Late this week a minicontroversy erupted when former Jets defensive coordinator and current Browns head coach Mike Pettine guessed Bill Belichick might have gotten a copy of the Jets' playbook from Nick Saban. This has become a story in part because not much is going on with the NFL at this time of year. Many people have provided good arguments for why this isn't a big deal. Let me give you another. Even if the Patriots have an up to date copy of the Jets' playbook, it will not provide them much of an advantage.
Those turning this into a major issue don't really understand the way an NFL team prepares for games. There are many great descriptions on the web. Pat Kirwan wrote one a few years back.
A coach's master playbook can contain about 1,000 plays -- pretty much anything he would ever consider calling in a game. Every bomb, blitz and blocking scheme is in there somewhere, along with every gadget play and goal-line scenario. And every call has its roots somewhere in that all-encompassing bible, which every coach is forever adding to and carrying with him from job to job.
At the end of the day, the team is down to about 30 or 35 plays that make up any given week's game plan. The play-call sheet will sort them by down and distance -- five or so first-down plays, seven plays for second downs between 5 and 7 yards, and so on. The 60 to 65 plays a team is likely to run on Sunday will come from that game plan -- and opponent-specific play-call sheet.
These numbers can vary a little bit, but the moral of the story is the same. Well over 90% of the playbook is completely off the table before any game starts.
Now think this through. You have one week to prepare for the next opponent. Is it remotely plausible you can prepare your players and install a plan against 1,000 different plays in that time? Remember, on top of this there are numerous other tasks you have to fit in to get ready for the game.
Hopefully you're starting to see the absurdity of anybody making this out to be a remotely big deal. You might have plays on paper, but that doesn't tell you how frequently a team runs them or tendencies in given situations. Teams want to find these things, though, so every club has what are known as quality control coaches. A big part of their job is to watch the opponent on film and diagram every play they run. So every opponent already has the playbook of plays you have run. This is way more effective than the hard playbook by the way because they can pinpoint what you are most likely to do. What about the plays you haven't run? Good luck guessing the correct 20-30 for that week out of over 900 choices.
And even if you did it's not like that's going to make you successful. Peyton Manning's teams don't really do a whole lot complicated. He has operated from essentially the same set of core plays his entire career. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl a while back on the strength of a great defense that seldom mixed things up. If you know what the other guy is doing, and the other guy is more talented you will lose.
At any rate, I can understand why some folks turned this into a story. It sounds like a big deal, and there isn't much going on. It really isn't, though. This isn't the first time it has happened either. There are plenty of examples. Just last year there was some really awful analysis of the Jets' loss to the Bengals that somehow former Jets and then Bengals quarterback Greg McElroy and his knowledge of what the Jets did made a big difference. It didn't. It also won't even if Bill Belichick has the Jets' entire playbook in his hands.