The Times West Virginian

April 20, 2009

Pluses, minuses to having QB call own plays

By Bob Hertzel

MORGANTOWN — Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of this year’s spring football at West Virginia University was a statement quarterback Jarrett Brown made after the spring game.

“I want to get to the point where I can call plays myself,” the quarterback admitted after the game, repeating something that had been revealed briefly in a pre-spring press conference and at times as the spring went on.

There are two schools of thought concerning the quarterback calling his own plays.

They would be the right school and the wrong school … and it has been well documented over the years that quarterbacks have enough to do without calling plays.

Having a coach call plays began far back in the 1950s, back before we had electronic this and computerized that. A coach named Paul Brown, who simply reinvented the game from the face mask and draw play on up, began sending in “messenger guards” carrying each play.

This evolved into some coaches having the quarterback come to the sideline for plays, sending in wide receivers with the plays, signaling in plays and, in the NFL now, sending in plays via radio transmissions which are received in the quarterback’s helmet.

The idea, of course, was quite simple.

You don’t put your slowest runner at running back. You don’t put your poorest passer at quarterback. What you want is your most qualified player doing those jobs.

Well, Paul Brown wanted the most qualified person he had calling plays — himself.

Coaches spend far, far more of their time studying films of the defense, picking up on tendencies, understanding what will work and what won’t work.

Even though the professionals have their quarterbacks full time all week, every week, they tend to keep their quarterbacks from calling plays.

If that’s the case, certainly collegiate quarterbacks can’t be qualified enough to call plays. All coaches do in their free time is complain that they can only have their players for a limited time each week, so certainly they have enough trouble getting them to remember the plays they are going to run, no less understand the entire playbook enough to call plays while on the field also thinking about their duties on that play.

Rich Rodriguez, when he coached West Virginia, always maintained that he wasn’t going to put his career in the hands of a teenager by letting him call the plays.

Of course, had he let his quarterback do some play calling against Pitt in 2007 he might have won a national championship, but that’s another story altogether.

Play calling is an art. It comes from knowledge and from having a feel.

A year ago, Jeff Mullen, the offensive coordinator, took over those duties, and after wondering about some of the bubble screens instead of Patrick White or Noel Devine runs it is easy to understand why there may be sentiment somewhere that the quarterback can do it as well or better.

There is nothing written that says a coach becomes an offensive genius simply because he has the duty of calling plays. It’s just an assumption that he knows more than a college quarterback about what he wants the offense to do when he can do it.

Now there are drawbacks from taking the play calling away from the quarterback. They are out there in the center of the action, looking into the eyes of a wide receiver who comes back and says, “Run that play again. I can beat that man.”

However, those are things that should be relayed to the bench and decided upon by the man whose job is to make the calls and who is paid accordingly.

One wonders if an offensive coordinator — or head coach, if he is the play caller — isn’t sort of passing the buck by putting play calling into the hands of the quarterback rather than living and dying with what he believes in. Rest assured, Don Nehlen took a lot of criticism for all those third-and-long draw plays that got him into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Should a quarterback have the right to audible? That’s a different question and the answer would seem to be yes, but it probably should be into a pre-arranged play. If a team shows up in a defense aimed at stopping a run up the middle, there must be a weakness in it outside or to a pass.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of a coach calling his own plays can be found far back in Paul Brown’s original decision. He opted to go with messenger guards.

His first messenger was a guard named Chuck Noll.

You might have heard of him. He went on to win four Super Bowls with the Steelers, but as a player he was nothing but a messenger boy for Paul Brown.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at