Oregon’s offensive play calling has received a lot of attention, mostly bad, this season as the Ducks romped over three easy teams in pre-conference play and then struggled through their Pac-12 schedule. Let’s take a look at what’s involved to be a successful play caller.
Most teams have their offensive coordinator call the plays. Coach Mario Cristobal has two coordinators: Marcus Arroyo, assistant head coach and offensive coordinator in charge of coaching quarterbacks and tight ends, and Jim Mastro, running backs coach and run game coordinator. Arroyo is responsible for calling plays and they go through Cristobal, so it may not be clear who’s to blame when a certain call goes awry during the game.
It has been said that calling plays is a mixture of the awareness of probability, a defense’s tendency and improvisation based on what’s happening in the moment. Sean McVay, NFL play caller for the Los Angeles Rams says, “There’s nothing better than when you call a play, you get the (defensive) look that you want, and you put your players in a position where they’re able to execute.”
Play calling at its best is an art form, like good teaching and coaching. It requires a unique blend of discipline and flexibility. The best play callers put together scripted plays well before the game and also know when and how to change their plan in midstream if circumstances present themselves that were not originally anticipated.
Bill Walsh, former coach of the San Francisco 49ers, made famous his 15- 25-play script to begin the game. He maintained that doing those days before the game took the emotion out of play calling decisions: “the fewer decisions to be made during the game, the better.”
An example of this is the offensive staff meeting on Thursday to decide what short-yardage and goal-line plays the team is going to choose. At one school I coached at, the decision came down to what do we believe in? What play are we willing to call even with the chance of losing?
When the situation occurs during the game, there is no need to call a timeout and discuss the situation, which would be a very stressful conversation that might not be well thought out. When you see a coach call for a timeout to decide what to do on fourth-and-one, it is very likely they did not prepare for that situation and practice it during the week before the game.
Walsh, like most coaches today, would start the game by simply going down his list of plays in order unless there was a unique situation that would call for a play not scripted. He used his script to present many different formations to get an idea of how the defensive coordinator is going to align or substitute his players to those formations. Getting that information gives the offensive coordinator a picture of the best formations for his play calling as the game goes on.
The most important ingredient to successful play calling is the preparation leading up to the game. McVay called it the importance of “playing the game before the game;” imagining every situation that might occur days before the game. Again, the rationale is to take the emotion out of play calling.
Cristobal inherited an offense that was predictable and nonproductive in the second half under Willie Taggart, who called the plays last season as head coach. An example would be in the Nebraska game where quarterback Justin Herbert was 19-of-25 in the first half for 351 yards and the Ducks offense rolled, tallying 42 points. In the second half, Herbert was 3-of-6 for 14 yards and the Ducks scored zip. Sound familiar?
In last week’s win over Arizona State, Arroyo called plays in a rhythm that showed how good the Ducks’ offense really could be in the first half: Herbert was 16-of-23 for 249 yards, the offense chalked up 346 yards and 21 points. In the second half, his own coaches shut down Herbert: 3-of-11 for 13 yards and an interception, and the Ducks’ mighty offense screeched to a halt, racking up only three points which was the slim margin of victory.
This game was much like others lately. There seems to be a lack of willingness to let Herbert go at times, it doesn’t always happen in the second half. Could it be a decision to try to ride out what each coach (Arroyo and Cristobal) has said was “personal” to establish the run game first before all else, no matter what the results of those plays. Taking too much time to establish your offensive game plan puts your defense in a bind, both physically and mentally.
“Personal” in psychological terms implies “emotion,” and Cristobal’s stubborn commitment to “establish the run” puts Herbert in the back seat. As a result, a Heisman candidate may not make all-conference by the end of a season in which he regressed game by game. His footwork and mechanics are poor and his passing decisions have deteriorated where he is trying to make things happen on his own: throwing into coverage and showing a sense of panic.
A big part of play calling is having a feel for finding a play-calling rhythm, a sense of flow that is almost mystical among the best play callers. Safe to say, there is rarely a rhythm to Oregon’s play calling and Herbert and the offense are the greatest casualties.
The Ducks are going through their second straight season of invisible second-half offensive adjustments, which should be made based on the results of their scripted plays. It is easy to lose track of each play’s outcome, good or bad. The locker room at halftime is where bad plays should be eliminated and good plays expanded upon by using different formations and motion. There should be some visible good ideas displayed by the team, on the field, in the second half.
Often a coordinator is made aware at halftime that there are plays that have been successful and may have been forgotten. It is interesting that many teams (like Oregon in their first drive against ASU) come out and establish an exciting rhythm using their scripted plays. This excitement affects the team and the fans.
Later, the offense may lose its momentum and this is the time some coaches go back to their script, perhaps with tweaks to formation and pre-snap shifts and motion. In the second half of games, creativity and feel for the moment truly shines and play callers can maintain the upper hand. The challenge is picking the plays that worked in the first half and presenting them with a twist to keep defenses off balance and out of their own rhythm.
“As long as you’ve thought through your decisions and you’re not just throwing stuff by the wayside, I can always live with it,” McVay says. “As long as you try and give your players an answer.”
In the Civil War, watch to see if Arroyo and Cristobal can get the Ducks in a smooth rhythm with their play calling. If they do, you will see Herbert at his best. When you have a player of that caliber, (truly the only real big-play player they have on offense), you need to use him, often. Receiver Dillon Mitchell doesn’t count because he depends on Arroyo and Herbert to give him the opportunity of making a big play.
Watch the offense in the first quarter: did it establish a rhythm? Check the difference in the offense in the second half. Did coaches make any adjustments that made a difference? You decide.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.