Vince Lombardi

No Monday Morning Quarterbacks

The 2nd Commandment

Play design is the function of the coach.

A play design, expressed in the language of "Xs and Os," is a pure idea. A new play design increases the total stock of football knowledge (A).

Marv Levy described an eager young play designer named Bill Walsh at the time he hired Walsh as a defensive assistant at Cal in 1962. "We ran our coaches' meetings in a room with three blackboards," Levy said. "Walsh would scribble a play, but before he'd finish, his mind would shift to another one. He'd move to the second blackboard and begin writing while he was still talking about the first one. I'd follow him around with an eraser and rub out the play because the coaches were getting confused."

In explaining what he looked for in a coach, Walsh wrote in Building A Champion: "He must have a complete working knowledge of the game, because the players respect that above everything else. Athletes can be coached in almost any style if they're confident that the coach really knows what he's doing. The players must know that the coach is up to date and contemporary in his approach and able to adjust quickly to the tactics of different opponents."

Walsh's San Francisco players certainly believed that Walsh possessed a complete working knowledge of the game. "We believed that he knew something nobody else knew," Randy Cross said. "We knew we had an advantage having him as our coach."

"I think it was easy to believe Bill Walsh because he would tell you things that would happen," Dwight Clark said. "'We're going to run this play against this defense. When you catch it, there won't be anybody within 10 yards of you.' That would happen in the game and you'd catch the ball and get ready to get hit and turn around and there's nobody there. He would do those things kind of things over and over with his designing of plays. You just got to the point where everything he said you just believed. This is the way it is going to be. This is the way it is going to happen."

"He could see into the future," former Cincinnati QB Greg Cook said. "Everything he did was based on setting someone up for future meetings. He'd hold stuff back, he'd go against tendencies. I loved his system.

"His philosophy was based on stretching the field, which would force the linebackers deeper and open things up underneath. Then he'd go deep again. He always liked deep receivers. He liked to force the cornerbacks downfield, then go short to bring 'em up, then go deep again. It was like the horse on the merry-go-round, up and down, up and down. With the DBs, it was up and back, up and back. It was merciless. He had people worn out by halftime. By the end of the half, they didn't know what they were doing.

"It was never a take-what-they-give-us philosophy. It was make them take what we give them. And it gave me a feeling of invincibility. I felt I could make any throw he wanted me to make."

Likewise, Lombardi's Packers had total faith in Lombardi's design, particularly in his design of the power sweep. "They ran the same play time after time," former Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Merlin Olsen said of Lombardi's sweep. "They had tremendous confidence in the play. They'd make a call for the sweep to the right or the sweep to the left, and Bam! They had it. And they knew it."

"Every team eventually arrives at a lead play," Lombardi said. "It becomes the team's bread-and-butter play, the top-priority play. It is the play that the team knows it must make go, and the one the opponents know they must stop. Continued success with the play makes for a number one play, because from that stems your confidence, and behind that is the basic truth that it expresses the coach as a coach and players as a team."

Of course, play design is not limited to the offensive side of the ball. Like the offensive chefs, defensive designers like Bill Belichick also cook up innovative designs to give their players an edge. "They will always do something funky for every opponent," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said of the Patriots defense. "They will create a blitz design just for you."

In The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam wrote of the relationship between Belichick and the great Lawrence Taylor, as observed through the eyes of Belichick's good friend, Ernie Adams. "Belichick would sometimes say of Taylor that the only time he was fun to coach was on Sunday, when he was magnificent," Halberstam wrote. "Taylor was always looking for an edge, Adams thought, even with his own coach--perhaps especially with his own coach. The byplay between the two was great fun to watch, thought Adams, probably for everyone but Belichick, but it was also in the end a game, and there were two givens to it: Belichick knew that Taylor was going to play his best (except in his drug-diminished period when he was on occasion not the player he was supposed to be), and Taylor knew that Belichick was going to come up with a game plan that gave him an edge."

"Bill Belichick is probably the smartest defensive coach I've ever seen," said Lawrence Taylor. "Given what the man has accomplished on defense," echoed Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas, "and what he has done with his linebackers, man, I'm not going to question anything. When he points, I go, that's it. No questions asked. None at all."

However, because play designs are pure ideas, such designs can be copied at almost no cost. Long-time Detroit Lions defensive coach Don Clemons accurately summed this up. "Football coaches, probably like in any other business, they're great at stealing each other's ideas," Clemons said. "You see something on film, the next week you're doing it. Or you do something successfully, and now a different team is running it."

Because play designs can be costlessly copied, only sustained success over an extended period of time can be used to distinguish the authentic master chef (Lombardi, Walsh, Belichick) from the imitator.

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