Designing a Complete Passing System — Excerpt from Dan Gonzalez’s “Recoded and Reloaded”

The below is an excerpt from the new book by passing guru and friend of Smart Football, Dan Gonzalez, titled Recoded and Reloaded: An Updated Structure for a Complete Passing Game at Any Level, which expands and builds on his earlier book, Concept Passing. You can find the book on Amazon and CreateSpace.

For all the talk in football about “systems” — the Air Raid system, the West Coast Offense, the Run and Shoot, a Pro-Style System — there is very little discussion of how does one go about building an effective system, and what makes a system effective. There are a few cliches that everyone throws around when discussing systems, that each seem to contradict each other: they have to “have answers” while being “simple”; they have to be “easy to learn and communicate” but be “flexible” enough to account for “multiplicity”; and they have to be “cutting edge” and “new” but still rely on “sound football principles.” This isn’t to say all of this can’t be accomplished — I believe they can — but it’s clearly not easy. I put a significant amount of thought into this as I wanted to rework my existing passing system.

I began by trying to simplify the existing system. But, while simplifying a structure to accommodate beginning learners is relatively easy, as all you may need to do is simply be a matter of stripping away layers from a complex organization, you might be left with something very incomplete. You might be “simple” but not have “sufficient answers.”

Because of my coaching background, a system overhaul required not only accommodating the most basic in features; the ability of the scheme to “grow” into a complete pattern system is a non-negotiable as well.   So what makes a pattern system complete?  As a fledgling coach, the great Homer Smith’s influence on how I conceptualized the passing game could not be overemphasized.  His willingness to correspond, send me game and drill footage, and converse with me crystallized my vision of what I wanted in my system.   The first page of my quarterback manual reiterates what he imparted to me, namely the characteristics I’ve outlined below. It’s my belief that any well designed passing system must have all of these traits.

  • (1) It gives receivers the opportunity to defeat tight man coverage.  This is more than simply having one or two “pick” plays (Figure 2-1) that a team uses.   It encompasses development of release and separation techniques on individual routes, and the emphasis of accuracy and timing on the part of the passer, and having viable options that can separate from man coverage on every pass play.


  • (2) Prevents conflict between receivers.  Figure 2-2 shows an example of receivers whose pass routes “bleed” into one another.  In other words, the routes are so close in proximity that two defenders can cover three offensive people.



Our stretches are designed to isolate a specific defender, and make sure there is enough space so that one defender cannot cover two receivers (Figure 2-3).


  • (3) Have a defined timing.  Our dropback passes typically operate in the same rhythm.  For example, in Figure 2-4, the QB will take the shotgun snap, drop back three steps and:
  1. Throw the inside curl route out of the plant, or
  2. Hitch and throw to the curl or flat based on the movement of S, or
  3. Hitch and scan to backside routes, or
  4. Escape the rush and run for as much yardage as possible.




This way, the QB will keep rhythm with his hitch steps; the routes will also be timed to come open as the passer’s eyes move to them.

  • (4) Stretch the defense vertically and horizontally.  Even when our primary goal is a short, controlled completion, our offensive unit will be given the opportunity to make plays down the field when the defense presents it.  In the image below, though the concept is the stretch on the flat defender (S), the QB will have awareness of the advantage route being run by the Y receiver.  Should the corner try to close down to help the S, the defense would be vulnerable to the flag route.


  • (5) Keep the QB out of interception danger.  Because of the physiological fact that our eyes “jump” or “fix” on objects rather than scan as a movie camera does, certain relationships between receivers and the movement of the QB’s eyes are better than others.  One team I was associated with once threw 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.   Two interceptions were the result of deflections; six came relationships like the one below (Figure 2-6):


The illustration above shows a progression where the B is first and the Y is second.  As the MLB takes the B, the quarterback prepares to throw to the Y.  Because Y’s route is headed in the same direction as the passer’s eyes, and his eyes start behind the “IN” route, the QB never sees the WLB, who has settled in his pass drop and moves with the quarterback.   We will sequence routes in relation to the quarterback’s eyes so that the QB will start out in front of “IN” routes and swing into them (Figure 2-7) so that as the passer moves his feet and works to them, the passer will see “color” in front of his intended receiver.


  • (6) Deny pattern reading by the defense.  This is done at several levels.  First, receivers are afforded the opportunity in this system to have threats built off of similar route “stems,” as shown in Figure 2-8.


Second, Figure 2-9 illustrates how we can accompany a short route (a flat route, for example) with threats coming from multiple directions.  In other words, a defense cannot simply see a flat route and assume a curl route from the outside, as some defenses will.


Third, we will deny bracketing defenders the chance to help their teammates by attacking them with threats of their own (Figure 2-10).


  • (7) Keep receivers from free pass defenders.  An overriding principle in our passing game, skill position players will drill every day in defeating both man and zone coverage (Figure 2-11).


The diagram above illustrates one of these drills, in which a backside receiver will defeat the drop of the linebacker and provide a clean throw for the passer.

  • (8) Have a principle of route conversion.  The days of checking plays pre snap are going by the wayside; if the offense is truly to dictate to the defense, it must have the ability to “convert” certain routes versus the coverage they see.  The diagram below (Figure 2-12) features the “Four Verticals” pattern called in anticipation of a 3-deep zone defense.  Though the defense appears to be Cover 3, it is actually “2 Robber” made popular by Virginia Tech.



In the event that the L corner collapses on the seam, allowing the F to cheat to the field, the A receiver must have the ability to adjust his route accordingly.   The blue lines illustrate the normal four vertical pattern; the red lines indicate the adjustments to the coverage, with the dotted lines representing throwing options for the QB. The pattern is still able to hit the weakness of the pass defense.

  • (9) Adjust to condensed field areas.  Certain patterns go away as the offense gets closer to the goal line.  A good pattern system must have the flexibility to attack in these confined spaces, with the same rhythm as when in the open field.
  • (10) Have the ability to isolate certain parts of a pass defense. Not only will we release the maximum number of receivers whenever possible, but we have an effective means to get the ball to any area of the field as well.  Our Advantage Principles help ensure we are directing the QB to the thinnest part of the coverage (Figure 2-13), ensuring that the Concept portion of the read will have the proper isolation.


In the figure above, the Advantage Principle is “RAM,” in which the quarterback will select his stretch concept based on the drop of the M linebacker.  Here, the M drops to the right, isolating the W in a 2 on 1 disadvantage.


  • (11) Allow for quick throws when the defense is outflanked.  This is becoming more and more common in football, with quick screens being attached to running plays (Figure 2-14).


The inside run is dependent on the defense deploying with the three receivers on the right.  If they do not, the quick screen is thrown.

  • (12) Accommodate delays and screens.  While most offenses have integrated the screen game in their offense, many do not feature delays as part of their normal repertoire.  Our emphasis on getting to the last man in the progression, or “Third Fix,” is what sets us apart from most.  Also, our combination of traditional quick game ideas with traditional drop-back patterns (Figure 2-15) helps keep us ahead of defenses from the standpoint of attacking the full field.


  • (13) Have set reading concepts.  Our whole method of attack will be based on set concepts.  A “concept” is different from just “a play,” as a concept is defined as “an idea of something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars.” With just 3 generalized ways of looking at pass patterns, the seemingly infinite combinations of pass routes can be distilled into common sense, learnable chunks.
  • (14) Have organized scramble rules.  The explosive plays created when the QB is able to extend the timeline of a pass play can undoubtedly change a game, and even a season.  Having organized rules will help us find order amongst the chaos of a quarterback scramble.
  • (15) Have the ability to adjust to multiple formations.   Over the years, the use of multiple formations has been a hallmark of our offense.  As formations change, the burden should be on the defense, not the offense.  Figure 2-16 illustrates a pattern structure commonly known as “Stick” from a balanced, four wide receiver grouping.


As the pattern is fitted to a “trips” formation (Figure 2-17), or with the addition of an H Back (Figure 2-18), or even 2 backs in the backfield (Figure 2-19), there is no change for the picture the QB gets.  Moreover, there is no change for any rules for any skill players or offensive linemen.


With these parameters set, we will now go about putting the system together that will meet all these criteria.


To read the rest of Dan Gonzalez’s Recoded and Reloaded: An Updated Structure for a Complete Passing Game at Any Level, you can find it on Amazon and CreateSpace.

  • Homyrrh

    Having recently picked up and read ‘Concept Passing’ — and greatly enjoyed it — I look forward to getting the chance to read such an apparently comprehensive tome as this. But, Jesus Christ, $40 for 172 self-published pages? I recall hearing that you (Chris) had little control over the pricing structure for your book — please tell me this is the case for this book as well.

  • I agree, I will be waiting to purchase…40.00 for 172 pages ugh!

  • smartfootball

    I had general control over the pricing of my book. There are issues with wholesale/retail/digital/etc so that’s not to say I could set the exact price (Amazon often kind of does its own thing) but I wanted to be sure my book was priced inexpensively. I can’t speak for Dan’s situation.

  • Use of the Switch on the backside, very much like Gilbride’s Victor Cruz concepts. What remains consistent to either side of a play in concept work is inside/out listing for the shown sets. Whoever takes inside, off a switch or otherwise, is the stressor on a defense since that is where a player’s responsisiblities most likely have force/contain assignments. The back and the near receiver, or the nearest two backside. Should be fluid for a passer since no matter how many changes if he goes to open window on initial read he fires it and if that gets squeezed the second to a side should be able to work open. This lets him be complex with sets and simple with overall scehmatics, it accelerates the decision making so he can work a concept or go elsewhere.

  • AeroAg2012

    Do you have a preferred verbiage for a passing game? The one described in the article basically uses an Air-Coryell route combination call, but considering that you stress concepts rather than the theoretical “infinite flexibility” of the traditional Air-Coryell, wouldn’t it make more sense to use a more concept-driven verbiage (as used with the backs)?

  • smartfootball

    I personally prefer concepts, but the interesting thing about Dan’s system is he kind of uses both. The route tree helps set the frontside play but the backside combination and how the QB will make his read is done by words. I don’t want to speak for him, though.

  • mike Jordan

    Dan I remember reading your blog you said that your book would be available in ebook form. Is this still true?

  • Joe

    This is a complete passing game, probably more than you can ever use in the book. Dan’s level of detail is as good as any purchased offensive system out there. It is a great update to concept passing. My copy is falling apart. To me, that’s pretty good for 40 bucks.

  • Coach Webb

    Excellent breakdown, its helped me tremendously the past 3 days…I will be supporting…thank you!

    Question about protection scheme when combining quick/drop concepts. Based on experience (as well as in theory) what is better: aggressive set by OL to get rushers hands down for shorter concepts or deeper set by OL to create pocket for QB? I can see advantages for either, but still confused…but during a game what do you prefer/rely on? Thanks

  • Sorry I’m just now responding…

    As far as the price, I had some, but not total control over that. What I will say is that the value lies in half of my life spent on gathering this information, and now sharing it in easily understood, well organized pieces is worth it. For what it’s worth, it is printed on larger-sized paper, and in regular print, so there is a lot of content. It is also in full color.

    It was actually intended as an e-book, but the number of diagrams made formatting impossible, so this is the finished product.

    As for the way plays are named – I made a very well informed decision (based on the number of systems studied) to use both numbers and descriptive names to denote pass patterns. All the learning is conceptual, which is a major driver in all of my football endeavors.

    As for protections, the basic technique is that of a normal pocket pass. Short setting inevitably leaves to lunging, and we want a constant clock for pass plays. The upfield rush creates lanes for the passer to throw short passes. That isnt to say there arent change ups, but this is the base

    And no – one does not need to have the first book in order to grasp the second.

    I’m happy to answer any other questions that may come up.

    Chris, thanks again.


  • tgauge

    Great article. Is the passing route tree (routes and how they are numbered) covered in the book.

  • Mr.Murder

    The edge his system develops in how it adjusts front/backside reads. Lets you use mirrored concepts more, because the backside is going to develop in time to shuffle your mechanical progression there. Usually had to turn mirrored calls into split field reads and still read rotation correctly. The ability to stay consistent to the front read probably makes protections more consistent as well? Where this should work best is on mirrored smash. Can combine Mumme’s six step break with the deeper smash/hitch/corner read so it is no longer split field and you can really work open grass. on six yards to the quick side and traditional corner to the other way. Would make it a natural hot?

  • Tim McQuade

    Thanks for this post. Great stuff! Chris or Dan, what software is used to diagram these plays? Is it available to high school coaches?

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