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GGN Chalkboard: What's in a playbook

For many coaches the playbook is sacred. It's a bible of sorts, showcases everything they know and hold dearly. But what goes in it? Here's the break down

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This post is for those of us who are curious what exactly is in the playbook or who are curious what they would find. For those that don't know what it's a playbook, think of blueprints for a team from top to bottom. It can cover everything from plays to meeting times for practices. As a former coach of youth football and a person who loves going through playbooks and understanding the concepts within, I've seen probably close to a hundred of these bad boys. Each is unique and offer insights to a coach and even to his personality.

I've seen high school level playbooks that are hundreds of pages long, and some college ones that are fairly short. For example, my high school  playbook was about 200 pages long for just the offense. (Although as a lineman, I only had the running plays and a brief page on pass protection, because I didn't need to know the receiver routes.)

An extreme example of how detailed playbooks can be: Here's a huddle procedure on defense for one team I found combing through their playbook. There was a full page after this dealing with no huddle offenses and how to react to boot.


For every coach, there are multiple ways of creating a playbook, but usually all have a few things in common:

Positional names: In every playbook within the first few pages there is a listing of the names of the personnel on offense and defense. For example: the weak side OLB can be referred to as the Will linebacker in the 3-4 but could also be called the Will, Wall, Whip, Backside, "B" and I'm sure there's plenty of more. Here's an example of how a team would lay out positions names and/or what side of the field they are responsible for:

Michigan Names

Here's another example from an old Army playbook. The weak OLB in this is called the K and most of the other names are changed as well. The names of positions change from one to the other.

OLB names

And another team and how they label their positions:

labeling 3

Other example of names being changed include running back. The position can be called RB, HB, and T-back. In our high school that person was called the K back. The TE was referred to as the L in the wing-T playbook I used in high school as well.

You've undoubtedly heard the terms X, Y, Z thrown around on TV to describe a what position a WR plays, but this can also vary team to team. I don't have any concrete examples on this one, but I have seen a few playbooks in the past with some wacky letters for the WR position.

Once you have position names down, the real meat of the playbook comes into play.

Team philosophy: Most playbooks start with this or positional names hence it's spot here.  I think it's interesting to learn what a coach's mindset is by reading this section. This is a brief introduction to the team's goals, fundamentals, and general strategy. I've seen everything from stats a team wants (a certain number of sacks or yards per play), to goals (college bowl games or wins in a season), to even phrases to describe their mindsets (play like a Jet or Play like a Champion)  While unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, this is a chance for a coach to write in words what the culture of the team will be. Again, depending on the coach, team or level of competition philosophies can be short or pages long.

Here are some examples I've found of philosophies of coaches written down on the pages of a playbook:

philosphy 2

A shorter  end to this section of the playbook I found online is a little more motivational than the other:

Philosophy 1

Formations: Now we are getting into the nuts and bolts of the playbook. For every team, there are multiple formations for everything, including special teams. I remember one time listening to Mike Westhoff talk about depending on the team and situation he would have multiple formations... ON THE KICKOFF! And not just for the onside team either.

This section of the playbook is generally lengthy, because it will cover everything from personnel (how many WR, RB, TE...etc) to the position on the field of each man. Almost all have a visual representation of the formation used on offense or defense. Additionally some but not all playbooks have words explaining word for word where and how to line up.

Here's an example from the Army playbook which is unsurprisingly detailed. It includes exactly the specific stance a player should use and where a player should keep his eyes for some positions.

Details Details

One team instead opts for showing offensive formations without much description:

Offensive formations

Playbooks do have some common ground:

On defense, they will show the base defense against a common offensive lineup and then show how to adapt the formation to several different offensive formations. As an example:  A 3-4  defense adjusts against 3 WR routes by splitting out his weak side LB.  He would move off the weak side tackle with his hand on the ground in running formations. In 5 wide formations, it adjusts having 5 men inside the tackle boxes with one of the ILB'ers covering the slot WR's. So for each package (3-4, Nickel, dime etc) they may have 10-30 combinations of where exactly everyone should line up.

Here's how one team adjusts responsibilities in a 46 to several formations, and even motions from WR and RB's.

Formations changes

Speaking of different defensive formations, this section also would have personnel substitutions in the formation area, such as nickel, dime, and run stopping packages in this area. They would list the different packages as well as assignments here.

On offense it's a bit more complicated. You would have list of formations (see previous example of how a team may do this) and personnel combinations based off of the people on the field.

How many combinations could you have with 2 WR, 1 TE and 2 RB? The answer is a lot if one considers whether the backs line up in split backs, I formation, strong I, or split out as a 3rd WR. The TE could be tight, on the left, right, or split out as a slot WR or even the farthest WR. Usually coaches will have a way to call out personnel, then call out a specific formation with that personnel. This varies coach to coach.

Here's an example of 4 ways a 3 WR, 2 RB 1 TE can be morphed and also how a team would label the formations:

TE formations

In this example: you can see it's a totally different system with numbers replacing left and right which designate where WR's will line up. Also the names of the formations were changed book to book.

Different formations

Terminology is key here. Going back a few years, Brian Schottenheimer's system was said to be very complex with long names for formations, motions and plays.  Other systems use one word names for formations like the above examples. Depending on the coach, formations and their details covered in this section fluctuates between long and War and Peace long.


What would a playbook be without the actual plays? A formation book? Depending on the system, this section is one of the longest, along with formations. The reason: almost always the play has several variants when it comes to the opposing teams formations and also their tendencies. For instance, if you were running a running play, the lineman would block differently with a 3-4 than a 4-3 or a 46 front. On defense, coverages on blitzes change based on the formation, and even who blitzes can change based on where everyone lines up.

Here's how one running play changes based on the defensive front

Blocking changes

Let's try to break the play section into different parts for the sake of simplicity:

Play name- Every play has a name. Every playbook has the name of all of the plays. It is that simple. However, many teams name things in different ways. Let's take "lanes" running backs can run through. Growing up the left side of the line was always the odd numbers, 1 referred to in between the left guard and center, 3 was over the guard and tackle, etc. Evens were on the right.

even odd

Other systems start all the way outside of the left end and work there way to the right or vice versa like you see here.

Right to left

A play to the 1 hole could mean straight up the middle in the first playbook or be a stretch play to the outside in the second. Imagine playing 10 years and having to relearn every hole number because the coaches use different systems:

Did I mention that some systems don't label the holes you run to, but instead label the plays based off of an arbitrary system? For example, this scheme makes you memorize each type of play style instead of a hole number:

west coast

Forget learning hole numbers. Now you have to know the play concept number!

Another example is wide receiver routes. Some coaches will call the concept name for a play. EX Banana right. Another system may favor the calling the play by the exact routes the receivers will run (corner-hitch right). Others will use numbers for concepts so 8 would respond to a corner route and 508 would be the play call.  This playbook uses a number system based off of where a player lines up and a route number to call plays.

Number system

This one opts for naming the plays by the name of the route instead.

one style

This is perhaps the biggest area in which every coach is different. Again the word "terminology" is used to describe the changes in how plays are called. The last section is based off the previous sections.

Picture diagram of the play- This is the one that depends on the coach as you can see above. A few coaches hand draw routes, blocking assignments etc and yet other coaches write out exactly the assignments. Both examples above show the different styles, with one option for writing out the drop backs and routes, and the other showing the diagram and only that. The key is here to have a way to show or tell the team how everything should look on game day. Usually this section will have multiple examples of the individual play based off the other teams formations as we showed above.


Odds ends and other things: Cadences (hut,hut,hike) are sometimes different. Generally that's the easiest thing to adjust to as a player but is also covered in playbooks. Some playbooks have plays listed by situation. The most famous is the west coast offense. Others will have "scripts" which are literally a list of plays you run right off the bat of a game, regardless of situation. Other coaches opt for showing all the plays and worry about the situation themselves. Some coaches make it a point to go into detail on when/how/why a play or formation will be used in a game time situation.Again coaches preference.


This is just a general guide of what you can see inside a playbook if you found one on the street or online. By no means is this a complete look at every intricacy, but you can see why players struggle when adjusting to new teams under the new CBA.

One last note. A playbook is sacred, although you can find old playbooks online, coaches try to keep it under wraps. Kevin O'Connoll famously spent time as the human Patriots playbook for the Jets at the height of Rex's success. Coaches will do anything to prevent another coach from getting their hands on a current version of their playbook this way they can keep some of their secrets to themselves.

Also, The Waterboy wasn't too far off for how some coaches react to losing their playbooks.