Commentary

In NFL, the playbook is sacred

Every playbook is different, but the key for every player is to sort through the clutter and learn as quickly as possible, writes Liz Merrill.

Originally Published: August 29, 2007
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

It was hot, he was tired, and all a strapping, anonymous lineman -- we'll call him Joe Rookie -- wanted was a moment of privacy in the bathroom. He had done everything his coaches asked. He lugged his three-ring playbook around like it was a Bible. He read it, knew it, and protected it enough to carry it into the stall, next to the toilet.

But this was Vikings camp, and the easiest way to haze a rookie was to play on his basest fear. Nobody knew what happened to a rook who lost his playbook. Nobody wanted to know.

So Joe had barely dropped his pants when a group of veteran pranksters pulled a grab-and-dash.

Michael BennettRoss Dettman for ESPN.comChiefs running back Michael Bennett shows off his offensive playbook. Under former coordinator Al Saunders, Kansas City's offensive playbook was 700 pages.

"He laid it down, and they snatched it," said Michael Bennett, a former Vikings running back who is now with the Chiefs. "He got up and took off running after those guys with his pants down."

In the NFL, the playbook is a sacred hardbound diary of trust. It's an accumulation of decades' worth of knowledge, tweaked and perfected, sectioned off by scribbles and colored tabs. It's the first thing the fresh meat get when preseason workouts start in the spring and the last thing that is pried from a player's sweaty mitts when The Turk arrives and utters those dreaded 11 words.

Coach wants to see you in his office. Bring your playbook.

No two playbooks are alike. Some are as massive as 800 pages; others are thinner than the Mankato, Minn., phone book. No layman or superfan could get through the first section without being completely confused. But therein lies the trick, to sort through the clutter, learn fast and play faster.

"To me, playbooks are like going to a Chinese restaurant," Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said. "It's a big menu. OK, what do you like, do you like poultry, do you like fish, do you like meat? We have all these things in this book which you need to have, but at the end, this is what we are.

"You couldn't run all the things you have in the playbook. You've got no shot."

In Mankato, where the Vikings' hazing has subsided a little, Chad Greenway knows this. But he runs in the sweltering heat with his playbook almost always within reach. To a young football player, the playbook is a tangible sign that he's arrived in the NFL, a thick business card with his name, jersey number and the logo of his new team.

Greenway grips it and guards it, knowing by Week 15, the NFL will have much of it figured out.

"[But] there's little things we do differently, and we don't want other people to know," Greenway said.

"So you always have it with you. That's the one thing that's sacred to football. It has all our secrets."

Chad GreenwayRoss Dettman for ESPN.comVikings linebacker Chad Greenway, studying at training camp, says the playbook is the "one thing that's sacred to football. It has all our secrets."

Details, details

Al Saunders is a jogging 60-year-old workaholic who has been known to leave reporters voice mails at 2 o'clock in the morning, just to make sure he calls you back, just because he is still in another office working.

Before Saunders was scribbling plays on restaurant napkins, he was a teacher. He got his master's degree in education at Stanford, and learned that most times, it's easier just to write everything down. That way there are no mistakes, no misunderstandings.

"I've always tried to be really thorough," Saunders said.

When he became the offensive coordinator in Washington last year, commanding a three-year, $6 million salary, Saunders caught some heat for the complexity of his 700-page playbook. Critics said it was too hard for the average football player to digest.

Truth be told, the size estimates were inaccurate.

"If you took all of Al's playbook, it's a hell of a lot more than 700 or 800 pages," said Dick Vermeil, who won a Super Bowl with Saunders in St. Louis and racked up offensive records in Kansas City. "But it's not all in [the players'] book.

Michael Bennett
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comChiefs running back Michael Bennett lugs his playbook almost everywhere he goes during training camp.

"It's the best I've ever seen. And anyone who's ever seen it says it's the best they've ever seen."

With Vermeil and Saunders, the Chiefs were never in need of bedtime reading. They'd get a smaller binder at the start of offseason workouts, another one during minicamp, then a fatter playbook during training camp. Each day, as they installed more plays, the book got bigger. Each week during the season, players received another book full of plays they would run against that Sunday's opponent.

It seems almost strange that Saunders got his start under Don Coryell, a coach who didn't even have a playbook.

Saunders says his playbook is more of a textbook, a detailed explanation of a player's job complete with graphics, X's and O's, and simplified text.

"There is not enough time in meeting rooms or on the field to teach everything a player needs to know," Saunders said. "The reason our playbook is so thorough is because I feel that's the best way to teach a complex offense."

Some players grasp the complexities much faster than others. Redskins backup quarterback Todd Collins, an honors student at Michigan, was called "Rain Man" by his teammates in Kansas City because he almost effortlessly knew the book forward and backward. Damon Huard, another backup, learned it the hard way, by scribbling classroom notes inside his playbook.

Al Saunders
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesTo know if his playbooks had been read by players, longtime offensive coordinator Al Saunders once toyed with the idea of putting $100 bills in the middle of them.

The good news is that a player doesn't have to know every position on the field. But it does have a tendency to help.

"Marshall Faulk was one of the most studious players in a position other than a quarterback that I've been around," Saunders said. "And his play reflected that.

"But [players] don't have to memorize all 700, 800 pages of this thing. They'll learn what their position is required to do on each play, and it's very detailed."

So detailed that inevitably, some players will lose interest. Saunders has toyed with the idea of putting $100 bills in the middle of his playbooks. If the money is gone when the books come back, he'll know they've been used.

Learning curves

A gaggle of purple has gathered across the street from the Vikings' practice field, screaming for Bobby Wade and Matt Birk as they try to slip into their dorm rooms for an afternoon nap.

Wade and Birk are complete opposites, from their size -- Wade is 186 pounds dripping wet; Birk comes in at 308 -- to their struggles in camp. Birk is a Harvard graduate whose giant feet are firmly planted in Minnesota. He knew the old Vikings playbook inside out, and was intrigued when coach Brad Childress came last year with the West Coast offense. Birk spent his spare time studying the intricacies of the playbook, and can tell any one of his linemates where he needs to be.

"It is a very cerebral game," Birk said. "We spend hours and hours in meetings every single day.

"This is my 10th year in the league, and I still take my playbook home. Because the defenses are always changing, too. They're always giving different looks. It's kind of like a cat-and-mouse game between the offense and defense. That's why football, I think, is a great game. Very few guys can get by on just talent."

Wade knows this. But he's been the poster boy of NFL instability. He's on his fifth offensive coordinator in five years, a victim of coaching changes and shuffles from Chicago to Tennessee to Minnesota. Five years, five different playbooks. As a receiver, the best way for him to get on the field is to play full speed, to react, not think. Five summers, and all he's done is think.

The concepts are similar, Wade says. Open any NFL playbook, and the formations, runs and passes are just about the same thing.

But the terminology is completely different.

In Tennessee, a play called Omaha was a deep route. In Minnesota, it's a short, quick, 6-yard out.

"If you mess that up," Wade said, "you're completely blowing the play."

Bobby Wade and Brad Childress
AP Photo/Nati HarnikVikings receiver Bobby Wade, with Minnesota coach Brad Childress, studies his playbook during "any break that's not a sleep break."

Learn one section, and then the playbook gets fatter with every new installation. By Day 7 in Mankato, the Vikings were still adding plays.

Wade has learned to prioritize in his study habits, nailing the plays that pertain to him the most first. Repetition is the best way to learn. He needs to hear the quarterback call it, hear himself say it over and over in film study, see it a couple of times on paper. That's the only way he can break himself of the old garble.

Complicating matters is the fact that he's learning three different receiver positions.

"I don't know about stressed out," Wade said. "But you definitely go through stages of what I call brain farts. You feel like you know it so well that you kind of pull back on studying the way you would study, then something pops up on you and you completely forget where you need to be."

Wade lugs his playbook just about everywhere, in his bag, just like Bennett does in Kansas City. Bennett had a similar problem going from the Vikings' offense to New Orleans to the Chiefs … in the span of less than a year. He says it takes about two years for him to feel as if he really has a playbook figured out.

NFL X's and O's

•  Want to know what's included in an NFL playbook? Here are 10 pages from the Arizona Cardinals' 2004 offensive and defensive playbooks obtained by ESPN.com. PDF large file

Wade's never had the luxury of two years.

"Any break that's not a sleep break, I just try to get into it," Wade said. "That's the biggest thing younger guys don't understand. Everybody's going to be able to compete physically. It's going to come down to what your mental capacity can hold and how long you can hold it for."

A life's work

The playbook graveyard sits in a ranch in rural Chester County, Pa. That's where Dick Vermeil goes to get lost in paper and the past. Here you'll find the masterpieces, thick binders that won playoff games and made defensive coordinators dizzy.

Dick Vermeil
Scott Boehm/Getty Images"You show it to an everyday person and they can't get over it," former coach Dick Vermeil says of an NFL playbook.

Somewhere in the stash you'll see a Del Mar High School playbook from the early 1960s, when Vermeil was a young assistant. If a playbook is an accumulation of a coach's knowledge, Vermeil added pages every year.

His 1982 version with the Eagles totaled about 700 pages. That was when some coaches still weren't using them. One time in St. Louis, a disgruntled player who got cut swiped his massive playbook and tried to sell it.

"I can't even tell you who it was," Vermeil said.

High-powered men have been at his ranch, CEOs of major corporations, established businessmen. When Vermeil opens one of his playbooks, he's bound to elicit some puzzled looks.

Then he puts it away. Sacred things are meant to be kept secret.

"You show it to an everyday person … and they can't get over it," he said. "They just couldn't envision what was going into NFL preparation."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.