Friday, March 18, 2011
Head coaches juggling play-calling duties
By Bill Williamson
Norv Turner, left, Todd Haley, middle, and Hue Jackson are all expected to be in the play-calling mix.
New Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson realizes the most challenging aspect of his role as a first-time head coach at any level is finding the time to do everything it takes to run a team.
“It’s amazing. You just don’t have any time,” said Jackson, who joked at the NFL combine last month that the biggest sacrifice since becoming a head coach is his physical fitness. “You look up, and you want to go work out and you don’t have the time to do it.”
Jackson is not doing his schedule any favors. In addition to all of the usual roles taken on by head coaches, Jackson will join the alternative ranks of head coaches who call their own offensive plays.
Although it's not a large movement around the NFL, it has become a major trend in the AFC West. Jackson, San Diego’s Norv Turner and Kansas City’s Todd Haley are all expected to call their own plays. Turner has long performed the duty. Haley called the plays in his first season in Kansas City in 2009 before relinquishing the job to Charlie Weis in 2010. With Weis now at the University of Florida, Haley promoted offensive line coach Bill Muir to offensive coordinator.
Haley –- who calls play calling “an art” -- has said multiple times since promoting Muir that he has not decided whether he will call the plays. However, he has also said he is not opposed to doing it. Under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, Muir ran the offensive meetings and Gruden called the plays on game day.
Assuming Haley will be, at least, very involved in the play calling, the AFC West will be the epicenter of coaches who call plays. Ironically, had Denver not fired Josh McDaniels, the AFC West would have been a full house of head coaches who call their own plays. In a poll of my ESPN.com blog network colleagues, a total of 10 head coaches are expected to call their own plays.
In addition to Jackson, Turner and Haley, Buffalo’s Chan Gailey, New Orleans' Sean Payton, San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, Houston’s Gary Kubiak, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, Cleveland’s Pat Shurmur and Dallas’ Jason Garrett are all expected to call their own offensive shots. Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt may be actively involved as well.
Payton and McCarthy have won the past two Super Bowls using this approach. It’s a proven winning formula.
Still, there are two schools of thought: Some people don’t like to see a head coach call his own plays because he may have too much on his plate. Others like it because it keeps the head coach in control of his team.
The general managers of two of the teams that employ the system both say the bottom line is whether it is effective.
“Experience is what matters, no matter who calls the plays,” San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said. “In our particular case, Norv has been calling plays for a long time and it runs very smooth and very well for us.”
Added Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli: “I've been a part of it where coaches have been playcallers on offense or defense. What matters is whether you get it right.”
While Jackson knows his challenge, Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. thinks Jackson is starting his head-coaching career the right way. In fact, Horton would be bothered if Jackson, who was Oakland’s offensive coordinator last season, wasn’t calling his own plays.
“I’d hate to see a guy like Hue not call plays as a head coach,” said Horton, who is a former longtime NFL scout. "That’s why he was hired. He was hired because he has terrific play-calling skills. I want him calling the plays. I’d hate for him to say, ‘Well, I have other things to worry about.’ Play to your strengths. If you were a great playcaller as an offensive coordinator, I want to see you do it as a head coach. If I’m an owner, I’m going to demand it. 'This is why I’m hiring you. Go call the plays.’”
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. agrees that if a head coach thinks he's the best playcaller on the staff, he should assume the role as a head coach. However, Williamson said he has seen coaches who call the plays lose touch with the rest of the game.
“It can be too much if you’re not careful,” said Williamson, another former NFL scout. “I think it is similar to coaches who are also general managers. I think it can be a failing combination. You see these guys have their back turned to the field sometime when the defense is on the field because they are talking with the quarterback. There is so much to worry about during a game. There’s clock management, knowing when to call a timeout. It’s a lot to juggle.”
The key is delegation. Coaches who call their own plays must trust their assistants, particularly their defensive coordinators.
"You have to have a strong guy over on the other side,” Horton said. “You look at a guy like Todd Haley. He’s in good shape because he has Romeo Crennel. Romeo will take care of the defense and allow Todd to run his offense.”
If he does call the plays, expect Haley to be more prepared than he was when he called the plays in 2009. Haley suddenly took over the duties in the preseason when he fired Gailey.
“In Year 1, you're comparing apples to oranges to where we are now as a team and as a staff,” Haley said. “We've had two years full years to lay our foundation [and] the system now is in place. ... Play calling is an art. It's instinctual. There are guys that are good at it and guys that aren't so good at it.”
In 2011, success in the AFC West may depend on head coaches dealing with the challenge of calling plays.