Developing the Game Plan

Dan Werner
QB Coach / Offensive Coordinator
University of Miami

There are a number of different things that have made our program successful in the past.  I can give you an example for starters.  When we got back from the national championship game this year we as coaches had to hit the road recruiting again right away.  The players did not get back to school until January 14.  I flew back into town that day.  When I got back to our office our All American QB was in the film room watching tape.  It wasn’t the Nebraska tape; it was film cut ups of drill work on his pass drops.  This was the first day back at school for him after we had won the national championship.

The NCAA allows players to go out and throw the ball around or do whatever they want this time of year as long as the coaches are not there.  We had recruits in on a Friday night and our players showed them around and made sure they had a good time.  At 10 am on Saturday morning they all showed up to play 7 on 7.  There must have been 50 guys out there.  We didn’t tell them to do it.  They didn’t have to do it.  They just showed up and played because they wanted to get ready for next year.  This is the kind of attitude that we want to instill here and have filter down each year.  A new kid that comes in may not be a player that has a lot of character but when he sees how the other guys work, he either turns into a player with hardworking character or he goes someplace else.  Most of our kids we sign stay with the program. 

What I am mainly going to talk about today is our overall game planning process and what we go through during a typical week during the season to prepare.  Every team in the NCAA does something fairly similar as we are all bound by the same rules and time constraints.  I hope it will help you prepare better for your respective situations in the future.  The first thing we tell our players every week is that we are going to run the Miami Hurricane offense.  We are not going to sit back and let the defense simply dictate what we are going to do.  Obviously we are going to game plan and call plays as to what the defense is going to give us.  However, I want our players to believe in our scheme and feel that the defense will have to stop us.   If they are going to stop us by continually bring up the safety for example then that just gives us an opportunity to hit a big play over the top.  We make defenses do that however by being able to run the ball and making them work to stop our offense.

The big thing I am a proponent of at the college level is trimming down the offense.  This is due to the inherent limitations of NCAA mandated practice time and the ability of the young players to digest changes in the offense on a weekly basis.  We may start out the week with a possible list of 500 plays for example on our offensive board in the coaches meeting room.  As we start watching film of the opposition on Sunday for example however we start putting marks next to the ones we like and marking off the ones we don’t like this week for this opponent.  After we get it down to about 100 plays we really then start to tear it down even further.  When we get into a game, if the defense does something, we want to know what we are doing and where we are going with the ball.  Ideally our players know the play before we even call it, and they know why it is going to be the correct play for the situation. 

We want to use motions, formations, and different schemes to keep the defense off balance like everyone does.  I would like to go into a game running the exact same plays that worked the week before except from different formations if possible.  The defense will be forced to look at the play as if it is something different, but our players will feel if they are practicing the same play over and over again.  If we can keep the defense off balance then we will have more success.

We also have to call certain plays in order to set up bigger plays later on.  I may call a certain play, motion, or formation a few times to set up a tendency so that later in the game or in next week’s game I can run a play off that tendency that could lead to a big gain.  When we get into a big game with a rival like Florida State it is usually one or two big plays that make the difference.  Generally, those types of games will be close and low scoring.  One big touchdown could be the key to winning or losing.  When you play against those guys in rival games you have to work hard for everything you get. 

It is important to know what the defense is going to do to stop what you are doing.  I want to know for example how a team is going to defend our power off-tackle run play.  If they are spilling the play to one direction I want to come up with a play that can be run off of that defense.  During the game you have to be able to make adjustments based off of the way they are trying to stop you.  The team that can make the best changes in the middle of the game is usually going to win. 

In our coaching room we have a large board with all of our base formations listed across the top.  On the board we will have a big list of all the plays for that formation.  For the base formations that we intend to use for this upcoming game we only need four to six different run plays.  You don’t need nine or ten because you won’t run them all in the game and more importantly you don’t have the time to practice them during the week.  Spend your precious available time on practicing the plays that you will run in the game so the players develop confidence in them.  Off of each of those base run sets we also want to install about two to four five step play action passes to keep the defense off balance.  In every formation as well I want to have two to four three step passes.  You may want to include a trick play as well out of one of these base formations.

You want to make sure that what you are calling in a game is what you practiced throughout the week.  If we have a list of plays that we practice then that play is likely to get called.  If a play we suddenly want to run in the game is not on the sheet then generally we do not call it.  The reason why is because if you have not practiced it during the week the odds of success we find are very low.  As offensive coordinator I am only going to call plays that we have agreed upon as a staff and practiced in detail during the week leading up to the game. 

In the game plan also are some plays that we have to run in order to balance out our tendencies.  As we look at the previous weeks play calling we can always find tendencies of what worked and what we’d like to do again.  For instance from a certain formation a type of running play we used might have worked real well and we used it five times.  That is a clear tendency now and the defense next week will prepare to stop it if it is obvious and not counter balanced by something that keeps them from loading up to stop that play.  So we will run play action out of the formation, a roll out, a reverse, or do something different as well a couple of times just to disguise the tendency.  If you don’t do this your offense is just easier to figure out for the opposition.

Our game planning sheet that I have with me when I call plays is an 11” x 14” two sided sheet.  Our sheet is just like our coaching board and has little boxes across the top.  In those little boxes are our base formations.  Under the formation will be our plays the staff decides to run.  They will be grouped as runs, passes, screens, play actions, protection schemes, gimmick plays and whatever else the staff decides is important for that game.  Some of the formations will have only a couple of possible plays listed under them.  But a common alignment like the I Formation might have over a dozen. 

During the week while we are planning the upcoming game we have game cut ups that the graduate assistants have put together.  We start as a staff to place dots next to the plays we like.  We keep paring it down by formation and play type until we collectively decide upon the four to six run plays out of the I Formation for example that we like best for the upcoming opponent.  That will be on the sheet I take up into the press box.  If it is not on the sheet then we do not run it.  These are the plays that we will have worked upon during the week and those are the plays I am going to call on Saturday. 

We also list out all the different passes and play-action passes we want to throw under each formation.  That includes any deep passes we want to throw against them.  It lists our screens and any type of special plays.  It also has our four minute game plan.  What I mean is that if we have the ball with four minutes to go in the game we have a list of plays that we like to use to run out the clock and try to end the game.  That is the gist of the front side of the game planning sheet.

On the other side of the sheet is something else some teams like to do as well.  We do the same thing as Bill Walsh did when he wrote about scripting 15 plays.  When we first heard of him doing that we went out to visit the 49ers when he was still coach there.  I incorrectly thought that the list was an exact ordering of the first 15 plays of the game.   I thought that the third play of the game came off of the sheet whether it was 3rd and 1 or 3rd and 18.  That is not the way it works we learned.  We adapted this technique and came up with our version.  We have situational columns on the back side of our play sheet.  One column is headed as -11 to +31.  We consider between our eleven and the opponents 31 to be the “freewheeling” zone.  We have a list of plays that we can use in that zone on first or second down.  If the actual situation in the game does not fit the play listed on the sheet then we skip it and go onto the next. 

I want to stick to these initial plays as close as I can for a couple of reasons.  First because those are the exact plays that we are going to practice during the week.  The first play of the game is going to be the main play we have been practicing all week.  If we work on the play during the week then the kids know we are going to run it in the game.  The second reason we run these plays is to see what defense the opponent is going to use against us during the game.  Is it the same as what we expected or is it something different that we did not expect or prepare for. 

If the first play of the game is a real stinker I put a mark through it.  If it is because of the defensive scheme they are using and we don’t have a counter play for it I won’t make the call again.  If we simply did not execute well on that play then I will put a star next to it and we will come back to it at a later time.  As an offensive staff we have to know why a play did not work in order to work on it and improve it.  During the game our coaches on any one play are all looking for different things.  The offensive coordinator is watching the point of attack.  The receivers coach is watching the secondary to see what they were doing.  If it is the safety flying up to make tackle then he will note that.  The main offensive line coach is watching the front side of the formation.  The second offensive line coach is watching the back side.  As all teams do we have specific guys watching each play for a way to counter anything the defense does. 

On the first play if we gained five yards we go to the second play on the script.  If that play ends up being a first down, we go to the third play on the sheet.  If the offense is getting a bunch of first downs then we could go right down the sheet. 

After we get through the sheet we go back and look at the plays that are starred or circled for some reason.  Circled means that we should run another play in that situation because of something we saw or detected.  From the original sheet either I or the assistant quickly draw up a second sheet while we are on defense.  After we have done that I have a pad of paper with where I keep a list of the six or seven plays we are going to run the next time we get the ball.  While we are on defense we are on the head sets as an offensive staff talking about what we need to run the next series of downs. 

We do the same thing when we get into the red zone, closer to the goal line, and when we are backed up against our goal line.  We have a special set of plays prepared for those situations.  The passes when you are back up for example are always more cautious in nature to avoid costly turnovers.

We also break up our third down situations into three groups for play calling on the sheet.  The first one is a third and 3 to 5 yards.  The second one is for third and 6 to 9 yards for the first down.  The last one is third and 10 plus yards.  We have a separate list for third and short I’ll talk about later.  In practice we have periods of time dedicated to practicing these situations by drill.  For example we will have five minutes to drill on third and three to five yards for a first down and so forth.  If players practice all week and never know if their play will be called then they won’t work as hard.   You have to try to keep everyone involved to some extent.  If a player knows however that he is going to get the ball on the first third and five play on an option pass route then he will work his butt off in practice and work hard to make that play a success. 

On my situational sheet there are not going to be too many run plays listed in the third and six to nine column.  It will of course be more full of specific pass plays we came up with and the associated pass protection schemes.

We have our list of short yardage and goal line plays as well.  You don’t want or need a lot of fancy creativity here.  You want to run your best play in terms of probability that can get the yard or two necessary.

We also have a two minute package that we call “Indy”.  The name refers to the Indianapolis 500 auto race.  We are trying to hurry up and get plays called quickly in this package.  In our case we have 10 plays in the Indy package.  They are the same 10 plays every week and we should not have to use them very often unless it is near the end of the half or unless we are behind.   All the players know these plays by heart and we devote some periods of practice time to them every week.  The quarterback does not have to wait for the end of the game to use these play calls however.  He can come to the line of scrimmage just as he can on all of our plays and audible.  He might call out “Indy Five” for example.  That means the fifth play on our Indy list will be run.  It is the same play all year long. 

On the sheet is also a spot for plays of consideration.  These are notes that I write to myself during the week or during the game.  They are plays that I want to run in upcoming games.  We might be running a certain play that we like a lot and are having success with.  I know that the defenses in upcoming weeks are going to be keying in on this to stop it.  I write a note to alter the play somehow or to run a gimmick play off of this play in a couple of weeks. 

In the press box like everyone I have a graduate assistant keeping a set of charts for me.  One of his jobs for example is to keep track of the deep passes we throw.  Another is to keep track of the screens, gimmick plays, or play action passes we run.  After we run three of four series if we have not thrown a deep ball for example it is his job to help remind me.  We want to throw the deep ball about four or five times a game.  It is a low percentage pass even at Miami where we have guys that can motor.  You might get a big play out of it sometimes.  But even if you don’t it puts the defense back a bit on their heels and stops them from cheating forward all the time.  We want the defense to think we could throw it at any time and force them to defend against it.  People that are scouting your films are going to see the same thing. 

Let’s put this in the perspective now more in the flow of the week for the coaching staff.  As I stated earlier we start our week on Sunday.  We don’t like to spend lots of time grading the film from the previous game.  We want to go through it as a staff and understand what we did wrong within our scheme and more importantly why something did not work.  We also let the kids see it and then get out on the practice field to learn and get the mistakes corrected.  Basically however once the game is over you need to put it behind you and move onto the next week’s opponent and focus on them. 

We break down the opponent film starting on Sunday as a staff.  We do this to make sure we are all on the same page.  The graduate assistants may breakdown the film to get it into sections for us to look at in more detail.  However the staff is going to go over the film before it goes into the computer. 

We have another big board in the coach’s room that is for nothing but blitzes and pass protections based upon what we have seen the opponent do in the past.  Every coverage that our staff sees and identifies goes up on the board. 

The next thing we do is to grade our opponent by position.  I started doing this a few years ago.  I think it has been really good for us.  This is the last thing we do before we head home on Sunday night.  We grade the opponent’s personnel on ability, knowledge of the game, and how aggressive they are.  Each coach individually grades the people they will be facing.  The offensive line coach grades the defensive line of the opponent.  The receivers coach grades the secondary.  The quarterback coach grades the linebackers.  After we finish that and have a short meeting about what we have seen we go home for the night. 

On Sundays for the players there is only a light short practice and a no pads workout.  There is some time reviewing what did not work and why from the previous game.  There is some time on special teams practice and individual drills.  There is some time in pass skeleton drills against base coverage schemes and some time on run plays against base schemes. 

Monday starts the really big workday for the coaching staff.  The players have Mondays off.  That is according to the NCAA rules.  The first thing on our agenda is to go to the board every week and talk about our protection schemes and how they hold up against the blitzes we have seen on film.  We make sure we have an answer for every blitz scheme they have.  We want to point out the problems we are going to have and identify them early.  Sometimes we might target something for improvement.  Other times if something is not working or if a player is having a hard time making a certain block then we just eliminate it from the game plan that week and use something else instead.

On Mondays the coaches also split up and write up some initial scouting reports to share with the players.  Unfortunately even the kids that are the hardest workers do not pay much attention to them.  It may be the most over rated thing we do during the week.  We practice against the schemes we see in the scouting reports during the week and that makes it sink in better.  We also give them a test at the end of the week which I think is must better than the scouting report. 

The big thing we all do on Monday is the formation cut ups.  We take the first formation and match it with our play list.  The might be as many as 60 plays to chose from.  We boil the list down to 20 plays.  We will whittle it down more as the week goes on and we study the opposition further.  We repeat this as a staff for each formation and the plays listed underneath it.  This is the first draft of what we think the game plan will be.  This obviously takes quite a while as you have to do it with all your formations. 

Once we get that done we are going to set up our script plays.  The entire staff has input into the game plan so they have a stake in the process and outcome.  I have each guy write down his top plays for the upcoming week for both run or pass.  When we get it done I write down each coaches list.  Every time a play appears on the list it gets a check mark.  The plays with the most check marks usually go into the game plan unless the head coach over rides them for some reason.  Most teams do this as a staff for a simple reason.  The whole staff is accountable for the game plan.  I have responsibilities for the actual play call down to the field however like most teams we have come up with the overall game plan as a staff. 

Each day as the week progresses there are plays we take out of the first draft game plan.  If a play does not look good in practice then it will not look good in the game on Saturday.  If it does not look good against the scout team then why will it look good against Florida State?  I can’t say this enough.  The plays that are agreed upon and conducted in practice on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the plays we will run on Saturday.  We generally don’t leave on Monday nights before 10 pm and sometimes much later. 

The first thing we do on Tuesday morning when we meet as a staff is to review the script. There may already be some alterations to make after we have slept on it for a night.  We do this every morning in the meeting.  We want to make sure that we feel good and confident as a staff about the plays we are going to run on Saturday. 

In our short yardage game plan in particular I would love to keep the same proven play in every week as possible.  If the defense we face uses the same type of defense we will generally keep the same plays in our short yardage box.  We may have only about five or six plays in this box for most of the year.  You are generally in trouble if you don’t have a reliable third and short play that consistently will work.  You don’t want to have to resort to a lot of constant trickery on these plays.

We finalize a few other situation plays on Tuesday that we will use in the game.  When we get back from lunch we have a script meeting and go over the list of the initial plays that we play to use on the script.  Each coach takes a different situation on the list and draws up the defenses for that situation based upon what they have seen in the film cut ups.  We review how we are going to do most things, what are our strengths versus their weaknesses and what are the key techniques we are going to have to work on in practice the next couple of days.  This includes the hot routes to teach the receivers, the blocking schemes for the offensive line, and the blitz protection schemes etc.  The worst situation we can get into is for two coaches to have to discuss on the practice field what we are doing as it is a big waste of time for the team. 

Then on Tuesday afternoon we get into the basics of coaching and preparing the team based upon the game plan.  Our practice is divided up into smaller periods of 10 minutes like most of yours are I assume.  The first thing we do is run a team take off drill.  We take the first five minutes and go over the new motions, formations, or plays that we will use this week.  We work on our cadence really hard during this time as well with the quarterback.  I make sure they are varying the snap count and working on the hard counts.  If you try and draw someone off sides and you have not practiced it then it will back fire on you every time. 

The next period is a 10 minute special period.  After that we do a nine on nine drill.  We gets in reps with the first unit and then reps with the second unit.  From there we go onto individual drills inside the respective units for 10 minutes.  Then the team practices our inside run plays.  All the plays come off of the script we have prepared for the upcoming Saturday.  We will practice the harder stuff early on in the week.  This gets our players into the proper mind set right away.  Then as the week goes on we move to the easier items.  By the time they get down to Wednesday and Thursday I want the players to have the game plan down cold.  Tuesday is the day where we get in their kitchen.  We are tough on them on Tuesday and work their butts off.  If we are going to play a weak team we are twice as rough on them.  We don’t want them to think all they have to do is show up.   By Thursday though there is no screaming and yelling.  Everything is calm and we are basically ready to play. 

The last thing we work on Tuesday is the third and short situation with the chains.  Then we go into our conditioning period.  During the course of all this I am charting the plays we are going to run and making sure we are practicing them against all the different defensive fronts that we are likely to see that week.  The person calling the defense has to change the call, stunt, and shift the looks as well just like we will see in the upcoming game.  The offensive line has to practice making their protection calls and blocking schemes as well.  The plays that are called each day are run against the defense that we will need to run or pass against in the game. 

On Wednesday the coaches review the play script in the morning and make further changes and make sure we are still happy with what we have down.  This is the time when plays really have to be dropped from the game plan and we get it down to something close to final form.  We have to work on and finalize the third and six to nine plays, the third and 10 plus plays and the screens that we are going to throw, etc.  We have to lock in on the red zone plays, and get those finalized on the game plan as well for practice. 

Practice on Wednesday is just like practice on Tuesday except we change the situational plays as needed and add a period on pressure pass plays.  During this time we work our first team offense against our first team defense.  They are blitzing on almost every play during this time period.  It gives us a good chance to work against the speed and better personnel to make it feel like we will face on Saturday.  In every situation we run in periods like this the players know that the first plays that we are calling are the plays that we will be running in the game with a high degree of certainty. 

On Thursday the whole coaching staff reviews the game plan on offense.  Everything is done on the game plan at this point.  If it is not in the game plan by now then we are not practicing it and it will not get called in the game.  We will go over it one more time to make sure we are doing what want to do.  If there is a change at this point it will be to drop plays and not to add them.  I would rather trim the game plan than add to it.  We also work on our back up offense on this day in practice which is usually the same week to week.  We have some back up plays that are good plays but usually very conservative.

The script for practice on Thursday is to hit all the situations such as first and ten, third and short, third and long, etc.  We are going to move the ball up and down the field. This day is in essence a practice game for the offensive coordinator.  We do everything in game types of situations.  The first drive will be a sample 12 play drive for example.  We put in the second unit and they drive the other way.  After they score the first unit comes back in and drives the ball out starting on the five yard line and practicing those types of plays.  After this we run some of our two minute drill plays.  We try to run this to the point where we can get in eight to ten plays in this amount of game time.

The last period of practice is spent running some type of special situations.  We go over the Hail Mary alignment.  Hopefully we don’t have to throw one of those but you have to cover it every week so when the time comes you are ready for it.  We end the practice on Thursday even practicing a final kneel down to end the game just like as if we had won the game already. 

On Friday the day before the game we have a basic walk through.  Then we have a test meeting with the players.  Our offensive line, backs, and tight end coaches really do an excellent job with this.  Everything that was covered during the week in terms of key points, tendencies, etc. is on the test.  The players have to understand the plays we have drawn up and what everyone else on the play is doing for understanding and communications purposes.  The running back for example has to know exactly what the offensive line is doing and vice versa.

The last thing we do on Fridays is to have our Friday night film.  We have about 30 plays on tape.  There are formations and defenses that come up on the screen.  All the positions sit together.  When the formation and defenses come up all the receivers, offensive line, and the quarterbacks have to make their calls they would make in the game situation.  The quarterback looks at the defense and makes the audible if he has to.  If he does not have to for the defense we show him he calls out “good”.  We are making the players play the game in their head in advance of the game on tape so it will feel automatic when the time comes.  We get through 30 snaps in about 45 minutes.  After that the players are off to bed. 

On Saturday we have individual meetings with our position groups.  Then we get together for a clap drill.  It is basically a walk through.  The quarterback calls the play, breaks the huddle, moves to the line of scrimmage and calls the cadence.  At the point in the cadence when the ball is suppose to be snapped everyone claps and the they point to who they are suppose to block.  We go through the script, short yardage plays, special situations, and take a knee.  From there we load the bus and head to the game. 

By the time we get done on Saturday we have sold the game plan to the players and prepared them to the best of our coaching ability.  The most valuable things we do as coaches are to prepare players on Tuesday through Thursday and get them in a position to win.  If they believe in it, you will have shot to win.  A good coach is not someone who knows a hundred different plays in his head.  A good coach is someone who can run a few plays, get his players to believe in it and execute those few well.  If your players believe in what they are doing and you have a plan for how to attack people and keep them off balance then you have a chance to win. 

I want to thank all of you for showing up tonight.  Good luck to all of you next year.