The grand scheme
Broncos staff, coaches and players devote incredible hours and resources into providing a winning game plan
By Adam Schefter
Denver Post Sports Writer

Two Denver coaches, offensive assistant Pat McPherson and defensive assistant Steve Watson, spend weeks breaking down every formation and personnel grouping from every situation of every play of the past six games every opponent has played.

For each play, the two assistant coaches detail an astounding 30 categories, to better understand the opponent's tendencies. Assistant coaches secretary Dixie Greer enters the information into Denver's computer database and gets results only a true mastermind could spit out.

A look at 284 of San Francisco's defensive plays shows that, on second downs between 1 and 6 yards, the 49ers play zone defense 52 percent of the time and man-to-man 48 percent of the time. On third downs between 5 and 7 yards, the 49ers play zone 66 percent of the time and man 34 percent.

On and on it goes. Every situation San Francisco's defense has been in is spelled out over 100 pages. Shanahan is told how mind-boggling this is.

"Oh," he said matter of factly, holding open his playbook, "I haven't gotten started yet."

Not a simple plan

Within each game plan is a look at the advance work done, the video produced and the brain power Shanahan, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes and their army of assistants expend.

It is hardly a simple plan. Denver quarterback Brian Griese said the game plan the Broncos prepared for their season opener against the St. Louis Rams was the most complex he ever witnessed.

Tight end Shannon Sharpe said he did not remember the Broncos' game plans being this complicated when he left Denver after the 1999 season.

Anyone looking at a Broncos game plan could be easily overwhelmed.

"You wouldn't understand one thing," Broncos wide receiver Scottie Montgomery said, laughing. "You could give someone 10 minutes to look it over and tell them to go out on the field and line up in the right spot, and they could never do it. Never. They'd have no clue. But that's how it is."

Section II - Runs (45 pages)Developing the plan
A Denver Broncos game plan is the product of many hours, resources and information:

Video games: Video department produces 750 30-minute tapes - 350 hours of coverage - of Denver's upcoming opponent's past six games.

Tendencies: Every formation and personnel grouping for an opponent's past six games is fed into a computer to determine tendencies.

The plays: Computer database provides diagrams of Denver's chosen plays. It has about 1,000 running plays and 5,000 passing plays on file. For any given game, the quarterbacks must know more than 200 pass possibilities.

The book: A blue binder, divided into 10 detailed sections including 264 pages.

Paper chase: 50,000 sheets of paper per week, 800,000 sheets of per season.

Itinerary: Road games include a minute-by-minute itinerary of the trip, including seat assignments and team bed check.

Cliff's notes: Broncos coach Mike Shanahan transfers the most pertinent information to an oversized color-coded flipcard he carries on the sideline.

Denver's attack kicks off with its running game, an amalgamation of each coach's ideas. The largest say, of course, belongs to Shanahan and Kubiak, who study film all day Monday, into Tuesday and begin conjuring up concepts they unveil Sunday.

"When I leave the office Monday night," Kubiak said, "I have a pretty good idea in my mind of what I think we should do. I go home, get a night's sleep, come in Tuesday morning and go over my notes so I know I wasn't just tired in what I was seeing the night before. Then by about noon on Tuesday, I'll take a draft of things that I feel good about to (Shanahan)."

The Broncos' head coach has been through the same process as Kubiak. Together they compile a list of about 25 running plays with more than 100 ways to implement them.

Broncos offensive line coach Rick Dennison enters the rushing plays into the team's computer database, which has about 1,000 running plays on file. It spits out computerized drawings of each play against six defenses San Francisco could run against it.

Each becomes a part of the game plan for Denver's players to learn.

For the San Francisco game, Denver listed 44 running plays: 21 with two backs, 13 with one back, five in the nickel package, seven in short yardage, three in the goal-line set. Forty of the plays were run out of a specific formation, and four could be run with two formations.

It must have worked. Against the 49ers, Denver rushed for a season-high 201 yards.

The publishing house

The Broncos' headquarters is as much a publishing house as a training facility.

The Broncos go through 10 cases of copying paper per week - 50,000 sheets of paper - to make up 18 game plans for the coaches and 53 for the players. With each coach and player given a new game plan for every Sunday, the Broncos go through 800,000 sheets of paper per season.

The two hardest workers at the Broncos' training complex might be the copying machines, which are forced to retire from the team every two seasons.

The machines work overtime, running into the night on Monday and Tuesday, and as early as 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, when Greer starts copying game plans for each player to have when he reports to the 9 a.m. team meeting.

Section III - Passes (22 pages)

Whereas Dennison prints out drawings of running plays, tight ends coach Brian Pariani does it for passing plays. The Broncos' database has about 5,000 passing plays on file.

For the San Francisco game, Denver listed 64 passing plays, which could be used out of four or five formations depending on how the defense adjusted. For any given game, Griese has to know more than 200 pass possibilities.

Denver Broncos video assistants Mike Mascenik, left, and Steve Boxer prepare a huge amount to tape for each game. At left are the tapes for the Broncos game against Buffalo on Sept. 22.

"The game is so meticulous now," said Kubiak, a backup quarterback in Denver from 1983-91. "When I was a player and (Shanahan) was my offensive coordinator, the plays came to us and they were hand drawn. They were good, but different. Nowadays, there are computerized drawings. Every detail, every note. It's just amazing how the game is studied on a daily basis compared to when I played."

Evidence comes from the Broncos' video department, which produces 750 30-minute tapes - 375 hours of coverage - of Denver's upcoming opponent each week. Want to see every third-and-2 play San Francisco's offense has run its past six games? Want to see every second-and-9 defense San Francisco has run its past six games?

Denver's video department has it all on file. And after each game, the 750 tapes are returned to the department before a new batch of 750 is made up.

"Until she passed away a couple of years ago, my grandmother (Theo Judd) would write one form letter every Christmas to send out to the family," said Denver's director of football technology, Kent Erickson. "And each year, she would write in the letter, "Kent's still recording the Broncos' games.'

"My family would laugh about it and say to me, "Oh, so when are you going to get a real job?' "

Erickson's department produces the video that is the genesis of every play call. Two weeks ago, on the top bookshelf in Shanahan's office were 75 tapes of every offensive and defensive play San Francisco likely would run. It was no different for games against Buffalo, Baltimore or San Diego.

"Coaches," Erickson said, "are tape-watching machines."

Bit by bit

"There are a lot of things that complicate a game plan, but the key is not to make it complicated," Shanahan said. "We've got a lot of different things to put in, but we've got guys that are smart enough to handle it."

Sections IV and V - Nickel runs and nickel passes (five pages, four pages) - Detailed, diagrammed first-, second-, and third-down plays.

Section VI - Short-yardage/Goal-line (13 pages) - Detailed, diagrammed third-and-1, third-and-2 and inside-the-5-yard-line plays.

Section VII - Red zone (14 pages) - Detailed, diagrammed plays the Broncos would run inside their 25-, 20-, 15-, 10-, and 5-yard lines.

Section VIII - Two-minute (one page) - A description of what is expected out of the no-huddle offense.

Section IX - Third-down situations (four pages) - Detailed, diagrammed descriptions of third-down scenarios, as well as plays versus zone blitz, base blitz and nickel blitz.

Like any house, a game plan is constructed in increments, coaches always a day ahead of the players.

By Tuesday night, after intensive video review, the Broncos decide on the base game plan that is presented to players at Wednesday morning's team meeting and practiced that afternoon.

By Wednesday night, coaches decide upon the nickel, short-yardage, goal-line and two-minute offense packages that are presented to players at Thursday morning's team meeting and practiced that afternoon.

By Thursday night, coaches decide upon the red-zone plays that are presented to players at Friday morning's team meeting and practiced that afternoon.

"You never want them to gather too much on any one day," Kubiak said.

"True," Shanahan agreed. "It's a daily process, and you want them to isolate on one part of the game plan each day and Friday, even though the emphasis is red zone, we use it to review all aspects of the game plan."

Saturday is used to implement the first 15 plays of the game, as well as go through all audible situations and review Friday's practice.

Sunday morning the players drop their game plans into an oversized bin inside the locker room. Sunday afternoon, the plan is put into action.

The condensed version

Positioned where they are, it would seem as if the Broncos' special teams are an afterthought. Though they are placed in the back of Denver's game plan, they hardly are treated in such a manner, even if they played that way Monday night in Baltimore.

Denver devotes one more page of coverage to its special teams than its running game.

Section X - Special teams (46 pages)
With more finely tuned computerized drawings, the game plan includes diagrams of kickoff coverages, kickoff returns, punt protection, punt return and rush, field-goal and extra-point protection and field-goal and extra-point rush.

By the time each week's game plan is complete, there is one slight complication. It is way too bulky for Shanahan to use on the sideline.

So each week, after the game plan is installed, Shanahan sits in his office and transfers the most pertinent information from the Broncos' Bible onto an oversized color-coded flipcard he carries on the sideline. This is his version of Cliff's Notes.

Under such categories as "Mike's Reminders," "Must Calls" and "Last Six Plays," the flipcard contains every imaginable situation that could arise Sunday. What to do on third-and-1, what to do on first-and-20, what to do versus max blitzes, what to do versus zone blitzes. What to do versus anything.

If the defense abandons its customary look - as opposing defenses did four times during Shanahan's last season as the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator in 1994 - no problem. Shanahan looks down at his sheet and finds out what offensive plays would work against the new defense.

The flipcard is as word-intensive as it is time-consuming. It takes Shanahan 15 laborious hours to fill it out. Its words are smaller than those found on an eye-exam chart. But its importance is bigger than almost any player.

The flipcard is a condensed form of 264 pages of pure football science.

Tucked inside a thick blue binder, divided into 10 detailed sections, are 264 pages of pure football science.
It is written in a language some would think English, but most would mistake for foreign.

"13 strong - 1 Lt Slot 'U' (HB) LT/Double Wing Lt (Motion)."

"Fox 300 Solid Omaha (Nebraska)/Thunder (Train) - I Lt."

"Key Cross/Spread 'Z' Dig ZEB - Empty SG."

These are passages from the Broncos' Bible.

Different Sunday verses are read each week when the Bible is revamped, but plenty more have been saved for today's game versus San Diego.

How Denver formulates its game plan, such as the one it will use today, represents a foray into an ordinarily roped-off area.

For the first time, outsiders are invited in. Private spots are made public. They are allowed to see a detailed account of X's, O's and why all this is needed for Sunday.

Straight from the blue binder with a white sticker plastered to the front reading "Coach Shanahan, S.F. 9/15/02," comes a sneak peek inside a typical Broncos game plan.

Section I - Scouting report (110 pages)
The game plan's first pages include travel instructions the Broncos could not leave home without.

Included is a minute-to-minute itinerary of the Broncos' trip to San Francisco - from the 9 a.m. treatments at Broncos headquarters in Englewood to the 11:15 p.m. bed check at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco.

Following the itinerary are United flight 9011's seat assignments. In Row 1 are Shanahan, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and wife Annabel Bowlen. In Row 16 - not the extra leg-room section, sadly - are defensive linemen Chester McGlockton and Trevor Pryce, and offensive linemen Matt Lepsis and Tom Nalen.

Each coach, player and team official is assigned a seat. As Shanahan prefers, little is left to chance.

But if the travel plans are thorough, they pale in comparison to the advance scouting work done on the 49ers.

Coaches insist they like to take them one game at a time? Nonsense.