Normally, Todd Haley is stoic, bordering on surly. The Chiefs head coach and lauded offensive guru doesn't smile much. But get him talking about coming up with game plans and he grins like a kid on Christmas.
"It's a fun day for me, personally," Haley said about what he does on Tuesdays, the day he and his coaches huddle to put their plays in place for their upcoming opponent. "As that day develops and you have the ups and downs of loving stuff, hating stuff, it's just an interesting day to put a camera on and watch the ebb and flow of until it's finalized and you feel good -- [until] the next day you're practicing and you don't feel good."
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That self-deprecating, pessimistic tone is a common thread among head coaches, confident enough in their own abilities but resigned to the fact that they're not considered successes until they win a Super Bowl. No matter how hard they work, or how long they work, or how many great players they coach, the ring is the thing.
But they work long and hard chasing success, and while you might not be able to tell when you see them on TV, these guys love what they do. They love coaching and teaching, they love making the most out of the players on their roster and they love battling each other, defeating each other by any means possible. The football field really is the proverbial chess board, with the players the chess pieces and the coaches the chess players.
So we got to thinking: With the NFL continuing to evolve and offenses becoming more and more aggressive, would it be beneficial to know exactly how an offensive game plan was built? CBSSports.com embarked on a mission to learn more about how coaches with an offensive background attack opponents on a weekly basis. After all, if we know where the chess players are looking before they take to the board, we can look in the same direction and come to the same conclusions.
When Fantasy owners begin to plot and plan for their week's games, they start with the matchups their players face. NFL coaches eventually get to that point, but first they need to know who's healthy on their team and on their opponent's team.
"You start with who's available," Bills head coach Chan Gailey said. "You look at the injury report and who you're going to have that's able to play. There are some things you have to work around if somebody's not available. Then you look at who they have available. Are there weaknesses that have been created by an injury, or because a guy is a rookie or because they're not as big [at a certain position]? You're looking for mismatches and weaknesses defensively."
In general this process doesn't take long, but opponents can put a wrench in a team's preparation by being coy about injuries. When a starter is questionable for a game, teams have to prepare for both him and the backup. It's a bit more work, nothing unusual or anything that would cause a major headache, but it's part of the gamesmanship coaches play. And no, they're not about to stop doing it to make our lives as Fantasy owners easier.
When they're done knowing who's "up" and who's "down," a plan begins to come together. What tends to happen is teams meshing what they see in statistics with what they see in film of their opponents.
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"We typically start a week or two before with people filling in the computer with our terminology and breaking down the tape, and that generates our computer reports and number crunching," Vikings head coach Brad Childress said. "We look at the league-wide statistics. You reference all those things as you start to break things down. Typically it shows up on tape."
But not always.
"The film doesn't lie. Sometimes, statistics can lie," Gailey said. "There could be one 68-yard run but the rest of them [average] 2.3 yards. But the average reads 4.6 and then you'll say they're not very good against the run, but they are pretty good against the run. You can massage statistics to look at everything you want to."
The most general example we can think of that we can apply to Fantasy is when a team's passing defense is ranked high but their run defense is among the worst. Is it because they've got really good cornerbacks, or is it because teams are running all over them game after game? The 2009 Oakland Raiders are a perfect example: Their pass defense finished seventh-best in the league last season but they were thrown against a league-low 438 times. Their run defense, meanwhile, was ranked 29th, and they were run on 548 times -- more than anyone else in the NFL.
Obviously, the name of the game in game preparation is finding a weakness in the opponent and attacking it. Some weeks are easier than others. Childress referred to this as a "fiduciary responsibility."
"It's common sense," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "Are they dead last against the run and No. 2 against the pass? Well, are you going to beat your head into the wall or are you going to do something else? Are they a great third-down team or a great red-zone team?' All of those things come into play. How are we going to beat this team? This team doesn't give up a lot of points, we're going to have to win this game 16-13. So you start to form an opinion of what it's going to take to get out of that stadium with a win."
But sometimes a weakness won't show itself until after the game starts. Nearly all injuries happen on the field, and when the injury bug rears its ugly head, teams will take advantage in short order.
"If you see a guy sprain his ankle or pull a hamstring, maybe we ought to try to throw the ball over the top of that guy. Or if that guy doesn't play the long ball very well, let's test him," Childress said. The end result of such moves can be devastating to a defense -- and successful for Fantasy owners. Obviously, it's a case of a very good player going up against an unprepared defender at the right time. Nothing a Fantasy owner can do about it ... at least not until the following game if the weak defender is still on the field replacing someone.
|NFL Coaches and offensive coordinators use this information to help devise a weekly game plan. Fantasy owners should utilize the same information to draw conclusions for what to expect for a certain game.|
|1. Injury report ... Not just for your Fantasy players, of course, but for peripheral players on your players' teams. If your running back is healthy but two of his offensive linemen are hurt, there could be some trouble on the horizon. Or, if your running back is facing a team down a run-stopper, there could be some solid stats to be had. Practice and injury reports come out four to five times per week. Read them!|
|2. Team defense stats ... Though not always a true indicator, the past performance of a defense against the run or the pass can help give you an idea of what to expect come Sunday. A better indicator is how a team has done over its last two or three games, or how they've done since replacing a hurt player or bringing along a talent off the bench.|
|3. Recent history ... Mainly for divisional matchups, checking to see how a player or a team has done against a common opponent might lead to some conclusions. Plus, if a coordinator knows his defensive counterpart like the back of his hand, chances are he'll get the best of him.|
|4. Watch football ... Though coaches film isn't available to the general public, getting eyeballs on what teams are doing and how they're attacking each other will go a long way in understanding -- and predicting -- how your Fantasy studs will do.|
Isolating game plans come into play later in the week, and they go hand-in-hand with the early-week practices.
"Tuesday starts the game plan process where all the normal down and distance decisions are made, then there's practice on Wednesday where the red zone, short yardage/goal line and two-minute drills are done," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Those decisions are made, and then Friday is a collective review of everything."
Friday is typically the day where coaches will meet and put the finishing touches on the game plan. It's no coincidence that it's also the day where injury reports are distributed, so teams will have better ideas of who will be on the field against them. You've also probably heard about teams "scripting" their first 15 plays -- those plays are practiced several times in an effort to get players (and coaches) comfortable with the start of the game. Play callers will also spend a big portion of Friday going over a walk-through, or dress rehearsal, of their game plan to be done on Saturday.
"We have a game management meeting at 1:00 p.m. on Fridays, and it's really when I come to the realization of where I'm at on the game plan," McCarthy said. "Really, from Friday afternoon on I'm getting ready to call the game. I actually go back Friday afternoon and Saturday morning and review the game tapes and get myself ready."
Whatever it takes
Part of a coach's gameplanning activity is unearthing as much information as possible and using it to give them an edge on game day. Anything that can help them in their preparation -- anything. These can be many things, including ...
• A coach's personal notebook, kept for a lifetime, that charts the tendencies of coordinators a coach (and perhaps his predecessors) has gone up against.
• Signing a player who was recently released from an upcoming opponent and pumping him for information. "I wouldn't sit here and say it's never happened," McCarthy said, "[but] I've never went into a game and felt that we were going to win the game because we had so-and-so a week before."
• Using the same game plan as from a previous week against an opponent with similar tendencies. "I think every coach would tell you that any time you could have recall with your players, if you could transfer a portion of a game plan that wasn't used from one week to the next and take that right back to your players, is a hell of a positive," Kubiak said.
• And, of course, copy-catting. "I think when there are [successful game plans] that are similar to what you do and fit, then that's when you'll use them," Chargers head coach Norv Turner said. "But to try and fit in someone's system, or a lot of it [into what your team does], you're not going to [do] as well."
The biggest key for coaches to make a playbook come to life is to teach it and utilize it well. Playbooks change every year as they're based not just on what a coach wants to do, but what he thinks his players are capable of doing.
Sometimes, less is more. For Haley, success comes best in a thinner playbook, which might cap the amount of creative plays he can put into his player's heads, but in doing so keeps everyone understanding of what's going on in the plays they've learned.
"Parcells, back in the mid-period of our time together, we got to where we really streamlined things," Haley said. "He was a hard-line guy on us as his assistant coaches saying 'This is how many plays I want.' He didn't care what the plays were, less became more and getting good at fewer things, practice fewer things more, and that really stuck with me.
"I've had [a game plan] as low as 85 total plays, which is low. There are teams that have had 200. Kurt Warner showed me a Mike Martz call sheet that had 350 plays. I've had it low, and that's what we've continued to strive for. Bill would always say to me, 'If you've got 60 pass plays, you could call the whole season. If one works, why not call it again?'"
But what it all boils down to is management of the players you have. A good play caller -- one who will last more than a season or two -- will make things work with the talent he has. If he's got two good running backs but no healthy receivers, he'll utilize the running backs as best he can and not force the issue with a depleted receiving corps.
"As one of the coaches I used to work for said, 'It's not plays, it's players,'" Childress said. "And usually good players help make good coaches."
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