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Football is Knowable

The era of not knowing what’s happening on the field is over.

Green Bay Packers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Football is widely presented as a game of esoteric and inscrutable knowledge, and it’s easy to see why. Every team has multiple books of closely guarded information, and they use coded language transmitted secretly by radio to communicate and act on that information. This information is often presented as difficult, if not impossible, to learn if you’re not one of a select few. If you’re not in that club? Good luck, pal. You might as well be trying to teach yourself to fly a space shuttle.

The football media world does its level best to further this perception. Football coaches, in particular, seem to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what went down in a specific situation, often on the grounds that “we don’t know the play call” and things of that nature.

And while it’s often true that we don’t know specific play calls (and, just spitballing here, maybe someone with a press credential could, like, ask?), I don’t think we can say with any degree of confidence that we don’t have an idea what teams are trying to do philosophically. We can often identify specific play calls with a high degree of accuracy, and this is because it’s never been easier to access key information about what’s happening on the field.

The fact is, football coaches have always been more than willing to share information in their own circles. One of the main ways that schemes spread throughout college football in the pre-internet days was through campus visits and clinics. Coaches would create some novel innovation, and pretty soon they’d be getting calls and visits about exactly how it worked, and those ideas would spread, filtering up to professional football from there.

That information may have been inaccessible before, but not in 2022. Do you want to know some of Rich Bisaccia’s key coaching points on special teams? Here he is explaining them in detail. How would you like a detailed explanation about how split-safety coverages work from one of the greatest defensive minds that has ever lived? Nick Saban has you covered. What if perhaps the greatest offensive line coach ever was willing to share his insights? Here’s Dante Scarnecchia doing just that.

The list goes on. Here’s Mike Leach on one specific formation he uses in his Air Raid offense. Here’s Lincoln Riley going deep on quarterback drills. Here’s Matt Campbell on how to structure your week as a coach. Here’s Paul Chryst breaking down Wisconsin’s offense. Here’s Mike McCarthy on quarterbacks. Here’s Brian Billick on game planning. Here’s Bill Walsh, a man often simply referred to as “the Genius,” detailing Stanford’s offense.

Want to go deeper? What if you could get your hands on specific playbooks, especially those written by highly influential NFL minds? Surely you’d be able to get a handle on specific philosophies and approaches and why certain coaches did things the way they did, right? Well, they exist, and are freely available!

Here, go read Bill Walsh’s 1982 playbook and see the roots of the West coast offense. Check out Ernie Zampese’s playbook from the Dallas Cowboys and see how one of Don Coryell’s disciples spread his system, or go check out what Coryell himself had to say. Want a more modern offense? Here’s Bruce Arians’ playbook from 2016. Go see what “no risk it, no biscuit” looks like on paper. Just a Packers fan into history? Here’s Vince Lombardi’s 1966 playbook. Knock yourself out.

For the folks out there who like defense, I’ve got something for you, too. Here’s Buddy Ryan’s famed 46 defense, and here’s Dom Capers’ interpretation of the zone blitz from his time with the Panthers. Capers struggled down the stretch in Green Bay, but he’s still forgotten more about football than most of us will ever know, and you can get a good feel for some of that knowledge here.

Even if you don’t want to dive into this stuff yourself, there are plenty of people willing to explain it. Our own Justis Mosqueda and Tyler Brooke do in-depth breakdowns and cutups of every Packers game (and both often highlight schematic information about specific plays), and they’re hardly the only ones. Among many others, Dusty Evely does standout breakdowns of individual plays and concepts, explaining in very accessible language how specific things work together within the context of a game.

Outside of Packers-specific stuff, there are even more people doing quality breakdowns literally every day. Brandon Thorn specifically focuses on the offensive and defensive lines. Cody Alexander highlights specific defensive schemes. The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen and Nate Tice cover both sides of the ball, as does Brett Kollman. Heck, you can even get intel from former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan on YouTube! These people are all online and they’re all willing to answer questions. Be polite, obviously, but if there’s something you don’t understand and want to learn about, go ahead and ask! High-level football knowledge is there for the taking.

There’s a steep learning curve to this stuff, I’ll admit. Football is very jargon-intensive and listening to coaching clinics sometimes makes my eyes glass over. But if you want to make claims about football and how it works, there’s no excuse for not doing the work, especially if you make your living covering the game.

Saying “we just don’t know what these coaches are doing” is no longer viable. The information is there for those who want it. If you’re not willing to go get it, what does that say about you?