Coach Joe Gibbs is standing on the sideline staring down at his clipboard. Assistant coaches Don Breaux and Joe Bugel are next to him, waving their arms, licking their lips, pointing their fingers, covering their eyes and shaking their hips.
This is not a Three Stooges routine. They are sending in plays to their quarterback.
When Gibbs arrived this year from San Diego with the offense of the '80s, he also brought along the play-calling system of the '80s. Using a series of hand, arm and body signals and even a decoy signal giver, the Redskin coaching staff is able to call the formation, the blocking scheme and the play. And, if it's a passing play, they also can signal the pass routes for the receivers.
There are three ways plays are now called in the NFL. Some teams, such as Pittsburgh, let the quarterback call them. Others use the conventional messenger system, by which a substitute is sent into the game with instructions from the coach to the quarterback.
But more teams are now going to the signal system, believed to have first been used by Frank Broyles at Arkansas in 1971 when Gibbs and Breaux were assistant coaches there.
"Every team in our division, even Dallas, is using some similar signal system now," said Gibbs. "It's just the best way to do things. It's faster and the chance for mistakes is minimal."
Messenger systems aren't that effective for a number of reasons. To begin with, a player substitution has to be made. That takes up valuable time, and the message can get garbled in the process.
"Sending plays by messenger is like the old party game of Rumor," said Gibbs. "You tell someone something and they repeat it to their neighbor and so on down the line. By the time the story is repeated a few times, it's nothing close to the original story. Sometimes plays are sent in and what the quarterback hears from the messenger isn't anywhere close to the play the coach called.
"I've sent in only one play with a messenger this year and it was run the wrong way. The way we do things now is just quicker and simpler."
Under Jack Pardee, the plays were brought in by messengers. Quarterback Joe Theismann said some of the messengers would foul plays up so badly that all he could hope for was to pick up key words and "go from there.
"This system is quicker by five or six seconds and it's more efficient," said Theismann, "but it still comes down to execution by the quarterback. It always does."
When Gibbs and Breaux were first with Broyles at Arkansas, they used a messenger system. "But one day Coach Broyles just said, 'Let's try something different,' and we came up with this system," said Gibbs.
Don Coryell, who coached Gibbs at San Diego State and employed him as an assistant there, brought Gibbs to the NFL as his assistant at St. Louis in 1973. Gibbs then introduced his signal system to the league. He later took it to Tampa Bay and, in 1979, he rejoined Coryell in San Diego and used it again.
It works like this: Don Henning, an assistant head coach, sits in the press box during games and feeds information to the coaches on the sidelines. Gibbs, with the game plan on a clipboard, then decides on the play. Breaux and Bugel then signal the play to the quarterback. To guard against the opposition stealing the signals, one of the two coaches is a dummy signal giver.
Which is which?
Only the quarterback knows for sure.
"The signals go in a series," said Gibbs. "The first thing that is flashed is the formation, then the movement, then the play."
As an illustration, Gibbs, in a three-second movement of hands and arms, signaled the strong right formation with split running backs, put the tight end in motion, ran the flanker over the middle and the split end to the corner and told the center which man to block.
"You can signal it quicker than you can say it," he said.
Most quarterbacks, Theismann included, would prefer to call their own plays, but Theismann acknowledges the advantage of the signal system and says it is working well for the Redskins.
"It does take some burden off the quarterback, but I still have to prepare myself just as much as if I was calling my own plays," said Theismann. "But this is the way people do things these days. With the complexity in the game today, the nickel and dime defenses, combination 34s, five defensive linemen set up in double zones and all of that, you need to try new things offensively to keep the advantage and this is one of those things, I guess."
Theismann still has the option to call audibles at the line of scrimmage or change parts of the play that are signaled in.
All of this isn't as complicated as it sounds. Even though there are more than 350 different signals possible, Theismann, Tom Flick and Mike Rae have grasped them without much difficulty. Theismann said he can now pretty much anticipate what play will be signaled, anyway. As soon as he picks up the formation, he can guess what the rest of the play will be.
The primary considerations when calling a play are the down and the distance to go for first down.
Based on the game plan, Gibbs said there are only five or six plays that would be run in a particular situation, so he is not drawing from the entire playbook every call.
Gibbs says he has never had anyone steal his signs and he's never had a quarterback get confused. "It would just be too much trouble to try and steal them," Gibbs said.
"Said Theismann: "We'd be in pretty sad shape if we couldn't pick up a sign, wouldn't we?"