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Before each play, sideline 'bedlam'

The Baltimore Sun

Johns Hopkins football coach Jim Margraff laughed as he recalled a simpler time. Midway through his collegiate playing career, Margraff had begun to rewrite the passing record book as a Hopkins quarterback, and he pretty much was calling the shots while doing it.

Back in the late 1970s, Margraff didn't just run the Blue Jays' offense. For his first two seasons, he ran his own show as the team's primary play-caller.

"I remember [former coach] Howdy Myers telling me, 'God bless you, Jimmy, and take what [the defense] gives you,'" Margraff said. "I don't think we'll ever see that again. Guys lose their jobs over this stuff now."

As football has become more specialized - from the many player substitutions that create different looks in offensive and defensive formations to the use of digital video that allows coaching staffs to break down opponents' tendencies in abundant detail - the act of calling plays has gotten more complex.

About 60 to 70 times per game in a typical collegiate contest, a play is delivered to a team's offensive huddle, either by players shuttled in and out of the game or directly from the sideline with oral or hand signals. And that's only what fans see on the surface.

Play-calling has evolved into a combination of art, science and gut instinct, with a battle to negate communication breakdowns during short windows of decision-making time.

It's about navigating through an occasionally chaotic setting that encompasses players on the field and coaches, linked by headsets, on the sideline and upstairs in an observation box.

It's about avoiding a mangled exchange of ideas, either because of electronic problems or too much chatter among coaches when the play-caller is trying to concentrate. It's about a coach understanding what the opposing defense is up to, then countering with an effective play - be it culled from a scripted list or simply based on what feels right - without taking too long to get the information to his quarterback.

And, as Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and Terps sophomore backup quarterback Jordan Steffy can attest, it's not easy.

"There are several times a game when Coach Friedgen will leave out whole portions of plays," said Steffy, who relays calls to starting quarterback Sam Hollenbach from the Terrapins' sideline.

"It's like [Friedgen] knows the playbook so well, in his head he's thinking of a million different things, and he'll call the formation and the [pass] route and forget the motions and [pass] protections. It can take some time, but I think he has really got it down."

Friedgen, who assumed play-calling duties this year, said adjusting to the game's flow in that role has been a challenge at times.

"There will be a lot of give and take with me and [coaches] in the box [on the headsets]," Friedgen said. "I'll say, 'Shut the [heck] up.' That would be a great show to have a camera on the sideline for, because it's just bedlam."

One play, many paths

The path of the play call can take a variety of directions. The call sometimes originates upstairs, usually from an offensive coordinator, whose decision is relayed from the sideline to the field. Or a coach on the sideline, after getting insights from upstairs about the look of the opposing defense or the down-and-distance situation, will have the final say.

And the quarterback is not some robot removed from having input. He sometimes gets to make a decision at the line of scrimmage after his coach presents him with several options, based on how the defense might shift once the offense gets to the line of scrimmage. Watch how, during a pause before the snap, the quarterback barks signals up and down the line, as he "checks" the offense into what should be the right play.

As Towson University quarterback Sean Schaefer sees it, the idea is to get the offense to the line fast enough to give him the necessary time to check the Tigers out of one play and into another. And because Towson runs much of its offense without a huddle, Schaefer has to take extra care that teammates understand the original call or check precisely.

"A wide receiver on the other side of the field might not see the whole play call. There might be one extra word at the end of the call somebody didn't hear," said Schaefer, one of the Atlantic 10's top passers, who has all of his plays signaled in from the sideline after offensive coordinator Phil Albert selects one. "It definitely can get messy. Sometimes it makes you take a timeout you didn't want to take."

Coaches from Margraff to Towson's Gordy Combs to Charlie Weis at Notre Dame each point to how game preparation has changed immensely over the years and how that, in turn, has added more sophistication to play-calling.

The use of play scripts, popularized by Bill Walsh while he was winning three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, has become embedded at the collegiate level. Scripting involves the matching of a group of plays with specific down-and-distance situations. For example, a third-and-one, red-zone call could have a handful of play options, as could a second-and-10 from the middle of the field.

Coaches carry clipboards containing scripts. Quarterbacks wear wristbands with corresponding plays and will refer to them based on hand signals.

"The game has become a situation game, and you practice for those situations," Combs said. "It's all about competing packages [such as four-receiver sets or extra defensive backs]. We have all of these editing machines, and we can break down our opponents to spot all kinds of tendencies, like what is their defense doing in third-and-plus-seven situations? It's such a chess game now."

"As long as I've been calling plays for the last 10 years or so, I've always been scripting," said Weis, who ran the offense for the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots before coming to Notre Dame.

"You call a play, and before they've even left the huddle, you're going over in your mind what are the two potential things that can happen, the good one and the bad one? And what are the plays that correspondingly would follow based on that? Once you know how to do it, it's a fairly simple procedure."

Coaches also have differing play-calling philosophies based on the amount of running and passing they plan to do. Some strive for a run-pass balance in the 50-50 neighborhood. Others scoff at that idea.

"I think the 50-50 thing is ridiculous," said Margraff, who has averaged eight wins over the past four years at Hopkins and led the Blue Jays to the Division III playoffs in 2005. "Sometimes there's a play your opponent just can't stop. Why get away from it? That's when I think you can over-coach. I'm a huge repeater."

Keep it simple

Navy coach Paul Johnson takes the stripped-down approach to play-calling. The Midshipmen run variations on six or seven plays in their run-heavy spread option. Johnson carries no clipboards, works with no scripts and sometimes removes his headset after he gets a handle on the opposing defense. Communication problems are rare on the Navy sideline.

"It's hard to be in disarray when you don't have a committee," Johnson said. "I've never really written anything down. The only play I know I'm going to call is usually the first play of the game. After that, it's all about how the defense is playing. Some guys do stuff just to do it, just to say, 'I've got all 20 formations in already.' To me, it all comes down to feel."

Making the right adjustments is a key challenge for any play-caller, and Johnson's record speaks loudly. The Mids have scored on 15 of their past 20 possessions to open the second half.

Johnson said he always is open to suggestions, from his assistants to his players, adding that Lamar Owens, the quarterback of last season's 8-4 team that trounced Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl, was especially good at spotting holes and influencing some of Johnson's calls.

As Friedgen said, sometimes the eyes on the field, in the middle of the action, trump all others and persuade a play-caller the most. He remembered his days analyzing digital pictures taken during games as an offensive coordinator and play-caller with the San Diego Chargers, who made it to the Super Bowl with Friedgen in 1995.

"I'd look at the pictures and I'd tell [quarterback] Stan [Humphries] the picture shows the free safety did this. [Humphries would say] I don't care what those pictures show, the guy did that," Friedgen said.

"When I went and [later] looked at the tape, he was right. [Pictures] shoot only one moment in time," Friedgen added. "He had great vision. If he told me the free safety went over there, I threw the picture away."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Heather A. Dinich and Don Markus contributed to this article.

Inside a drive

Here is a five-play, 57-yard touchdown drive by Navy in its 49-21 rout at Eastern Michigan on Nov. 11. The drive began at the Navy 43, with the Midshipmen leading 21-0 late in the second quarter.

1. First-and-10 at Navy 43. Call: Play-action pass, giving slotback Reggie Campbell the option of going deep or turning into the flat. Result: Quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada completed to Campbell in right flat for 13 yards. Why coach Paul Johnson called it: The free safety and outside linebacker on the play side were crowding the line of scrimmage.

2. First-and-10 at the EMU 44. Call: Option, giving Kaheaku-Enhada the choice of handing off to the fullback, pitching to the slotback or keeping it himself. Result: Fullback Matt Hall gained 6 yards. Why: The previous pass caused the free safety and middle linebacker to drop back.

3. Second-and-four at the EMU 38. Call: Play-action pass, designed for wide receiver Jason Tomlinson to run a fly pattern down the right sideline. Result: Incomplete. Kaheaku-Enhada overthrew a wide-open Tomlinson and missed a possible touchdown. Why: On the previous play, the left cornerback raced across the line, anticipating an option pitch. Tomlinson caught him going for the run fake and beat him badly.

4. Third-and-four at the EMU 38. Call: Counter option, designed primarily for quarterback to gain yardage off misdirection and a trap block. Result: Kaheaku-Enhada gained 9 yards and a first down. Why: He figured the safety on the play side would step out of position, and the counter was a high-percentage way to get a first down.

5. First-and-10 at the EMU 29. Call: Play-action pass, designed primarily for wide receiver Tyree Barnes to run a post pattern after lining up left. Result: Barnes caught a 29-yard pass in the end zone. Why: Johnson noticed the right cornerback was having trouble covering Barnes earlier.

[ Gary Lambrecht]

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