The first play the Washington Redskins will run Sunday in Miami will be called by Kyle Shanahan, the team’s offensive coordinator. He will find it on a list, under the heading “1st 16,” in the upper left-hand corner of the white, rectangular sheet he holds on the sideline each week. Against Arizona in Week 2, for instance, it was “19 Wanda Y Sift,” a staple running play. Sunday, it could be that — or one of hundreds of others.
Whatever the play, its route to Shanahan’s sheet is both circuitous and orderly. Modern play-calling isn’t an off-the-cuff choice from a grab bag of 300 plays. It is a week-long process rooted not only in the base principles of an offense — in the Redskins’ case, the West Coast, zone-blocking scheme developed by Coach Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father. It also is rooted in the perceived weaknesses of an opposing defense and the players available on a given day — with a dash of gut instinct sprinkled in.
Kyle Shanahan’s first play? His next play? His last play? They’re not there by accident, and he didn’t select them by himself.
“Getting a feel for play-calling, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Mike Shanahan said. “It does take some time. But you got to feel very comfortable, because when you do call plays, you have be able to adjust very quickly.”
“You can’t fool coaches,” he added. “Players know. Coaches know. They know if you know what you’re doing, and they know if you don’t know what you’re doing. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t last very long.”
No NFL play-caller is on his own. That first play to be used against the Dolphins was included on a list selected not only by Kyle Shanahan, but by Mike Shanahan and five offensive assistants. The list was developed Monday and Tuesday, two days of intense planning in dark rooms at Redskins Park, the only light provided by flickering monitors showing hours of game tape. Coaches introduced the play to the offense Wednesday, the first day of practice in an NFL week. By Saturday morning, the players learned which play would open the game and walked through it.
That one play sits atop the first of a slew of boxes on Kyle Shanahan’s play sheet. It is a grid of football jargon — numbers and letters and made-up words — that is completely orderly to him, lists of specific plays against specific coverages in specific situations, a lifetime of football knowledge on one thin piece of cardboard.
“It’s not complicated,” Kyle Shanahan said earlier this month. “It seems complicated when things don’t work.”
When things don’t work — as they aren’t currently for the Redskins, who are averaging 11 points per game during a four-game losing streak — every aspect of the offense is subject to discussion. Thus, the way plays are called — a run instead of a pass, a check-down to a back rather than a look deep downfield — has come under scrutiny.
“Pretty comfortable with the play-calling,” Mike Shanahan said a couple of weeks ago. The head coach could say that because the calls aren’t pulled from thin air, nor are they coming simply from the mind of Kyle Shanahan on game day.
“I don’t get rattled,” Kyle Shanahan said. “You know what you want to do. You want the players to succeed doing it. The more they do it, you get excited, and it becomes a lot more fun.”
Mike Shanahan called his first play in 1978 for his alma mater, Eastern Illinois.
“You had base packages, situations,” Shanahan said. “But it’s nowhere near what it is today.”
Offenses and defenses are far more complex than they were when Shanahan coached in college, and when he broke into the NFL in 1984. But one element of coaching is simpler: The way to analyze it all.
“Technology’s changed everything,” he said. “It used to take me a whole offseason to get different ideas. Now, you can do it instantaneously.”
If Mike or Kyle Shanahan, or anyone on the staff, wanted to see this week what the Dolphins’ defense does in any circumstance — on first down, on third down, in the red zone, when it has an opponent deep in its own territory — he could call up a series of videos that show those situations. The Redskins, like most teams, use a system from a company called XOS Digital that provides information on every play of every game. That video can be sorted by down and distance, by the receiver targeted on a pass, by nearly any situation a coach can think up.
“Still,” Mike Shanahan said, “you have to have somebody to teach you.”
At 59, Shanahan has had many teachers. One tenet of play-calling he still holds is rooted in a speech he heard when he was in college. The speaker was the man who structured the way plays are called in the West Coast offense: Bill Walsh, then an on-the-rise assistant coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, now in the Hall of Fame. The message: Any good play-caller knows every single aspect of the game.
“You have to know defenses inside and out,” Mike Shanahan said. “You got to know fronts. You got to know coverages. You have to know the strengths and the weaknesses of coverages and what attacks different coverages, both in the running game and the passing game.”
Shanahan called plays for 18 years in college and the pros before, as the head coach in Denver in 1999, he handed over the responsibility to Gary Kubiak, his offensive coordinator. Kubiak later became the head coach of the Houston Texans. And in 2008 he gave the play-calling duties to a 28-year-old assistant, Kyle Shanahan, who said he had thought about calling plays “my whole life.”
The first play Kyle Shanahan called was a pass from Matt Schaub to Kevin Walter, a first down against Pittsburgh. It began the forging of a key relationship for a play-caller — the one with his quarterback.
“The quarterback has 10 personalities that he has to deal with on the field,” said wide receiver David Anderson, who joined the Redskins last week after spending the first 51 / 2 years of his career with Houston. “The offensive coordinator, not so much. He has to relate to the quarterback. That’s most important. And Matt and Kyle were like that.”
It got to the point in Houston that Kyle Shanahan could call a play, see Schaub get to the line of scrimmage, recognize that the opponent was in the coverage they expected and close his eyes, knowing the pass would be completed. By 2009, the Texans ranked first in passing yards and fourth in total offense.
But that first possession against the Steelers ended on fourth and one. Kubiak elected to go for it. Schaub tried a quarterback sneak. He was stuffed. Almost instantly, the Texans were in a 21-0 hole.
“All of a sudden, I’m throwing my game plan out the window, and just trying to play catch-up,” Shanahan said. “You do get frustrated during games.”
When the Redskins opened the fourth quarter last Sunday against San Francisco, they faced third and 17 from the San Francisco 48. Kyle Shanahan selected just about the only kind of play that had worked all day, a screen pass to running back Roy Helu, who wriggled ahead for 15 yards. Down 16-3, the Redskins had little choice but to go for it on fourth and 2. A key play was about to be called.
“I think the way that Kyle teaches us, it all makes sense,” quarterback John Beck said. “There’s a rhythm and a flow to everything. It’s just a matter of us executing it.”
The players are aware of what they’ll be expected to execute well in advance. Though unexpected circumstances — changes in coverages, new personnel — can arise, the plays Kyle Shanahan has to choose from on his play-call sheet are meticulously selected during an arduous process conducted largely in isolation on Mondays and Tuesdays.
“It takes hours to understand what the defense is doing,” Kyle Shanahan said, “so you got to get into your dark room and watch 18 hours of tape.”
Each offensive assistant is responsible for a certain section of what will end up on Shanahan’s game-day chart. Offensive line coach Chris Foerster concentrates on the running game as a whole. The other four have more specific assignments.
Running backs coach Bobby Turner is responsible for short-yardage and goal-line situations, as well as first- and second-down plays in the Redskins’ “base” personnel group — two wide receivers, one tight end and two backs.
Receivers coach Keenan McCardell concentrates on the two-minute offense, the strike zone (plays run between the opponent’s 20- and 35-yard lines that might take a shot at the end zone) and first- and second-down plays run in the “gator” personnel group — three wide receivers, one tight end and one back.
Quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur focuses on third-down plays and those in the “U” personnel group — two tight ends, one wide receiver and two backs.
And tight ends coach Sean McVay oversees plays run in “backed-up” situations (when the Redskins are near their own goal line), those in the red zone and those on first and second down in the “tiger” personnel group — two tight ends, two wide receivers and one back.
On Tuesday nights, the coaches meet and assemble the plays they plan to use on first and second downs, as well as all their play-action passes and plays on which they plan to move the quarterback out of the pocket. On Wednesdays, the players practice those plays. On Wednesday nights, the coaches work on selecting the right plays for third-down, goal-line and short-yardage situations. Those groups of plays are “installed” Thursday. On Thursday nights, the staff works out the best plays for both the red zone and the strike zone; they’re installed on Friday.
This week, for instance, McVay looked at 50 plays the Dolphins’ defense had faced in the red zone over the past five games. It took three hours. He then whittled them down to a representative sample to present to Kyle Shanahan so he and his father could make the final selections.
“Breaking it up situationally,” McVay said, “you can kind of focus on getting those plays geared down throughout the week so players can have a comfort level with the plays we expect to call.”
There is, indeed, a particular comfort level with the first 16 plays of any game, because on Friday afternoons and into Saturdays, the coaches select a script of “openers” that will end up ordered in that upper left-hand corner of Kyle Shanahan’s play-call sheet. This script, a concept pioneered by Walsh more than 30 years ago, will be used until the Redskins get to third down, when Shanahan will scan across to the right side of his sheet. There, the third-down plays are divided into groups — between two and four yards to go, between five and seven, between eight and 11 and then “12+” for third and long.
The players receive the “first 16” sheets Saturday mornings before the walk-through. On the left side is the name of the play — “Slammer screen LT to X” might lead to “18-19 Zorro,” for instance. In the middle, in brackets, is a letter representing the personnel group — [B] for “base,” [T] for “tiger,” and so on. And on the right is the formation — “Bunch RT Y LT” or “Strong Zoom Z RT-LT” or “West Slot T Ctr.” The rehearsal is on.
“As a guy who wants to catch passes,” tight end Chris Cooley said, “the first thing I think is, ‘Okay, how many plays can I catch?’ ”
The rest of the week’s work cascades across Shanahan’s play sheet. There is a box for the best five or so plays for short yardage, the best in the two-minute offense, the best in what the Redskins call their “four-minute” offense — designed for when they have the lead and are trying to run out the clock. The red-zone plays are broken down into five-yard increments. Should Kyle Shanahan be certain he’ll face a certain coverage on a specific play, there’s a box for the top plays against that defense.
On Saturday nights, Shanahan meets with his two quarterbacks, Beck and Rex Grossman, and goes over everything on that sheet.
“He’s not going to do something that we don’t feel comfortable with,” Beck said. To that end, Shanahan uses the meeting with the quarterbacks to gauge who likes what. With a blue pen, he’ll make one mark — say, a dot — next to those plays Beck likes best, and maybe a “1” next to those Grossman prefers. In the hours before kickoff, he’ll review the sheet again, using a highlighter to mark plays with which he feels most comfortable. No situation goes unconsidered.
So when the Redskins faced that fourth and two against San Francisco, Kyle Shanahan wasn’t selecting from a slate of 300 plays. He needed a first down. He went to his chart. He spoke to Beck over his headset. And he hoped.
“There’s times where you can call a play where you called it versus the wrong coverage, and no one’s open,” Kyle Shanahan said. “The guys don’t have a chance. But even when you call it versus a perfect coverage, you still got to make a good throw. The receiver still has to beat the guy. The O-line still has to give the quarterback time to do it. The quarterback has to read the coverage right, too, which could be very confusing. There’s so many things that go into it besides the play call.”
With the Redskins in their “base” personnel group, Shanahan sent fullback Darrell Young in motion to the left. Beck took a quick drop back and looked to his left for tight end Fred Davis. He threw. The ball was low. Davis lunged. It fell incomplete.
And on the sideline, Kyle Shanahan stood completely still, his arms folded.
The offense came off the field, and Shanahan didn’t move. Eventually, he walked back toward the bench, grabbed the instant pictures the Redskins’ staff gathers from above — shots that reveal defensive tendencies during the game — and began flipping through them.
Beck approached, and finally, they spoke. However dire their circumstances, there would soon be another situation that required them to pore over that sheet — and yet another play to select.