When Ravens rookies and veterans reported to the team facility for football school this May, they opened their offensive playbooks to find a language that was only months old. Intuitively, they understood parts of it. It wasn’t like they were reading Dothraki or Klingon. There was familiar-sounding verbiage. The play concepts echoed others they’d studied throughout their careers.
“It’s not too different,” rookie quarterback Trace McSorely said. “Football’s football.”
But in rebuilding the offense this offseason “from soup to nuts,” as offensive coordinator Greg Roman put it in February, the Ravens reconstructed everything about it: how plays would be called, how concepts would be taught, how practices would reinforce those lessons.
Coach John Harbaugh said Saturday that he wanted every element of the playbook, from formations to presnap motions, “to have meaning,” as if they all derived from core organizing principles. Training camp has been a test lab for that mission: Ravens coaches want to see how the offense is coming together, and Ravens players have to show they know where each piece of this new puzzle fits.
“We’re in that process right now,” Harbaugh said. “Certain plays and concepts are going in very methodically, in a really organized way. We think we know how to teach. We do our best, but that was it. And then, to build the words and the verbiage and the formations and the motions and all the different concepts together in a way that they could understand them logically, not have to just remember random things that didn’t have meaning to them. …
“I think they’re doing a good job of it. We didn’t have a lot of mistakes. We really didn’t. So it’s a good sign.”
The acclimation to NFL offenses can test rookies mentally as much as it does physically. Roman said that with the practice-time restrictions the NCAA imposes on coaches during the season and the offseason, “they’ve got to be real smart” about what they teach and what they don’t. But when the concepts and techniques that can be ignored in college reappear at the next level, “I think there’s a little steeper curve” for young players, he said.
McSorley hasn’t been bothered too much. At Penn State, where he was a three-year starter, the Nittany Lions operated “at top speed” in between plays, he said. With the Ravens, there’s more of a respite in the huddle.
McSorley prepares for that, too. When he has downtime, he reviews the offensive script for the next day of practice: the down and distance, the play call, maybe the time left on the clock. He visualizes what he’ll have to say and the reads he’ll have to make so that, when the ball’s actually in his hands, it feels like second nature.
Wide receiver Antoine Wesley is more of a visual learner. Before practicing a route on the field, “I like to see the route,” he explained. So the undrafted free agent from Texas Tech tests himself with flash cards. He reviews film of unfamiliar sets. If he can map out the play call from scratch on a whiteboard, that helps, too.
“I'm still learning from a lot of people,” he said. “A lot of vets are teaching me a lot of just the techniques. And the plays, I'm getting it down. It's coming easy, but [it’s] just something I want to do.”
Orlando Brown Jr. has grasped the playbook on a more conceptual level. While he’s entering just his second season in the NFL, the right tackle said he’s been playing offensive line long enough that only some of the Ravens’ concepts are “different.”
Even if there are new words to describe the line’s responsibilities on a certain play, he said, the verbiage shouldn’t require a translator to understand.
“We're looking at a zone scheme, I understand that everyone's going to be going that way, and that typically on an inside zone, your double teams are going to come inside out,” he said. “Like I said, understanding the concept, understanding whatever it is and just applying it for my memory bank.”
The coaching staff has tried to make the offense easier to understand, both in the huddle and on the page. Last season, Ravens quarterbacks were expected to relay elongated play calls, some as long as 25 words, a holdover from what Roman called a less “transient” era of football. Now some calls are as short as one word, and players don’t hesitate before the snap to remind one another where they have to go.
As the Ravens approach Thursday’s preseason game against the visiting Green Bay Packers, each installation period of practice has built on itself, center Matt Skura said. He recalled that at the start of football school, the Ravens started off with five to 10 foundational words. After they had those memorized, they moved on to the next “chunk,” or category. What’s true of football is also what’s true of linguistics: It’s hard to form a sentence if you don’t grasp the words or the syntax.
“Some things that we install can kind of be transferred to other plays,” Skura said. “Same with the techniques, run and pass. And that's what helps, too. It's not like every play is like its own crazy individual thing where you're having to memorize 100 different things. You can group things into categories, and it makes it a lot easier.”
But no learning process compares, Ravens players said, to taking the theoretical and making it practical. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley said getting snaps against a live defense is paramount. Knowing his play assignment is one thing; understanding how the defensive end across from him might react is essential, too.
Running back Gus Edwards called himself a “repetition guy.” After all, football becomes a lot more memorable when the X’s and O’s in his playbook can relocate from his mind to the field of play.
“I remember it best and I tend not to forget it when I go over it,” he said. “It helps me a lot more.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Giana Han contributed to this article.