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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Keys To Victory - Scripted Plays

Because we are headed into the biggest game for Nebraska in five seasons, I thought I would provide some in-depth analysis about what it will take for Nebraska to have a chance to win and to return to its rightful place among the nation's elite. This looks like it is going to be a five-part series. Today I will examine one of the basic tenets of our offensive philosophy.

One of the concepts associated with the West Coast Offense is its use of scripted plays or “openers”. The legendary Bill Walsh was the first coach to plan in advance the offensive plays he would call early in a game. He began this practice in the 1970s as a top offensive assistant to Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals. In 1979 Walsh remarked that establishing your openers was “the single most valuable thing that a coach can do as far as the game plan is concerned.”

Bill Walsh later became famous for his “25 openers”. Mike Shanahan scripts his first 15 plays each week and in 2002, Steve Mariucci made 19 the magic number in tribute, he said, to the late Johnny Unitas. No matter the number of pays utilized, it is important to note that they are not called blindly in order. If teams are facing third-and-20 or short-yardage situations, a goal-line play or something other than normal down-and-distance and field position, coaches will go to the plays they have categorized for those situations. Walsh states:

"Would you run 25 in order? No. Let's say, of the 25, you'd run 18 or 19 sort of in order. If something really worked or you saw something in the defense, you'd go back to (a play). To me, it was just sort of a safety net because there's so much emotion to start the game, you want to think clearly, and this, in a sense, forces you to stay with a regimen that you clinically planned prior to the game."
In the book Developing an Offensive Game Plan, Brian Billick highlights that the use of openers is designed to accomplish nine purposes.

1. Allows you to make decisions in the cool and calm of your office during the week after a thorough analysis of your opponent.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Bill Walsh stated, “Making judgments under severe stress is the most difficult thing there is. The more preparation you have prior to the conflict, the more you can do in a clinical situation, the better off you will be. I want to make certain we have accounted for every critical situation.”
2. Allows you to determine a desirable pass/run ratio.
Coaches should attempt to maintain an equal balance on first down between running and passing (I’ll touch on this in-depth later in the week). The best way to consistently maintain this type of 50/50 balance is through effectively scripting such a ratio through your openers.
3. Allows you to make full usage of formations and personnel by making the run and pass interactive.
This allows you to be much more detailed in creating legitimate play action and action passes from formation and personnel groupings that will be used early in the game plan. In addition this step gives those players who have a limited role in the offense (but have a certain number of plays they are being counted on to help run) an opportunity to see exactly what and where they have a chance to contribute.
4. Gives you a chance to challenge the defense and see what adjustments the defense may have incorporated into the defensive game plan, based on your different formations and personnel.
Openers are a great way to test the defense to see what the defense’s game pan is, based on your formations and personnel.
5. Gives your assistant coaches a specific focus as to what is being run and what they should watch for.
By knowing ahead of time what to expect and when to expect it, our staff can be much more effective in watching for key elements of a defense leading up to a call.
6. Gives the players, especially the quarterback, an excellent chance to get into a rhythm, since they are able to anticipate the next call.
With a script, the offensive players could devote more study time to plays that definitely will be used in the game, as opposed to studying an entire game plan that invariably included a bunch of plays that would not be called. In addition, it allows for a comfortable rhythm or pacing in the huddle as well as at the line of scrimmage.
7. Allows you to script specific “special plays” and increases your chances of actually getting them run.
Most teams will have a couple of “special” plays as part of their game plan. This could be a new route combination or some type of reverse. By scripting these as part of your openers, you have a much greater chance of actually using them in the game. In addition, you can control the specific situation in which you are looking to use them.
8. If your openers are successful, it will give your offense a tremendous amount of confidence.
When an offense scores, a certain level of confidence is generated. That confidence is multiplied greatly when that scoring sequence has been laid out ahead of time in the classroom and on the practice field.
9. Provides you with a great deal of versatility and enables your offense to look very multifaceted and diverse to a defense without having to run a large or unruly number of plays.
It is an advantage to your offense if you can take some of the aggressiveness out of the defense. By scripting the proper sequence of openers, the offense can confuse and cause hesitation in the defense because the defense is forced to adjust to a number of different looks and plays.
Although little has been made of it this year I am going to assume that Callahan is continuing to utilize a script. Because the number of scripted plays used by coaches seems to run between 15 and 25, I thought we would look at the first 20 plays of each of the 2006 games to see what Nebraska might be trying to accomplish with these.

Against Louisiana Tech the first 20 plays included 12 runs and 8 passes. Of those runs, 5 were to the middle of the field, 5 to the right and 2 to the left. Zac Taylor began with 5 incompletions before connecting on two straight passes on plays 18 and 19, including a TD. From a personnel standpoint all four of the running backs had a least one carry within the 20 play sequence.

Against Nicholls State, the first 20 plays included 14 runs and 6 passes. Of those runs, 10 were to the middle of the field, 2 to the right, and 2 to the left. Marlon Lucky accounted for seven of the carries, Cody Glenn four and Brandon Jackson three. Overall, the first 22 plays against the Colonels accounted for 104 yards of offense and 2 TDs.

Thus far it is clear that Callahan has utilized the scripted plays to establish the running game. Running plays have accounted for 65% of Nebraska’s openers. The Huskers’ script has also allowed Callahan to put a wide variety of personnel groupings on the field. This has included not only running backs, but also wide receivers and tight ends. Callahan has utilized several three tight end sets and has used the TEs to open running lanes for the backs, to protect the quarterback, and as receiving targets in the open field on passing plays. The personnel groupings have also allowed players with limited roles to get on the field. Two players that have benefited from this step are Kenny Wilson and Maurice Purify. Both players have seen action in the scripted plays and have demonstrated their abilities during this action. Wilson had a long run nullified on the sixth play of the Tech game and Purify caught a 28-yard pass on the 18th play of that same game.

So what does this mean as we head into the USC game? Well, Callahan has hinted that his playcalling has been designed to give the Trojan coaching staff something to think about. Callahan has showcased four running backs with different styles and has done so from a variety of formations and groupings. We’ve also been able to run to set up the pass and then pass to set up the run based on defensive adjustments. Callahan will have to continue this if we have any chance against USC. Pete Carroll runs an aggressive attacking defense that will blitz on any down and distance. If we can call and execute a good set of openers then we can force them to adjust to what we’re doing rather than the other way around.