An inside look at how Denver's 'Script' works
September 26, 2000
Paul Attner
The Sporting News

                        It is last Saturday, 18 hours before kickoff against the Chiefs,
                        and the Broncos gather for a meeting in a suburban Denver
                        hotel, where they will spend the night. For the offense, the
                        next 30 minutes will be particularly significant. For the final
                        time this group will be reviewing "The Script," that
                        mysterious, ever-changing list of 15 plays the Broncos use to
                        orchestrate the opening part of every game.

                        If each contest is, in reality, a weekly term paper for the
                        Denver offense, then The Script serves as a thesis. It helps to
                        energize both players and coaches and forces the team to
                        focus on what plays should work best against this next
                        opponent. This is the feel-good part of the game plan; if The
                        Script is effective, usually the plan winds up working well,

                        On this night, the theme is two-edged: Be patient, and protect
                        the ball. The Broncos know their division rival intimately. The
                        Chiefs' defense is physical and resourceful. It rarely
                        surrenders big plays, so Shanahan and Gary Kubiak, his
                        offensive coordinator, emphasize the need for long drives. And
                        they also know, because they will be starting reserve
                        quarterback Gus Frerotte instead of the injured Brian Griese,
                        the team must guard even more than usual against turnovers.

                        "We've got some long calls for Gus (in the huddle), and you
                        guys must listen and help him out and get out of that huddle
                        efficiently," Kubiak tells them.

                        "We've got to stay on schedule. We want to stay out of
                        third-and-12 or -14. We need lots of third-and-5 or -6s. And
                        it's crucial we protect the ball. They are one of the best
                        ball-stripping teams we play. No early mistakes."

                        This is the first year that Kubiak has called the Bronco plays.
                        Shanahan, one of the game's elite offensive minds, gave up
                        those duties, hoping it would enable his longtime assistant to
                        emerge from his boss' shadow and help him get a head
                        coaching job. But this has been an especially tough week for
                        Kubiak, who doubles as quarterbacks coach. Griese had been
                        outstanding in the first three games, the highest-rated passer in
                        the league, but he hurt a shoulder the week before against
                        Oakland and can't throw. The veteran Frerotte joined the club
                        in the offseason as a free agent and still isn't deeply versed in
                        the Broncos' intricate offense.

                        Kubiak has confidence Frerotte can perform well enough to
                        win, but this is the first time they have been through The
                        Script together. The coaches have strived to make sure they
                        call plays that will allow him to excel. They want to make him
                        feel comfortable quickly, but they warn him constantly not to
                        force any passes. And most important, they don't want him to
                        feel he must carry the team by himself.

                        In the meeting room, Kubiak slowly works through The Script
                        play by play. Shanahan sits in an audio-visual booth located
                        between the offensive and defensive rooms. He runs a control
                        panel that allows him to listen to both rooms. He turns up the
                        volume as an assistant puts up individual diagrams of each
                        play on a screen and Kubiak uses a laser pointer to discuss the
                        intricate elements, emphasizing adjustments in routes, reads,
                        audibles and blocking schemes. Most of his reminders are
                        directed at Frerotte, who sits by himself in the middle of the
                        room, feet propped up on a chair. Frerotte nods his head
                        frequently. Teammates follow along in their playbook; some
                        take notes. None takes his gaze away from the screen.

                        The first two plays will be runs, giving Frerotte time to settle
                        down and disperse some of his adrenaline. But Kubiak also
                        doesn't want the players to think the coaches are afraid to let
                        Frerotte throw. So the next three calls will be passes. The
                        review is rapid, filled with the jargon of the Broncos' offensive
                        play-calling. The adjustments even on a simple running play
                        are mind-boggling. It is this attention to detail that necessitates
                        the hours of meetings every week, both for players and

                        By the time the review is finished, Kubiak wants every player
                        stimulated by The Script. "We've got touches for everyone,
                        the receivers, the tight end, the fullback, the running back," he
                        says. "They can't sit there and say, 'I've got nothing to do for
                        the first five plays.' They get involved immediately." Kubiak
                        expects his players to leave the meeting and focus on those
                        first 15.

                        "Gus, it is your turn," Kubiak finally tells Frerotte. "This is
                        what you are here for, buddy."

                        By the time Frerotte and the offense touch the ball Sunday, the
                        Chiefs lead, 7-0. The Broncos begin as had been scripted,
                        calling two straight running plays for Mike Anderson, who
                        again is starting for Terrell Davis, who is just coming back
                        from an injury. The Script now calls for a pass, H 2 Smash 'Y'
                        China; Frerotte connects with wide receiver Rod Smith for 23
                        yards. Kubiak, sitting in an upstairs booth, is relieved. His new
                        quarterback has passed his first test.

                        For the next seven plays, Kubiak stays within the framework,
                        if not the order, of The Script. No reason to change. He
                        bypasses one run call that doesn't seem suited for the
                        defensive schemes being employed by the Chiefs. And once he
                        uses the fourth play on The Script, he bounces around a bit
                        among the listed plays, starting to respond to the feel of the

                        Indeed, The Script works so well on this first possession that
                        by the 11th snap, the Broncos are in the red zone, with a
                        first-and-goal at the Kansas City 6 after a 15-yard completion
                        to tight end Dwayne Carswell. Now Kubiak leaves The Script
                        and turns to a prioritized list of plays Denver wants to call
                        inside the 20. Kansas City stuffs two runs, and Frerotte is
                        pressured on third down and throws away a pass toward
                        fullback Howard Griffith. The Chiefs are giving Denver some
                        new third-down blitzes; they are trying to unnerve Frerotte.
                        The Broncos have to settle for a 22-yard field goal despite a
                        14-play, 79-yard drive. At least they produced the long
                        possession Kubiak wanted.

                        Shanahan first became enamored of The Script when he was a
                        graduate assistant at Oklahoma. In 1975, he attended a football
                        coaches convention in Chicago. Bill Walsh was a guest
                        speaker; his topic was The Script. To the young Shanahan,
                        Walsh's lecture was mesmerizing. It all made perfect sense,
                        coming as it did from an acknowledged creative force. Here
                        was a way to introduce a theme to your players, to crystallize
                        and summarize your offensive thinking in 15 plays, to throw
                        both your best and your most reasoned plays at the defense.

                        "I can remember the moment to this day," says Shanahan,
                        sitting in his office, 48 hours before Sunday's kickoff. "I was
                        this young kid, just getting started. What Bill said really caught
                        my attention. It was so reasonable, so intelligent."

                        Shanahan eventually wound up working for the 49ers, where
                        he served as offensive coordinator for three years, perfecting
                        not only the nuances of Walsh's West Coast philosophies but
                        the intricacies of The Script. It has become the absolute of the
                        Denver game plan. The Broncos wouldn't dare leave the locker
                        room without it.

                        "We use it because it works," says Shanahan. "It's been
                        proven over time. It's not fail-safe, for sure. Sometimes, when
                        a team comes out and defenses you entirely different than you
                        expected, you have to acknowledge it and change. And out
                        goes The Script. But the vast majority of the time, you are able
                        to stay with it and use it."

                        The Broncos' Script always has 15 plays, all predetermined
                        and written down on their game-plan sheet that the offensive
                        coaches carry on the sideline. But as the first series against the
                        Chiefs demonstrated, that doesn't mean each of their first 15
                        offensive plays in every game is on The Script. The coaches
                        move off The Script according to the game situation. Inside
                        the opponents' 20, they will switch to their best red-zone calls.
                        On short yardage, particularly on third down, they will move
                        to another set of calls. If they are backed up inside their 10,
                        they have a specific list for that problem. Depending on
                        third-down yardage, they have yet another set of calls.

                        But as much as the contest allows, they will methodically push
                        through the 15 plays. They will start each series picking up
                        The Script from where they left off the previous possession,
                        occasionally skipping a play or two if their personnel on the
                        field has changed or if Shanahan and Kubiak feel a later play is
                        absolutely perfect for that particular occasion. Yet it is the
                        discipline that comes with The Script that encourages
                        Shanahan to remain with it if at all possible.

                        "If we follow it and don't get off of it at a moment's notice, it
                        serves to break our tendencies," he says.

                        So let's say the Broncos face a second-and-15. The next play
                        on The Script is a run. The defense likely would expect a
                        pass, but Denver will stick with the run. And if the defense
                        blitzes and the Broncos catch them right and their inside
                        blocks work, it could lead to a big play. And opponents who
                        break down the tape afterward have to wonder what Denver
                        will call the next time in the same circumstances.

                        In the opener this season against the Rams, the Broncos
                        decided not to risk a big mistake on the first series in the noisy
                        Trans World Dome. So The Script called for an initial three
                        running plays. On the third one, they needed 5 yards for a first
                        down. The Rams, with reason, anticipated pass. And blitzed.
                        Which the Broncos anticipated. Their scripted run, a sweep by
                        Davis, got outside the containment and gained 12 yards. And
                        the crowd quieted noticeably, allowing the Broncos to
                        successfully move to the next phase of The Script, which
                        included two straight Griese completions. They wound up
                        scoring, just as they scored on their first possessions in earlier
                        games against both the Falcons and the Raiders.

                        Besides this anti-tendency plus, The Script serves other major
                        functions for the Broncos:

                         It allows the coaches to gain insight into how the defense
                        will react to various formations and personnel packages. For
                        the Chiefs, Kubiak had tossed up 15 different alignments in
                        those 15 plays -- "every formation in the freaking book" --
                        hoping to see every check-off and change Kansas City has
                        planned for the Broncos. After each series, the offensive
                        coaches receive a packet of pictures showing two pictures of
                        each play that was just run. One picture shows the snap, the
                        second is a second after the snap. They study these pictures
                        and determine how the Chiefs reacted. Even if the particular
                        play on The Script didn't work, the coaches can make
                        adjustments with a particular formation that they can exploit
                        later in the game, either because of a weakness in the
                        defensive structure or because of a particular defender who
                        they believe is vulnerable.

                        "What we see in the first 15 goes a long way to helping us be
                        successful in the third and fourth quarters," says Kubiak. "We
                        go in thinking the defense will react in certain ways to what
                        we are doing. Then we, in turn, react to how they react. So
                        even if we don't get any scores because of The Script, or even
                        if we don't do much, it is still extremely valuable to us. That's
                        what people don't understand."

                         Secondly, it forces the coaches to sum up their
                        game-planning into a neat package. They had 60 passes in the
                        Kansas City game plan. The Script contained the eight very
                        best of those passes. Shanahan doesn't want to come out in a
                        grab-bag approach, where you have dozens of plays ready to
                        go and just pick and choose at random.

                        "It's a matter of specific organization," he says. "It makes you
                        wrap things up and focus your thinking. If you can't verbalize
                        what you want to do, it probably won't work." This is the
                        climax of intense study. And here are our results of all our
                        study; let's see how they work.

                         Most important, it forces the players to focus on the task at
                        hand. By telling them the first 15 plays ahead of time, they are
                        given time to study their assignments on each, including every
                        potential adjustment. So, surprises should be eliminated. And
                        that should eliminate mistakes.

                        "If you are right about the plays on The Script," says Kubiak,
                        "you should really reduce your mental problems. I have a
                        group of guys who are studying those 15 plays like there is no
                        end to them. We shouldn't have any mistakes in the first
                        quarter or in the first half. It makes the players very
                        accountable for those plays."

                        Indeed, The Script is intended to give the Broncos control
                        over the game. Since they also script the first eight plays of
                        the second half (that handiwork is done at intermission),
                        Shanahan and Kubiak are dictating a minimum of 23 plays out
                        of about 60 to 65 a game. Toss in those predetermined calls in
                        various specialty situations -- short yardage, red zone,
                        third-and-long -- and they could have orchestrated 50 percent
                        of their play selections before the opening kickoff.

                        That eliminates a huge chunk of guesswork, and it forces the
                        Broncos to stay with their elite play selections. That is one
                        reason the Broncos annually have one of the league's best

                        Before their second possession, Kubiak reviews The Script.
                        Davis, who is coming off a bad ankle sprain, looked good
                        enough in practice Friday to get playing time in this game. It's
                        now his turn to come in. Kubiak also likes No. 8, a waggle
                        pass that should work.

                        The Broncos start the series at their own 38, still down by
                        four points. Kubiak calls for the waggle play, Waggle Right 'Z'
                        Out. Receiver Ed McCaffrey goes in motion to his right and
                        runs an out pattern. Smith, split wide left, runs an in pattern.
                        Frerotte rolls slightly to his right and fires back to Smith
                        downfield. The completion nets 14 yards.

                        Then Kubiak calls 19 HO Strong. Griffith is split to the left,
                        and Smith and McCaffrey are set right. Davis takes the
                        handoff and cuts to his left. The Broncos catch the Chiefs
                        in just the right defense -- "Those are the times," says
                        Griese, "when you get to the line and say, 'Golly gosh,
                        we've got them'" --and Davis moves untouched through the
                        secondary. He finally is stopped after a 24-yard gain. Two
                        plays later, Davis sprints for another nine and a first down
                        at the Chiefs' 10. But again, the Broncos' red-zone calls
                        don't work. Even with the aid of a 5-yard penalty, they
                        can't get into the end zone. They thought they could
                        overwhelm the Chiefs with runs inside the 5, but Kansas
                        City balks and stops three straight rushes. So, despite a
                        nine-play, 60-yard march, Denver again winds up with only
                        three points.

                        The Script is formalized on Friday. That morning, two days
                        before kickoff, Kubiak and Alex Gibbs, the line coach,
                        meet. Gibbs, the overseer of the NFL's most consistent
                        and dangerous running game, gives Kubiak his list of the
                        best running plays for the Chiefs' game. They talk about his
                        reasons, then Kubiak takes those eight plays along with the
                        eight passes he believes will be most effective, and he
                        works until 8:45 a.m. on a chronological order. He places
                        them according to how he wants to exploit the Chiefs, and
                        adds various formations from which they will be run. He
                        then gives The Script to Shanahan and heads for two hours
                        of meetings.

                        When he returns to his office, The Script is on his desk.
                        Kubiak wonders every week how his boss will grade his
                        handiwork. Sometimes, he has been 15-for-15, other times
                        not even 50 percent. On this day, Shanahan has made
                        three changes. He meets with Kubiak and Gibbs to
                        persuade them on his suggestions. They agree; after all, this
                        is Shanahan making the suggestions. Once practice is
                        finished, Frerotte receives the entire play-call sheet, which
                        includes The Script. The quarterback then takes home the
                        call sheet and begins even more intense study that began
                        with the introduction of the game plan on Wednesday.

                        Still, despite all this preparation, The Script sometimes just
                        doesn't work. During Shanahan's last season in San
                        Francisco, three opponents scrapped their normal defenses
                        and drastically changed their schemes for the 49ers.
                        Shanahan had to toss out The Script after a few plays and

                        "The year we won our second Super Bowl," says Kubiak,
                        "we played San Diego and they came at us with stuff we
                        didn't expect. We went to the shotgun and almost had to
                        playground it. When that happens, you have to be honest
                        as a coach and tell your players what is going on. Then you
                        try to find a way for them to win. And that day we did."

                        But on this Sunday, The Script isn't enough. It has been
                        extremely effective against the Chiefs. Serving as the basis
                        of the first two possessions, and using all but three plays on
                        the list of 15, it set up two long drives, without any
                        turnovers, leading to two red-zone opportunities. But the
                        Broncos couldn't fully capitalize on either. The two field
                        goals gave them an empty feeling, and gave the Chiefs

                        The Script gave Frerotte a chance to settle in. But he
                        seemed rusty and unsure of his decision-making as the
                        game wore on, and hesitated too much on his releases. His
                        two fourth-quarter turnovers -- a fumble off a sack at
                        midfield and an interception on his team's last possession --
                        coupled with a turnover by Smith allowed the Chiefs to
                        rally from a 22-14 third-period deficit to a 23-22 victory.
                        In their first three games, with Griese at quarterback,
                        Denver had just one turnover--and no interceptions.

                        "We did what we wanted to early except score
                        touchdowns," says Kubiak. "When you work that hard and
                        don't get touchdowns, it serves as a downer. It affected us
                        the rest of the game."

                        The theme of the term paper had been successful; the
                        Broncos just failed to write a winning conclusion.

                        Senior writer Paul Attner covers the NFL for The
                        Sporting News.