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.