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Understanding Offensive Terminology
By Coach Wade

The play calling system used in most of this web site is one developed about a billion years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth. I think Ug and Zug, the original football coaches, used this system, which is part of why I chose to use it for this web site. Because almost all football coaches played the sport at one time, and most teams over the past thirty years or so used this system, it establishes a common reference point for the offensive programs described on this web site.

I'd like to give credit to the original inventor of this system, but his name has been lost to posterity. I believe this system was developed by "Bum" Phillips, but I have no evidence other than word of mouth. 

This system uses four parts to describe the following features:

1. Formation ("Wing Right")

2. Ball Carrier ("3" back)

3. Point of attack ("1" Hole)

4. Type of blocking or play description ("Dive")

Using this terminology, a wide variety of formations and plays can be called, making the system versatile enough to be used with nearly any offense. Figure 1 is the play called above, from the Wing-T system.


Figure 1: "Wing Right 31 Dive"

Figure 2 shows the points of attack as described by this system. All odd numbered holes are on the left, and all even numbers are on the right. Holes are numbered from the center/guard gap outward to the sideline. If a play is to strike directly at the center, the number "0" is used.


Figure 2: Hole numbering

Figure 3 shows the numbering system used by the offensive backfield. The Quarterback is always "1", the Tailback "2" and the Fullback is "3".  Some formations, like the Double Wing and Wishbone, use four offensive backs. If this is the case, the "2" back will be any back lined up to the left of the Fullback, and the "4" back will be to his right. A Wingback is considered a halfback, and numbered accordingly. In most split back offenses, the Fullback will be the offensive back on the Tight End side. 


Figure 3: Backfield numbering

Receivers are given letter designations. This reduces confusion when passing plays have primary receivers. For example, on the play shown in Figure 4 the primary receiver is the right side tight end. In the huddle, this play would be "Split right, Y corner, rollout." It is even possible to insert pass routes for all receivers by adding a few quick phrases to the call. Thus the same play becomes "Split right, X drag, Y corner, Z streak, rollout." Backs without pass routes are assigned as blockers. Any time the Wingback is split out farther than three yards from the Tight End, he is considered a Flanker, and here is designated with the receiver letter "Z".


Figure 4: Pass routes are simplified.

Blocking descriptions and play names add another dimension to the play-calling system. Here are some brief examples of descriptions used in this system.

1. "Blast." A blast is a play that usually hits off tackle or to the guard/tackle gap. Using this system, the points of attack are usually either the 4/3 holes or the 6/5 holes. At least one back lead blocks for the ball carrier.

2. "Dive." As shown in figure 1.1, the dive is a quick hitting play from the fullback. It's typically used in short yardage situations such as third and one or fourth and inches. Be warned! The dive is the most common and least successful play in youth football!

3. "Wedge." The wedge is the dive's bigger, more effective brother. Typically run out of formations with line splits of six inches or less, the wedge involves each offensive lineman blocking the outside ribs of the lineman to his inside. What this means is that the guards don't block defenders. Instead they drive their shoulders into the ribs of the center and add their weight and strength to his. The tackles add their weight and strength to the guards, and the entire wedge ends up driving over the hapless defensive tackle or nose tackle that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Don't confuse the wedge with a dive!

4. "Power." Powers are extremely effective plays in which all offensive backs attack the same hole. One back, usually the back farthest from the hole, will carry and all others will lead block for him. Generally formations like the Wing-T and Double Wing offer the best options for powers, because they have three offensive backs in close formation to one another.

5. "Waggle." Waggle is one of those words with obscure definitions, but I typically use it to mean a play in which the quarterback fakes a sweep hand off and then rolls out to the opposite side of the field. Usually one or more linemen will pull to provide pass protection, and receivers will cross the field in the same direction as the QB, giving him the option to run or throw.

6. "Option." The option has a number of different forms, and has made the Wishbone famous at the collegiate level. There are two kinds of options, the "double" and the "triple". A standard triple option features a fullback diving to the 1/2 hole. The QB places the ball in the fullback's belly and moves with him to the hole. If the defensive lineman in the hole moves to tackle the fullback, then the QB pulls the ball back and moves on to the outside while the fullback fakes the dive as if he still had the ball. As the QB moves outside the guards, the halfback takes up a position three yards deep and three yards outside him. At least one defensive player at the point of attack is left unblocked. This allows a double team on another player. As the unblocked defender approaches the QB, the quarterback executes a second "option". If the defender attacks him, the QB will pitch to the halfback trailing him. If the defender hesitates, the QB will keep the football and turn up field. The option can be run without the fullback dive, with just the QB and halfback executing the outside option. This is called the "double" option, and is much more easily taught to younger players.

7. "Sweep." The sweep is a game of tag. The Quarterback takes the snap, and either pitches or hands off to a fast running back, who tries to beat the defense to the sideline and turn up field. 

8. "Pitch/Toss." The pitch or toss is a quick hitting play almost like a sweep, except that the running back is usually stationed outside the guard and does not cross the offensive backfield. These plays are great on first sound.

There are a lot of good points to this play name and nomenclature systems. It's relatively easy to learn and use, and younger kids catch onto it rather quickly. 

Unfortunately, it's not as intuitive as I'd like, and doesn't explain misdirection very well. For example, in the Wing right, 31 dive, we know that the fullback is carrying the football through the "1" hole, but where is the halfback going? Is the quarterback blocking to the back side of the play, or does he fake a roll out and a pass to the split end on that side? These are part of the limitations I tried to ease by adding a blocking and play description call. 

Even worse is the passing. The system offers great versatility in that you can give a specific pass route to any receiver in the offense, but there are five eligible receivers! Thus, in the huddle, you get play names that go on forever, like "Split right, pro, X post, Y curl, Z slant, 2 flat, 4 out." There aren't many ten year olds that are going to remember that by the time they get on the field to tell the QB.

You can speed this up a little by assigning numbers to specific pass routes. This is called the passing tree. Figure 5 shows the passing tree. 


Figure 5: The basic passing tree.

In the huddle, passing plays can be called much more easily, "Split right, pro, 513". Is the same play we called above, without the running backs in the patterns. "X" is the first digit of the code, "Y" is the second, and "Z" is the third. Unfortunately, while this is easier to remember on the way to the huddle, and easier for the individual receivers to remember if you teach your players the passing tree, it also means the quarterback needs a lot of reps and practice if he's going to remember where each receiver is on a given passing play. I suggest a bare minimum of passes anyway, and strongly suggest that you don't mix and match pass routes. Have one or two passes that never change, such as "513" and "321". Then practice the heck out of them. Calling a primary receiver is simply a matter of adding his designator to the play call: "321 Z". This means that everyone runs the pass routes called, and the QB should look or throw to "Z".


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Copyright 2007 Derek A. "Coach" Wade. All rights reserved.