Before the current world of the internet, iPads, and other technology; an NFL playbook was built the old-fashioned way. It consisted of hundreds of printed pages bound together in a nice pretty binder with a team logo slapped on the front.

Today, NFL players receive a tablet with an entire playbook already downloaded to the device. Regardless, learning what is in a typical NFL playbook is still the same…and difficult. So, what’s in an NFL playbook and how hard is it to learn?

Content Is King when building NFL playbook

Yes, the bulk of an NFL playbook is simply plays. Whether offense or defense, the playbook identifies and describes the plays that a particular team can run at any given time. Jon Gruden, who returned to the NFL this year to coach the Oakland Raiders once again, was said to have a playbook that was thicker than the city of Los Angeles Yellow Pages. There are hundreds of diagrams and descriptions for run and pass plays for any NFL offense.

That is not all you will find in a typical NFL playbook. Offensive playbooks will also include information about a team’s philosophy, its goals, its formations, and the motions that the team will use. There will be a section for trick plays and even sections for special offensive situations, like the two-minute drill. A defensive playbook is much the same. In addition to its base alignments, there will be sections related to stunts, blitzes, coverages, and more.

Flex Right Tight Stack 394 Dragon Smoke Kill Turbo Sucker Right

If you want to play in the NFL, you had better speak the language. The above play call was spoken by New Orleans QB Drew Brees in a 2016 game with Tampa Bay. The first four words are related to the formation. The tight end is flexed to the right of the formation and the receivers on the left are stacked one in front of the other.

The next three words are the initial play call. Normally, something like 394 is related to a pass play as are key words like “Dragon” and “Smoke.” The final four words of the call alert the offense that Brees could “kill” the initial play call and instead go with “Turbo Sucker Right,” a run play. Brees saw the defense in something that was more conducive to the run, so he did indeed call “Kill” at the line of scrimmage and the Saints ran “Turbo Sucker Right.” Saints RB Mark Ingram scored on a six-yard run.

The point here is that the typical NFL player has to understand every word of any play call. Many teams will use similar terms for formations. Some will use similar numbering systems for run and pass plays. Like any foreign language, it takes a great deal of time to learn and understand what exactly is going on in a given playbook. “All Go Special Halfback Seam,” for example, was a play used by the Kansas City Chiefs in their 2017 season-opening win over New England. No numbers, just words and each word told all 11 offensive players what to do.

The Science of Learning a Playbook

The problem with learning an NFL playbook is not simply memorizing a play, but also understanding the description of the procedure of the play. Memorizing a certain play is great, but translating what was memorized onto action on the football field utilizes the help of two different brain systems.

The human brain has two separate systems that help us make decisions. One is the deliberative system, the one that is for big decisions like where one should go to college and play football. The brain will deliberate on that decision over a period of time. This type of decision process is slow and takes a ton of mental effort. It is not the best system to use for a quarterback who is trying to figure out if he should throw the ball on a certain play .

The brain also has a quicker decision making system known as the procedural system. It is reactionary and processes information much quicker. The same quarterback trying to decide on whether to throw a particular pass or not would rely on the procedural system.

For NFL players, the problem is these two systems are located in different parts of the brain. The bottom line is that mastering an NFL playbook is hard. Memorization can only take players so far. Players who truly understand play calls, the concept of play calls, and how to react and make split-second adjustments when running plays are the ones that thrive the most.

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