Upstairs or downstairs?
Is the most effective offensive play calling produced high up from the coaching box or down low from the sideline?
Varied philosophies across the league this season illustrate that no one has a definitive answer — but everyone has a preference.
Some play callers insist being upstairs gives them a more complete view. They like working in silence and away from often maddening confusion on the sidelines.
Those who work from the sideline say having direct, eye-to-eye contact with their quarterback and with other offensive players gives them a better play-calling feel. It adds personality to their calls.
Some NFL general managers have told me they prefer their offensive coordinators work from upstairs but acquiesce to their OC’s desire to be on the field. They say too many of them who work from the sidelines want to be on camera, want to be recognized in TV coverage when their offense works. They believe these coordinators see this approach as a way to increase their stature and visibility, to enhance their chances of head coaching opportunities. Other general managers say they don’t care whether their play caller is upstairs or downstairs — as long as the offense sings.
The league’s top scoring offenses thus far illustrates the divide. The Atlanta Falcons own the No. 1 scoring offense (32.0 points scored per game). Their player caller, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, works upstairs. The San Diego Chargers are No. 2 (29.2 points scored per game) and their play caller, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, works from the sideline.
Wisenhunt’s view of upstairs/downstairs is unique.
“We won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh (in 2006) with me calling it from the box and we lost one with Arizona (2009) with me calling it from the sideline,” Whisenhunt said. “So, since I’ve done both, I see the pluses and minuses to both. There isn’t any question that you see more of the field from upstairs. But there isn’t any question that you are more detached.
“The thing I do like the most now being on the sideline is I can see, feel, hear. I can interact directly with the quarterback, see the look on his face when we are talking plays and strategy. That’s a big thing. I’ve changed plays, changed the attack based on that during games.”
Shanahan said this is his first year calling plays upstairs in the coach’s box. He has embraced the change.
“You weren’t allowed to talk to the quarterback at length before up there and this is the first year for that,” Shanahan said. “You had to talk to someone else who then got the play to the quarterback. That cost you four seconds. Once the rule changed, I wanted to try it out. I’ve found it to be more relaxing. You get to gather your thoughts. Study. See what happens more clearly. Prepare better. Spread out your work. On the sidelines, you see pictures, you’re talking, distracted. There are less distractions up there.
“Now,” he added, “if you go from the coach’s box to the field for the first time, that’s a huge difference. But from the field to up there, the transition is easier. You’re going from hectic to calm and the other way around is much more of a challenge. I still get to talk to (quarterback) Matt (Ryan). We’ll get on the headset when he’s on the sideline and I’ll say, `Let’s look at play No. 28 here this next series going out, make sense?’ He gives me the feedback. I don’t think you miss anything in communication there.”
The Dallas Cowboys, who own the NFL’s best record (9-1) and who rank third in scoring offense along with the New Orleans Saints (each averages 28.5 points scored per game) feature offensive coordinator Scott Linehan on the sidelines working with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. When Dallas plays Washington on Thanksgiving Day, scrutinize the working relationship between Linehan and Prescott.
“There’s no question that Scott being right there on the sideline with Dak, and especially with Dak being a rookie, makes a difference for us,” Cowboys executive Stephen Jones said. “Scott believed in Dak all along. He’s a big reason we drafted Dak. Both being right there on the sidelines clicks for us.”
Linehan, in the 2005 season as Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator for then head coach Nick Saban, called the first 10 Dolphins games upstairs in the coach’s box and the final six downstairs on the sideline.
He said moving down helped him have a direct line to Saban and gain Sabin’s direct input on strategy. Linehan said that he learned plenty as a coach watching Saban work and massage the overall team.
“The NFL is such a fast game,’’ Linehan said. “The time between each series is so critical. During our timeouts here, I have the starting quarterback sit to my right and the backup sits to my left. We get great communication from upstairs and the communication is constant. That’s a settling thing for a quarterback. Maybe it’s a better thing for a young quarterback.”
The big push
As teams continue to make their playoff push, look for an offensive tactic that is becoming routine — offensive linemen, fullbacks, and others creating a push, creating momentum behind ball carriers, particularly in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Defenses are finding that they often have ball carriers initially stymied in several of these situations only to find the runners’ teammates create a final push that creates decisive yards.
“It’s always been there,” Wisenhunt said. “It’s illegal to leave your feet to do it but it’s not to just simply push the pile. Some teams teach it. Most of them just find this is an organic thing that is happening. You get a 300-pound lineman pushing a 200-pound back for those final, extra yards, and that is a big thing to deal with.”
Pushing the pile at the right time, in the right moments is, literally, winning NFL games.
Three free agent gems
These three free agent signees have made superb contributions to their teams — Detroit Lions receiver Marvin Jones, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals; Atlanta center Alex Mack, formerly of the Cleveland Browns; and New York Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins, formerly of the Rams.
They call Jenkins the ``Jackrabbit.’’
His Giants defensive coaches call him special.
One those coaches told me: “He (Jenkins) is taking the top receiver in our games and doing the job. He is not scared of any challenge. Some corners act like they want that challenge, but really don’t. He does. He means it. He is aggressive. Even if you beat him, he’ll line up and come back for more. He’s not a big talker. But he’s all action. He’s changed our defense.”
As the season heads toward December, only three teams are undefeated at home: the Houston Texans (5-0), the Seattle Seahawks (5-0), and the Philadelphia Eagles (4-0).
For the Eagles — 5-5 and in last place in the NFC East — their resolve at home helps to make them a genuine playoff contender.
Philadelphia plays four of its final six games at home. After Green Bay visits on Monday night, the Eagles play December home games against divisional foes Washington and the Giants, and then finish the regular season at home against Dallas.
How good have the Eagles been at home? They have outscored opponents at Lincoln Financial Field, 108-38.