Last week we took a tour through some vintage Madden in his book One Knee Equals Two Feet and saw how a typical Raiders' huddle would function while he was a head coach. Two plays, "Eighteen bob odd O" and "Ninety-one out flare seven," would each convey 11 different assignments to the offense in 6 syllables or less.
Al Saunders’ offensive script probably doesn’t read quite like the haiku the Raiders used to call -- ‘Eighteen bob odd O / The line and tight end crash right / Halfback soon follows’ -- but, as we will see, his offensive system will function in a similar manner to Madden’s former teams.
First, let’s take a look at what Saunders’ style of play-calling is not. A recent ESPN article—conveniently enough for me, released a few days after my first article on play-calling—has highlighted how difficult an NFL huddle can be for a young quarterback. Greg Garber wrote:
“Even considering these quarterbacks played in relatively sophisticated college offenses, the volume of information is staggering. All things considered -- rookie minicamp, 17 designated on-site days and training camp -- a rookie quarterback has about 60 days to get it all down.
“The Vikings' Brad Johnson is in his 13th season as an NFL quarterback. Asked how difficult it is for a rookie, he smiles and lets fly a would-be play: ‘U Shift Green, Left, West, F, Short, Spy, Two, Banana, Z, Over, Heads, Up, Four, 358, Smoke, Check, H, 2 Miami.’
“Johnson's cadence accelerates as he rolls through the play. Quarterbacks just love to share with people how difficult their jobs are. For those of you counting at home, that's 21 elements.”
There are many reasons to be impressed with this kind of memorization on the part of Brad Johnson (and the rest of his team). After all, the quarterback position is probably more difficult than anyone -- aside from an NFL quarterback -- can really appreciate.
Of course, when the quarterback can act as an effective field commander, then everything else in the offense usually falls into place. All of this begins with a clear understanding of how the offensive scheme works and, as Madden and Saunders might argue, with efficiency in the huddle.
A recent Washington Post article gave some insight into how Al Saunders’ play-calling system functions. Saunders prides himself on his 700 page playbook -- not because it is so complex, but because it can be broken down into simple terms. Take the sample play given by Saunders to the reporter: Queen Right Jet Right 940 F Corner Swing.
“’We've just told all 11 players everything they need to know,’ [Saunders] says proudly.
“Queen Right and Jet Right set the formation and tell the line how to slant its blocks. The 940 is only slightly more complicated. The Redskins label their receivers X, Y, and Z, depending on where they line up. The X receiver listens for the first number, the Y receiver for the second, the Z receiver for the third. Even-numbered routes break in; odd-numbered routes break out; the higher the number, the deeper the pattern. F Swing tells the fullback to run a short corner.”
Saunders then draws another play -- the same one, as a matter of fact -- and explains to the reporter its alternate name: Brown Right 2 Jet Flanker Drive.
“ ‘Bill Walsh's West Coast version,’ he [says]. ‘He's told the flanker what to do, but no one else; they have to memorize their routes ... We tell everybody what to do on every play, yet our verbiage is short and simple’”
This gets at the heart of what Saunders is hoping to achieve in Washington with his offensive scheme. What’s the advantage in Saunders’ 11-syllable call versus Brad Johnson’s 30 plus syllable sample play and Bill Walsh’s identical play call (using a different name)? I’ll suggest two things:
(1) Saunders’ playbook allows him to call any play from virtually any formation without confusing any of his players. It’s no problem on a pass play to switch from a four receiver set to one with an extra tight end and a big running back and still run the same receiving routes.
This gives Saunders plenty of freedom to tweak individual aspects of any given play -- say, by altering a single number -- in order to maximize his unit’s strengths and exploit his opponents’ weaknesses. By doing this, Saunders is able to take complete creative control over the “chess match” of the game.
(2) Like Madden’s Raider teams, the Skins now have a system that is crystal clear in the huddle and easy to understand. Saunders packs as much information as he can into as few syllables as possible.
For players, this places the focus of a play-call entirely on the execution of simple instructions, rather than on memorizing myriad complex schemes and combinations of plays. (In fact, with Saunders orchestrating the creativity behind the play, he has said that Brunell won’t audible that much at the line of scrimmage).
This year we can expect to see Saunders take full advantage of the strategic tools available to him. Since he is unrestricted by formations and motion with respect to his play-calling, look for the Skins to shift constantly and use lots of misdirection in the hopes of creating mismatches in personnel.
Washington might come out in a Strong-I formation using all of the proper players, but there is nothing to stop them from lining up with an empty backfield by the time the ball is snapped.
As simple as Saunders has made his scheme sound, several of his former Chiefs players have said that it can take up to a year to master the system. It will take time, but Redskins fans can expect a huge return on their investment of patience: Saunders’ track record speaks for itself.