team. "I'm not even sure what to show you," Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora says of his playbooks. "We've got so many." Mora starts pulling them off the shelves in his office. There's the Defensive Concept Book ("Teach and demand Falcon standards for effort and tempo," it reads at the beginning. "SWARM"). The Quarterback Transition Book, which includes core plays and off-season schedules. The minicamp playbook, the defensive playbook for training camp ... and finally the 300-page weekly playbook with 16 sections, each of them color-tabbed.

"The phrase information overload is real," says Mora, who pulls out the playbook for last season's NFC Championship Game against Philadelphia and flips to a page in the Formations section, pointing out this bit of information: In the four games before the NFC title game, the Eagles ran a total of 21 plays out of what Atlanta calls the Base Green Left formation (two backs, one tight end to the left, two wide receivers split one to each side)--12 pass plays and nine run plays.

So technical, yet so imaginative, NFL playbooks reveal more about the pro game --and the people in it--than anything else.

New York Jets coach Herman Edwards has a section in the front of his playbook that shows players how to huddle. "If one guy doesn't get [an assignment], then you're playing with 10," Edwards says. "We go into every season thinking we're starting from scratch. We teach everything again."

From the section tabbed Huddle procedure/calls: "Nose [tackle] sets huddle two yards from the ball," begins the description below a diagram. The Mike, or middle linebacker, calls out the defensive signals to, from left to right, the strongside linebacker (Sam), end, nosetackle, defensive tackle, weakside linebacker (Will), left cornerback, strong safety, inside linebacker (Jack), free safety and right cornerback. "Signal-caller [Mike] does the talking," it goes on. "All others listen. Make the call only when all players are in the defensive huddle. Talk straight out, not up in the air or down at the ground."

Jets middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been huddling and calling signals for years, before he even got to the NFL in 2004. Why does he need instructions on how to do it? Vilma seems to find the question odd. "At the beginning of the season," he says, "we know nothing."

Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick has a section in his playbook that lays out how every minute of every training-camp practice will be spent. This year the Ravens were scheduled for 310 minutes of individual fundamental drills over 21 camp practices; tight ends, for example, would work on pass protection, blocking and escaping coverage. The offense was to take 1,542 snaps, 215 against nickel defenses. "We will design every throw Kyle Boller makes in training camp," Billick says. "If you want to know what he's going to be doing on August 9 at 10:42 a.m., I'll tell you."

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