Follow The Leader
Thursday, November 07, 2002
By: Ira Miller, NFL Insider
Walsh still remembers the skepticism that greeted him in the 1970s when, as a top offensive assistant to Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals, he started doing it.
General reasoning at the time was that it simply couldn't be done. After all, some teams still allowed their quarterbacks to call plays on the field. Plus, there was no way to know game situations, field position, down-and-distance, and so on ahead of time. So how in the name of George Halas could you decide in advance which plays to call?
Actually, it's a pretty simple process, according to Walsh, now a consultant to the 49ers. Scripting, to his way of thinking, offered a wealth of benefits, including:
- Seeing defensive adjustments to particular formations
- Making sure there was a pass-run balance
- Calling particular runs designed to set up play-action passes
- Running trick plays
- Designing plays to move the ball in small chunks and set up a deep throw
One more advantage: With a script, the offensive players could devote more study time to plays that definitely would be used in the game, as opposed to studying an entire game plan that invariably included a bunch of plays that would not be called.
"It got to the point where our offensive team really wanted to know those plays," Walsh recalled. "The players really appreciate the idea that you're giving them a (head) start on the game. You can sleep easier, you have more confidence going into the game, and you're more at ease.
"For the coaches, you can feel comfortable that the game is almost on automatic pilot when it starts."
When Walsh coached the 49ers to their first three Super Bowl championships during the 1980s, his offense was ahead of its time, and his scripted plays helped give them their edge. His first championship team, in 1981, outscored its three postseason opponents 58-27 during the first half. His second championship team piled up almost identical first-half numbers (55-26) during the 1984 postseason.
Sense a trend?
"You know what's going to be called and there's no reason to make a mistake," veteran tight end Shannon Sharpe says of the system inDenver, where coach Mike Shanahan scripts the first 15 offensive plays every week. "You already know the hot pickups. You already know if (the defense does) this, who we're going to. So that makes your job a lot easier."
Just about every team in the NFL now uses some form of scripting. Walsh used to do 25 plays, but current 49ers coach Steve Mariucci made 19 the magic number this year -- in tribute, he said, to the late Johnny Unitas, who wore that number.
One possible downside with scripting is that the game can take on a different feel after the initial burst. Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre used to complain that play caller Tom Rossley was too slow to get plays in once the script ran out. That forced Favre, who likes to keep a fast pace on the field, to begin ad-libbing.
"Would you run 25 in order? No," Walsh said. "Let's say, of the 25, you'd run 18 or 19 sort of in order. If something really worked or you saw something in the defense, you'd go back to (a play). To me, it was just sort of a safety net because there's so much emotion to start the game, you want to think clearly, and this, in a sense, forces you to stay with a regimen that you clinically planned prior to the game."
Walsh can recall games in which the script worked to perfection. So can Shanahan, who was pulling the strings as offensive coordinator when the 49ers scored touchdowns on their first three possessions of Super Bowl XXIX against San Diego, and Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, the play caller when they scored 55 points against Denver in Super Bowl XXIV.
Click here for a updated post on the opening plays script. This new post delineates more specifics about that topic.