So You Think You Can Be A Play Caller?
Take A Close Look At What Goes Into The Decision-Making Process Of Calling Plays
North Texas offensive coordinator Mike Canales during pre-game warmups at the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
DENTON - From a small room high up in the press box of Apogee Stadium, North Texas offensive coordinator Mike Canales studies the field below, like a chess player scrutinizing the board, and considers his next move.
The room is buzzing with coaches' conversation and the discord of the stadium, but Canales's brain filters the cacophony, focusing relentlessly on the task at hand:
• Analyze the situation - field position, time of the game, the score, down and distance. He takes into account the weather and the condition of the playing surface.
• Dissect the opponent - hours and hours and hours of film study have gone into evaluating defensive personnel, breaking down a vast array of statistics to survey their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
• Consider which of his players are available - have any of them been knocked out of the game? Is anyone still on the field limited by injury?
• Diagnose his own team's tendencies and his own play calling earlier in this game - what plays has he set up? Will the defense be looking for looking for the reverse? Has he called the running play that will make the defense vulnerable up a play-action pass?
• Finally, evaluate the opposing defensive coordinator - what is he likely to do? What are his tendencies? Where are his strengths and weaknesses, and what surprises might he bring into play?
Then Canales makes the play call.
The entire process takes about seven seconds. That's all a coordinator has to call a play with time enough to relay the call to the sidelines and out to the quarterback in time to get the ball snapped before the play clock runs out.
"I love the analytical thinking it takes," Canales said. "You hope you put your players in position to execute the play. There's so many variables involved, you just hope you call the right play to give your kids the chance to be successful.
"Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's not," he smiled. "The play was a hell of a call, but we didn't execute it."
Play calling is perhaps the one thing in sports that every fan believes he could do, in large part because it's something most fans have been doing since they were kids. Long before the days of video-game football, table-top board games like APBA Pro Football, All-American Football, and the immortal Strat-O-Matic (still going strong since its debut in 1968) allow fans to choose offensive and defensive formations and make play calls. I called my first game in 1970 playing Vince Lombardi's Game, going head-to-head with the legendary Green Bay coach - or at least against a sheet of plays Lombardi presumably had some input into selecting.
But no matter how painstakingly researched and well-designed those games may be, it's nothing like the real thing. It's simply not possible to simulate the avalanche of information and sensory input that a coordinator must process in a matter of seconds.
Canales's own training for the job began on the field, where he played quarterback from the time he was 10 years old.
"I loved the intricacies of the position," he explained. "I had to look at the secondary, the front line, the linebackers. The quarterback has to know all the run-blocking schemes, the pass-blocking schemes, all the coverages, all the fronts, all the blitzes. Was it an over front, an under front, a bear front, a double-eagle front. Was it a crossfire blitz, was it a cowboy from the boundary, was it a crush corner, was it a free-safety trail, a strong-safety trail. What was it?
"Being able to think that fast, process it, and know that this takes me here that takes me there and I got to look here and I got to look there. It has to happen that fast when you play that position."
After his playing days at Utah State, Canales declined a chance to play in Canada and went into coaching, beginning as a graduate assistant at Brigham Young where he learned from coaches like Lavelle Edwards, Norm Chow and Mike Holmgren.
"Here's a bunch of mad scientists, and I was just a sponge," Canales said. "I walked away with five big notebooks. I wrote down everything they said, and it just made it worse. I was constantly drawing and writing. Then I started training myself, watching games, thinking what I would call in that situation."
And he's never stopped.
"I always had a pen and paper, a napkin, a note pad, something because I was always thinking of something," he said. "I just loved that part of the game. I always wanted to be a play caller."
In his 23 years of play calling, Canales has worked from both the sidelines and the press box, and found the two offer different perspectives of the game.
"From the press box, it's like chess pieces," he said. "I feel more comfortable up top, because I feel I can control the pieces and can see things a little better. From the field, you get more of a feel for how the game's going and how the players are doing, the flow of the game. But I've always felt more comfortable up top, because I can always see the chess pieces. And I love playing chess."
Just not during the season. Once the season starts, the coach's obsession turns manic. Canales is up every day at 4:30 a.m. and doesn't get to sleep until midnight or later, and, like most coaches, his day is consumed with football.
"My body gets in that mindset and it doesn't know any better," he said. "That's just the way it is, I can't shut it off."
He pays the price, however, when the season is finished.
"About a week after the final game, my mind and body just shut down and I get sick," Canales said. "It happens every year, for the last 15-20 years. I just get sicker than a dog."
It's a price he's happy to pay to do the thing he loves.