This is what most people might think a playbook looks like.
The video game version might be the most familiar version of a football team’s bible, but in the real world, the structure and layout that your team uses has way more than just drawings of routes and coverages.
The structure of a playbook tells the story of how a team builds a scheme from the ground up.
Let’s start at the cover.
This is purely a narrative ploy to show you the badass cover to Les Miles’ 1996 Oklahoma State playbook.
Ok, let’s go inside.
Playbooks are usually well over 100 pages, whether they’re old-school printouts, PDF downloads, or modern iPad apps.
Miles’ playbook is deep at 480 pages, despite what you might think about the simplicity of his scheme during the LSU years. You go 50 pages in before you get to anything related to football tactics.
Team policies (there are five pages of them):
And what literally everyone in the program does (there are three pages of this):
Coaches put their team’s ethos for the season up front.
Sometimes it’s much deeper than the buzzwords about being fast and physical. Sometimes it’s ... not. Here’s Rich Rodriguez’s 2005 goal sheet:
But here’s Gus Malzahn’s 2010 playbook:
Here’s the roadmap 2002 Ohio State followed to a national championship:
Despite the drill sergeant nature of coaches, these philosophy sections are where they can actually explain themselves. “This is what we’re going to do, and this is how and why we’re going to do it.” Today’s teenagers don’t just jump when you say how high, and they need to have the why explained to them, but older playbooks show it’s been that way for a long time.
Nick Saban’s playbook takes that to a higher degree.
In addition to graphics like this one from Alabama’s 2008 playbook ...
... there are detailed stats that back up some of the more nebulous team-building topics:
So much scheduling.
Most playbooks detail daily responsibilities throughout training camp and/or a regular game week. Some go far beyond that; there’s a composite Big 12 schedule in Miles’ 1996 playbook that shows every team in the conference and when they play each opponent.
Here’s one (1) day of what Chris Petersen wanted to get installed back in the Boise days:
That runs in contrast to a coach like Kliff Kingsbury, who installs his offense without a playbook. He draws it on a whiteboard, and the players copy it down. The brilliance of an offense like the air raid is its simplicity.
Yes, players have to practice every detail about how to huddle.
From Steve Spurrier’s 2001 playbook, here’s how the Gators huddled and relayed plays.
Even though the sport’s obsessed with the no-huddle these days (a scheme that Oklahoma was running in the 1950s, by the way), there’s still a method to the up-tempo madness.
It might seem simple (it’s just the huddle, right?), but the amount of detail a team has to go through on just the basics can be stunning. There’s a significant portion of at least one practice devoted to getting just the huddle right.
Nothing can be taken for granted, and that’s why it’s in the playbook.
Other procedures in playbooks include snap counts, audible procedures, alignments, stance descriptions, fronts, gaps, line splits, and personnel groupings.
Malzahn’s playbook even has a diagram of a football field:
For a team like Auburn, the amount of space on the field is important. Great modern offenses stretch the field vertically and horizontally.
Football gets likened to war because it’s a territorial struggle. Football plays are the distribution of players across open space. When you think of it like that, it makes sense. If you’re going to conquer the space — a football field — you should understand its constraints.
And what about terminology?
Oh good heavens is there ever terminology. Here’s one page of Tennessee’s 2002 defensive playbook (there are eight pages of jargon in total):
Some playbooks can have a full glossary of their verbiage, especially the pro-style schemes.
Information sharing is really important to the profession during the offseason, when coaches talk to each other and attend clinics. Terminology is one way to mask what you’re doing to gain an advantage.
It can get kinda out of hand, especially when you get to the NFL level.
How to line up!
No, we’re still not at the actual plays yet. We have to learn so much more first.
Your line (and backfield) has to know its protections on offense and the different stunts and alignments on defense. Linebackers need to know their drops in pass coverage and their fits in run support. Quarterbacks need to know how deep they need to drop. Receivers need to know the route tree, and defensive backs need to know coverage shells.
The actual play diagrams put all the stuff together later.
Bama’s 2008 defensive playbook has 42 pages of offense in it. Understand an offense, and you’re better equipped to beat it.
The actual play diagrams!
As promised, we’ve finally we’ve arrived at the plays. I know it took a while, but we had to build to this moment. By now, all this will actually make sense if you’ve studied the playbook hard enough and grasped the building blocks.
In the run game, each play have detailed instructions for what each lineman has to do.
And then you’ll see it against common fronts.
The same goes for passes and possible coverages. Passing play diagrams tell the QB his progression, and adjustments to make based on what the defense is doing.
On defense, you’ll get rush lanes and coverage assignments that vary based on what the offense is doing.
Without the building blocks, the base knowledge of formations and terminology and responsibilities might as well be gibberish.
From the playbook, teams design custom game plans for each opponent.
Coaches scrap or add plays depending on opponent. Schemes get tweaked slightly to adjust for a specific matchups. And relaying specific plays can look like a coach holding a Cheesecake Factory menu on the sideline ...
Ben McAdoo looks like someone at a diner.— Ted (@TedInPittsburgh) December 5, 2016
"I'll have the Greek omelette. No wait! *flips menu* *awkward pause* eh Greek omelette is good." pic.twitter.com/Yq50CbdUBN
... or hand signaling in to players who have a list of plays on their wristbands (that’s what the guys behind Urban Meyer are doing here) ...
... or this:
But the playbook is the foundation. For a player to be able to look at a coach signaling or a diagram featuring Tupac and know his exact responsibility in a stadium with 80,000 people screaming on national television, it all got back to what’s in the playbook.
From the diagrams, to the formation, to the team’s ethos laid out across hundreds of pages, every bit of the playbook matters.