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Calling the shots: NFL head coaches who refuse to give up playcalling

From ESPN - November 15, 2017

Mike McCarthy climbed the ranks in the NFL because of his work with quarterbacks and his playcalling.

He made sure that when he became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2006, he stayed true to that skill. Save for a 12-game stretch in 2015, when McCarthy felt it necessary to pay extra attention to his defense and special teams, he has always been the one to decide which play Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and a handful of other quarterbacks will run.

He would tell any first-time head coach to do the same, with one caveat.

"If he's good at it," McCarthy said during a recent interview about playcalling. "There's so much of our offense that's identified with our quarterbacks, and rightfully so, because we have had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks play here in my tenure, but the system of offense is to make the quarterback successful. It's a philosophy I learned in 1989 from Paul Hackett and through Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense. That's how I learned it, and I believe wholeheartedly in it.

"If you are known for something as a head coach, I feel your team should emulate that. That's why you got the job."

Sure, that makes it more difficult to have input into the other parts of the game, but it's why McCarthy hired veteran coordinators on defense (Dom Capers) and special teams (Ron Zook). Both have been head coaches, Capers at the NFL level and Zook in college.

Here's a look at playcalling through the eyes of several NFL head coaches:

Mind games

By the time McCarthy lifts the laminated card over his mouth -- opponents read lips, remember -- and radios in the first play of a game to his starting quarterback, the Packers' coach already has called the game twice, maybe three times.

With video of that week's opponent on his screen, reams of data on his desk and the call sheet he has built for that week in hand, McCarthy closes his office door and goes into playcalling mode a full 48 hours before kickoff.

He's all alone, and it's him versus the defensive coordinator.

"I am all about Teryl Austin right now," McCarthy said of the Lions' defensive coordinator during an interview two days before the Packers played Detroit on Monday Night Football earlier this month. "I am calling it against him."

Friday's session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes, McCarthy said. He does it again Saturday for another 2-3 hours, and then goes over it one more time the morning of the game.

"The best time is on the road because I just sit in my hotel room and do it," McCarthy said. "I always try to save two hours of work for Sunday before the game because I do not like the time before the game. I like to be actively working my brain going into the game."

The 54-year-old coach, who has been calling plays ever since 2000 when he became the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator, calls it "the best part of my job."

"I love it because it's about putting your guys in better position than he has his guys in," McCarthy said.

It was an exercise he missed during those 12 games in 2015 during which his former associate head coach Tom Clements called the plays, but there was a benefit.

"I worked out more," McCarthy said chuckling.

Sure, McCarthy had his reasons for giving up playcalling after the 2014 season, and they were justified given his desire to spend more time to ensure that defense and special teams were not lagging behind. But when the offense struggled in 2015 -- the loss of receiver Jordy Nelson did not help -- he knew what he had to do. It was after that season that he said, as long as he's a head coach, he will always call plays.

McCarthy always knew he would want it to be that way when he became a head coach. As an offensive coordinator with the Saints and 49ers, he always worked for a defensive head coach -- Jim Haslett in New Orleans and Mike Nolan in San Francisco.

It was Haslett, however, who warned him about the time constraints that come with being a head coach and the playcaller.

"He goes, 'Trust me, being a head coach, it's everything you accomplish as a coordinator, then you become a head coach and then you are pulled away from the things that made you successful,'" McCarthy said. "Coordinator is the hardest job in coaching. That's why it's so difficult being a head coach and calling it. You are calling it, but really you are coordinating it, too. And that's where the workload capacity is the challenge."

McCarthy might never divulge what, exactly, is on his call sheet, but he explained how it's organized.

"There's a labeling of plays," he said. "I have a color sequencing I go through, where they all mean something, then I have labeling sequence I go through. I refer to it as, 'a lap around the call sheet.' I have a coloring sequence and then I have a labeling sequence that goes after the coloring."

-- Rob Demovsky

Needing the microphone

Sean Payton has given up playcalling duties twice during his 12 years with the New Orleans Saints -- only once by choice.

"Well, the first time it was not a decision. I got run over in Tampa and I was in the hospital," said Payton, who broke his leg in 2011 when Jimmy Graham got tackled into him on the sideline.

Longtime offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. did so well while Payton was stuck up in the coaching booth for the next few weeks that Payton let Carmichael keep the reins for the rest of that season as New Orleans finished 13-3 and set the NFL record for yards in a season.

Payton took the job back in 2013 after he served his one-year bounty suspension. Then Payton gave the job back to Carmichael in 2016 when the team was in a rut, but took it back later that season when he was particularly excited for a grudge match against former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (which the Saints won 49-21).

Payton has always raved about Carmichael and said he would trust him "in a heartbeat" to call the plays since it's such a collaborative effort between Payton, Carmichael, quarterback Drew Brees and the entire offensive staff throughout the week anyway.

But Payton admits that something always draws him back.

"I think sometimes if I am not calling plays, I just feel like I do not have a microphone in my hand," Payton said.

Payton has long stressed the collaboration that goes into a game plan. The entire staff helps to whittle down the plays that will make the call sheet all the way up until the final review the Saturday night before game day at 11 p.m. -- then adds their input into his headset as the game goes along.

"The call sheet's the same, [only] the font's gotten bigger as my eyesight's gotten worse," Payton said. "That's really about the only thing that's changed."

Payton said there are some advantages to not calling plays -- like being able to pay more attention to everything that's going on with defense, special teams and replay reviews, etc. But the biggest benefit to doing the job himself is probably the freedom to take a risk, since the buck stops with him.

Payton made his mark in the NFL as a playcaller under Jim Fassel with the New York Giants and Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys, but it was not a flawless ascent. Fassel stripped Payton of his playcalling duties in 2002, and Parcells was only half-joking when he cracked that the aggressive Payton would "get the virus" sometimes.

"Look, it's a lot easier for me to call a flea-flicker on a first-and-10 right after a fourth-and-1 conversion than it is [for an assistant]," Payton said.

Or, say, an onside kick to start the second half of a Super Bowl -- as Payton famously did in Super Bowl XLIV.

15 plays that set the tone

'He's a mastermind'

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