If-Then Play Calling from the Field

As an offensive coordinator, I was lucky to coach the game from the box. Yes, that amazing climate controlled pod where I had good lighting, room to spread out my call sheets, and see everything from a bird’s eye view. And there was normally a hot dog or two waiting for me when I returned from making half-time adjustments. It was glorious! But then I moved to the field. 

What a terrible place to focus on calling an offense. The weather is very uncooperative, there is nowhere to write, everything has to be laminated, the fans are constantly giving you their brutally honest feedback, officials and players are running into your space and then there is the yelling.


This adrenaline filled environment is not ideal for the methodical, surgical-like precision of play calling that you had imagined when you played the game in your head. You imagined playing chess and it is more like a UFC fight with a GWAR concert in the background.

I was forced to the field because I was coaching an inexperienced QB and I had to be on call for all the support I could possibly give. Then, I became the head coach and we all know you can not hide in the box with that title.

No matter what the reason for being on the field, you have to embrace the environment and figure out how to succeed (including how to call your plays easily).

When designing a concept, I am always looking for solutions to potential problems. Then I do my best to strategically stand in a position to witness those potential problems. Based on what I see it triggers my if/then statements. I have been using If-Then play calling since before they became popular.

If-Then statements are simply a systematic or logical way of approaching play design and calling. The easiest way is based on fronts/coverages. IF I see an odd stack defense, THEN I will call buck sweep. IF I see Cover 3, THEN I call 4 Verts.

While calling a play based on front and coverage is an important skill, calling the next play is way harder. That’s right, I am always looking for the next play. I believe in creating If-Then statements based on post-snap triggers to either call complimentary plays or tags off of plays.

Below is an example of how we work through the many counters a defense can show us:

If-Then Example: 4 Verts vs. Cover 3

IF the Overhangs Re-route and get under # 1:

THEN keep calling the same play if you can beat the FS with the throw or add motion to get him to move and make a throw easier.

IF the overhangs carry 2 vertical

THEN tag a comeback, slant, or any other route that is caught outside the hashes out of a break

IF all the LB’s drop to at least 12 yards of depth

THEN tag an H screen or draw

Here are some things to keep in mind when If-Then play calling:

  1. Create tags or complimentary plays to help answer all the things that can be potential problems. While this can be very tedious and time consuming, it will pay off on game day and bring simplicity to you on a chaotic adrenaline filled football sideline.
  1. These tags or complimentary plays can be developed in the off season by looking back through film and studying how opponents defended you. Looking at players techniques is way easier than trying to break down entire schemes.
  1. The better you are at creating tags for solutions, then the fewer plays you will need. You don’t need a million solutions to a single problem, just pick a few and get good at them. 
  1. These tags are answers for the coach to call, but teach your QB how to attack a defense with your If-Then scenarios and he will understand why plays are called and be able to better communicate with you. He may also be able to audible to something based on how he sees things on the field.
  1. Watch film with your QB’s and staff and talk them through your thought process as you watch. This will let them better communicate with you on gameday.  
  1. Can you make tags or adjustments automatic? For instance if the corner bails can the outside receiver automatically run a comeback? Everyone has to be on the same page and your players need clearly defined rules. If the corner has maintained his vertical leverage at the 10 yard mark, then you will run a comeback. Leaving room for interpretation will typically result in a WR running deep. 
  1. This is something that should be organized for pass and run game. In fact, an RPO is simply adding an If-Then statement to a run play. IF the LB flows with the run, THEN throw the hitch. This is the most common way we teach a QB to play an RPO in our system.
  1. Train your eyes to watch very specific things on a play. If you can not see them from the field then assign someone in the box to watch them. They need to be very specific with their communication. Based on the example above, if I call four verticals against a zone defense my eyes will go directly to the overhang linebackers to dictate future play calling. If I needed a box coach to communicate with me he would say, “the overhang carried vertical so tag comeback”. I just got feedback and an educated play suggestion in 7 words. That is efficiency. 
  1. Examine your play call sheet and how it is organized. Can you incorporate If-Then statements to make play calling simpler?


Our staff works very hard to have answers for problems. That is what being an offensive coordinator is all about.

Finding simple solutions to complex problems.

Being on the field and trying to get a global perspective can be very difficult, but by simplifying and compartmentalizing you can make the most of the situation.

This article was originally published in Headsets: Volume 1, Issue 1.


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