Given that humans lack clairvoyance, there is no such thing as the perfect play-caller and thus much of the development in football strategy has centered on how to get into (or out of) a given play because the defense is well suited to defend the one that was called. Indeed, quarterbacks have called audibles at the line of scrimmage for decades, and a few years ago the hot idea was calling multiple plays in the huddle.
Most famously, Peyton Manning was supposedly given three plays to choose from on every down, though this was likely a bit of hyperbole. Calling two plays in the huddle remains very common, however. The method for this is simple: Two plays are called in the huddle, and then at the line the quarterback either confirms the first play (usually by saying a color) or “killing” the first play which indicates that the second will be run (by saying “kill” at the line). For example, the quarterback might call “Red Right [formation] 24 Wham [run to the right] and 70 curl [pass play].” At the line he’ll either say the confirming word (i.e. “Black! Black!”) or will kill that play so they can run the pass play (i.e. “Kill! Kill!”).
That’s all well and good, but is still cumbersome and, most importantly, the defense can still make the offense wrong after the quarterback has made his decision at the line. Moreover, with the rise of no-huddle offenses, there aren’t as many opportunities to call multiple plays at the line and have the quarterback check into one or another. The name of the game for defenses is confusion and movement, and even at the lower levels you never know how a kid might react. Increasingly, the answer to this has been to package concepts together, such that the quarterback has different options depending on what the defense does after the snap. I previously discussed packaging quick passes with five-step or dropback passes together. This is a great concept, but is quarterback intensive: the quarterback has to look for the quick pass and then reset his feet with depth and then go through another progression — not something every quarterback can do.
The answer has been to combine plays but to simplify the reads for the quarterback. There are three main forms this concept can take: (1) a base run play with a simple pre-snap backside pass concept built in; (2) quick passes combined with a draw play; and (3) quick passes combined with a screen pass. I’ll discuss each in turn.
This concept is the simplest and most readily integrated. Indeed, this is all the vaunted “bubble screen”" is: a run play where the quarterback can flip it to a receiver if the defense fails to cover them with numbers. The bubble or fast screen is run when there are multiple receivers to a side.
But also common and useful is the “smoke” concept or “look” pass. This is a one-step hitch by the receiver where he simply turns his numbers back to the quarterback. For everyone else, the play is a run, but if the defense gives that receiver an excessive cushion — and the flat defender is located inside the box looking for the run — the quarterback simply throws it to wide receiver. Below are some cutups of the bubble and the look pass.
From the shotgun, the only wrinkle is that the timing on “smoke” or “look” is a bit different. In that case a one-step slant by the outside receiver or even a full five-yard hitch work very well. In any event, it’s key to help control the backside of the play and as Bobby Bowden used to say: inside, you gotta beat ten guys to score; on the outside, you just have to beat one.
But this isn’t just limited to soft coverage. Particularly on the goal line, teams increasingly isolate their outside receiver and give the quarterback the option of whether to hand the ball off on the called run play (which everyone else on offense is executing) or to throw the fade against press. The reason to do this is to avoid the cat and mouse game that is all too common: You call the run play thinking the defense will be backed out, and instead everyone is at the line and you have single coverage on the outside. Then, having gotten stuffed on the run, you call the fade, and now they have a corner and a safety over there to defend that receiver so the corner can better play the fade. This way, it’s not an issue. For an excellent example of this, see the video below where the Detroit Lions’ Matt Stafford chose the fade to Calvin Johnson (a good choice) on a called run play where the defense showed press.
2. Quick passes combined with a draw play
This is a great concept that has quickly become more and more popular. I saw saw this concept used by Oklahoma State while coached by Dana Holgorsen, but I’ve since seen it at other levels, both in high school and up to the pros. The idea is to put a quick passing game concept that attacks the linebackers to one side and to direct the quarterback to look at that route: if he’s open, throw it; if not, that means the near side linebacker has slid out, thus opening up the draw. So it’s: #1, throw the stick; if not there, #2 hand it off on the draw. The draw can be blocked however you want; the diagram below uses the Leach/Holgorsen method with a pass set count and a “fold” block on the one technique.
The key is that the quarterback can’t really go through his full progression; he only really has time to look at one receiver before handing it off on the draw. And not that the sequence alleviates concerns with linemen getting downfield: If the ball is thrown on the quick pass, the linemen should not have gotten downfield yet; but by the time the ball is handed to the runner they will be sprinting up to take on the linebackers.
In any event, the key is that the purpose of combining these two plays is to affect the player that can either ruin the draw or the stick play: the inside linebacker. Reading him should make him wrong no matter what he does. This is also why it really works best from a trips formation: doing it from this look helps isolate the player. As a result, however, if one of the other defenders ends up trying to take away the stick, the coach should call the normal stick play so the quarterback can go through his progression. See the below clips which show the stick/draw concept, along with some of the other “packaged play” concepts described elsewhere in this article.
If you use stick and draw in your offense, I highly recommend this concept.
3. Quick passes and screens
The final frontier for combining quick passes is to put a screen play to the other side. Note that this uses the same idea as the stick/draw concept: you control a box player to the side of the quick pass, and if he slides out for the quick pass the quarterback simply takes a few additional steps back and drops the ball off on the screen pass. The simplest way to do this is to use the same trips look as above and to use a runningback screen, as shown below.
Of course you don’t have to limit this to slow screens to the wide receiver. Receiver screens (“tunnel” or “rocket” screens) work off of similar timing, and give a few more options for formation variety. By sending the runningback on a swing route or running it from empty, you can combine the stick and the tunnel screen, as shown below. First, doubles:
Again, the read for the quarterback is the same: read the stick, and if he’s not open then retreat and deliver the screen to the receiver. The stick should draw the backside pursuit, so that the blockers to the screen side should be fully matched up for a potential big play.
Finally, one advantage of combining the screen is that you don’t have to just use the stick pass. Another fantastic pass play to combine with the stick is “spacing” or the “mini-curl” pass play. On this pass concept, one receiver angles to the near inside linebacker and runs a “sit” while another runs a hitch or mini-curl to a five yard depth, while a third runs a flat. The quarterback reads from the inside to out.
When combined with a screen, the quarterback can’t go through the full progression but should instead look for the mini-curl while dragging his eyes across the sit. If the sit breaks wide open (i.e. a blitz where the linebackers have vacated) the quarterback can deliver the ball to the sit; otherwise he looks for the mini-curl route. If that is not there he uses the same methodology as above: he retreats and drops the ball off on a runningback or receiver screen.
There are many other possibilities here, but the beauty is that you don’t need all of them. Instead, one or two of these concepts, particularly the stick/draw variation, can be called repeatedly and the defense will always be wrong. Moreover, this is a chain mover concept and so makes a great first and ten or second and long type call, where the goal is just to take what the defense gives and to stay on schedule. As always, keep it simple, make the defense wrong, and get the ball to playmakers in space.