How do NFL players memorize all those plays?

Dilfer said it’s a three-year process to own a particular playbook. Owning a play is different from memorizing it, Dilfer explained. “Owning it to me goes from knowing it to understanding it to it becoming instinctive,” Dilfer said.

How does one own the plays? “If you’re not spending an hour every day in your playbook, you’re cheating your teammates,” Dilfer said. He stated quarterbacks should study three hours per day, given their extra responsibilities in commanding an offense.

It can take a while just to lock down a playbook’s language. “A lot of coaches use numbering systems,” Dilfer added. He said odd numbers are typically used for plays to the right, even numbers for plays to the left. Many offenses use T and D words for formations: T for Trips, where three receivers are lined up on one side, and D for double sets, such as double tight ends.

Dilfer cited an example of one play with a different meaning in two systems. “Red Right 22 Texas is a West Coast play,” Dilfer explained. “In another system, it’s Split Right Scat Right 639 F Angle. What some players will do when they go to a new team, is when it’s Split Right Scat Right, they go, ‘Oh, that’s 22 Texas.’ They hear one thing and they put old language on it; you have to learn the new language.” Leinart admitted as much in his transition from the Cardinals to the Texans.


Dhani Jones, a middle linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, said memorizing plays isn’t as difficult as understanding their philosophy. “I don’t drop the language (from previous systems),” said Jones, who’s also been on the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles during his 10-year career. “It’s just different words that are used. Quarters coverage is the same as Cloud coverage is the same as strong-side rotated coverage. They’re just named differently.”

He practices word association to memorize his playbook. Jones will think of ‘snake’ for plays when he’s called to stay inside. He connotates [sic] ‘pirate’ for plays which have him move to the outside since pirates are on a ship (i.e. they’re outside).

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Kelly Gregg also practices word association. “If we have a call, like Underbear, I just try to bear across somebody,” said Gregg, who has spent 10 of his 11 seasons with the Ravens.

Read the whole thing. It should be no surprise that, in my view, it doesn’t make sense for players to have to spend that much time in rote memorization rather than repeating the plays they will execute; as Dilfer says, players have to “own” the plays. (It’s also a luxury NFL teams have, where if a guy can’t learn the playbook he gets cut and they find someone who will.) One obvious constraint on the number of plays you have is simply the number of plays you can run in a game, which is limited to only around 50-70 plays.

There’s no reason to practice plays you might only call a couple of times a season. Indeed, if you take the opposite view — that it’s worth it to practice a play you might only call once or twice in some specific situation — you must have an extremely high view of yourself as a playcaller and play designer. And if you are going to do that, it better go for a touchdown or a big play; would be rather anticlimactic to practice a play all season and finally call it after weeks of delay only to have it go off tackle for two yards.

  • How many hours a day can you do physical activity?  Say you workout in the morning for 3 hours, do a hour of PT, then meal, then workout for another 3. Adding in a hour or two of playbook time does not seem like a undo burden?  

    These guys are not just practicing after 7th period. They have 8-10 hours a day to spend.  How is that time typically allocated?

  • As I read this, I’m thinking back to the Super Bowl and Mike Wallace & Ben Roethlisberger being unable to communicate what play they wanted with a minute and a half left in the game.

  • Billy@ATVS

    It’s also worth noting that in the NFL they have the luxury of football being their JOB — and if they don’t understand a play they can spend as much time as needed with a coach learning how to understand it.

    Whereas a college kid has a cap on how much time he can spend with a coach and also has a whole other set of books he’s supposed to be studying at the same time. 

  • This Guy

    I knew a lot of football players at Jacksonville U, and the word about Harbaugh’s system was a lot like what you hear about the Airraid guys: abajillion formations to run two dozen plays. Depending on his success, you might see this start to change.

  • Stein Time

    These NFL guys are all high on themselves.  Ridiculous to even go into a game with a list of 50 plays since NFL offenses average 62 plays a game. They should all take a “page” out of Gus Malzahn’s book & simplify what they do & the way they call it.

  • Cromulent

    College kids also have to spend a lot of time in tattoo parlors.

  • a team that combines the playbook with spaced repition software with the playbook could go a long way in getting guys to learn thick playbooks

  • Capn

    I am glad ThisGuy brought up the Air Raid. Chris, all other aspects of the Air Raid aside, how do you think Mike Leach’s playbook would transfer to the NFL, in terms of how successful it would be? Is it possible that it might be almost too simple? I love the idea of having a few base concepts like Mesh, Stick, Shallow Cross, etc ran out of a lot of formations because it makes sense and is easier for players and even coaches to learn (so that they will know all the concepts in their head perfectly), but would that make it too easy for opposing defensive coordinators in today’s NFL to game-plan?

  • The huge playbooks are perhaps not necessary but the NFL guys studying so much film requires some variation so while I agree that the malzahn or leach offense is excellent I think it may need more plays to be successful to defeat this hours of defensive study so they aren’t being caught out and successfully covered. Again on the flip side how many plays do the colts run out of that no huddle of theirs. Can’t be that many so perhaps if that is the whole idea of the offense maybe 4 runs and say 20 passes practiced to perfection could work?

  • Thanks for the heads up on this article.  I write a blog about sports and cognitive psych/neuroscience and a lot of the quotes from the athletes really interestingly echo what research tells us about how athletes process information, and how skills go through a process of becoming “automatic”, like Dilfer talks about above.

  • Mr.Murder

    The Colts emphasize concepts over formations. The main input from the OC to Manning is on concepts, he can anticipate the coverages when he hears concept calls for given instances. This puts greater emphasis on reps, they can dwell on what works best and really get it down in practice and games.

    This doesn’t really contradict what Dilfer says. The Colts basically get to owning plays and when the chips are down they will operate in terms of what they own.