Focus On The Play Caller … Thursday Cup O’Chiefs

I’m not sure when the first time it happened that television pointed its unblinking eye toward the top of stadiums to focus on the offensive or defensive play caller. Once that curtain was pulled back and the “wizard” was exposed, the guy punching the buttons during pro football games became the rock stars of coaching.

Whether the play caller is in a box hanging from the highest reaches of the stadium, or on the sidelines close to the crush of bodies, the coordinators are under the microscope.

The only problem with that is frequently, the coordinator isn’t the guy making the play calls. The formula and method for making decisions and then getting offensive plays and defensive schemes communicated to the players on the field is as varied as the number of teams in the league.

Everyone has wondered who was going to call the plays for the Chiefs offense this year, ever since Charlie Weis rode the Gator Express out of town to the University of Florida. That’s when the play caller job popped open on the offensive side of the ball. On Wednesday, Todd Haley said that offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Bill Muir would be dialing up the selections for the K.C. offense in the 2011 season.

But … and there’s always a but in stories about deciding who has responsibility for calling the plays … it’s not so simple as Muir sitting in the coaching booth and communicating a selected play to the field and QB Matt Cassel.

It wasn’t that simple when Weis was in the coordinator’s post last year. Invariably, if the play was a run, Muir was the guy who called the particular play. He was in charge of the game planning for the run each week. If it was a passing play, Weis generally picked the play, if the head coach did not.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Haley is going to be involved in the play selection for the Chiefs offense on game day. There’s no question he’s involved in the game planning and decisions on what plays might be used each week. How involved remains unknown, but given Haley’s background, his personality and his job to run the team, there’s no doubt that he actively has his finger in the offensive pie.

“I’m involved,” Haley said during training camp when asked for the 100th time about the play calling situation. “I have been and I always will be. That’s part of my job of leading the whole operation here.”

There is nothing unusual about that approach. It wouldn’t be extraordinary even if Haley admitted that he called all the plays on game day. Mike Shanahan has been doing that for years with the Broncos and now the Redskins. Various people hold the title of offensive coordinator, but that doesn’t mean they pick the plays. Norv Turner in San Diego, Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, Jason Garrett in Dallas, Sean Payton in New Orleans, Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Hue Jackson with the Raiders, Chan Gailey with Buffalo and at Arrowhead Stadium this week – those are just a few of the head coaches that call their own plays if not 100 percent of the time, then close to every play. Same on the flip side where Tampa Bay’s Raheem Morris, St. Louis’ Steve Spagnuolo, Leslie Frazier in Minnesota and Bill Belichick with the Patriots are all head coaches with duties calling defensive signals during games.

So how involved has Haley been in training camp and the pre-season with Muir was calling the play?

“About the same that it’s been,” Haley said. “There are in-week thoughts, contributions during practice, at night in meetings. We get it to a point that Friday comes along and we have our end of the week meeting to finalize our thoughts. The quarterbacks are included in all that. It’s a group contribution of what we like, where we like it, where to place it on the call sheet. But ultimately, it will fall to Bill to make those decisions (on game day).”

Haley, Muir, assistant head coach Maurice Carthon and QB coach Jim Zorn have all called offensive plans before. With Haley it was two years as play caller in Arizona and then the ’09 season after he fired Chan Gailey as coordinator during his first year with the Chiefs. Carthon served as offensive coordinator for three different teams – Lions, Cowboys and Browns – from 2002 through 2006. Muir spent seven years as offensive coordinator for Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay (2002-08). Zorn’s experience as a coordinator goes back to coaching on the college level after he retired as an NFL player.

Haley says the whole idea of the game-day play caller is overrated. It’s the work done during the week, with game plans, practices, tape review that matter more than dialing up certain Xs to go against the other team’s Os on Sunday afternoon.

“I believe that, I do,” said Haley. “Through experience, having been in a lot of different areas on the offensive side of the ball, that’s why practice is so important; it’s understanding the plays you are trying to run. The understanding of what you are going to see from the defense and predict that as best you can. We work real hard during the week at trying to get more and more comfortable what we are going to see defensively.

“The biggest thing with play calling is the guy who is scripting through the week. That’s really how you get the final feel for calling the plays; you script the plays you want against the defenses you expect to see. The guy that is doing the majority of that during the week ultimately has the best feel for what he thinks he’ll see and what we think we can run with the best chance to succeed against that defense.”

With the Chiefs, the only voice that Cassel hears in his helmet on the communication system belongs to Zorn, who gets the play from Muir in the coaching box over his headset. Both Zorn and Muir are plugged into that system to Haley, who can speak directly to everyone but Cassel.

For Cassel, in his fourth season as a starting NFL quarterback, he’s dealing with his fourth different play caller. In 2008 it was Josh McDaniels in New England, then Haley in 2009, Weis in 2010 and now Muir this year.

“He’s got a tremendous presence about him,” Cassel said of Muir. “He commands respect. He’s been in the league longer than I’ve been alive. Everybody respects that fact and he controls the room. I think he does a great job of getting the information to the guys and making them understand what has to be accomplished on a week to week basis.”

Also different for Cassel is the presence on the sideline of Zorn, a former NFL starting quarterback and the first time in his NFL career that he’s had a QB coach who was actually a NFL passer. With Zorn in his ear and handling most of the discussions on the field during timeouts or in between possessions, it also provides a buffer between the starting QB and the head coach.

Last week in Green Bay, Haley seemed to purposely stay away from sideline huddles during timeouts, allowing Zorn to handle things directly with Cassel.

“The way we have it set up is he’s on the field, so that lends itself to great communication between him and the quarterbacks,” said Haley. “I don’t know if it’s anything happening intentionally, but I think it shows the comfort level with knowing that he’s saying and coaching that we as a staff and me as the head coach want passed along.

“I’m not saying there are not going to be situations where I want to or need to talk to Matt.”

Or Muir and Zorn. As the head coach of the Chiefs, Todd Haley is going to talk to everyone when it comes to offense. It’s his specialty, it’s his team and it’s his butt if things don’t work out.

Starting Sunday against the Bills, everyone finds out how this offensive puzzle is going to get pieced together in 2011. It will not be like it was in 2009, or 2010. It’s a brand new picture.

6 Responses to “Focus On The Play Caller … Thursday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • September 8, 2011  - Milkman says:

    Let’s hope this works better than the last time we had an offensive line coach- turned offensive co-ordinator calling plays.

  • September 8, 2011  - Nathan says:

    I think if it doesn’t work out so well Haley will be quick to pull the trigger and either let Zorn do it or call the plays himself.
    I don’t think he’s too worried about hurting anyone’s feelings.

  • September 8, 2011  - RW says:

    And to think about that time long ago when the QB called his own plays…..

  • September 8, 2011  - pharmer says:

    I think that the point here is that the prep work is a lot more important than who actually calls the plays on a play by play basis. I’m not sure why people are so quick to dismiss Muir’s abilities. This ain’t his first rodeo. It sounds like he actually called the running plays last year anyway. If I recall correctly, we had the best running attack in the league. Who was calling the passing plays last year? Maybe they should find a different job. Oh, that’s right……….

  • September 8, 2011  - el cid says:

    Execution of plays called might be a smig more important than who the caller is.

    Are the Chiefs sufficiently prepared to execute any game plan? I heard on NFL channel, conditioning and fitness will be an issue at the end of the year, Haley’s view is being accepted. But no one, yet, is talking about Haley’s way being the correct way to go.

    Now for the Bills, can the Chiefs be more than vanilla on offense? We do not have any of the plays left where Moeaki leads the way. As of yet, has Breaston or Urban shown the “connection” with Cassel like Bowe? Do we have the ability to stretch the field at least at the beginning of the year? If Bowe is taken out of the game, is there any kind of passing attack left? Maybe we just run the ball all game long? Charles, McClain, and McC with Jones as relief?

  • September 8, 2011  - TDKC says:

    There appeared to be some lag in getting the plays to Matt in the preseason. Hope they were just working out the kinks.

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