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'Turtles and colors and stuff': Fun play call cards making it hard for NFL to evaluate QBs

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What has become a must for many college football teams is making life difficult for pro coaches and general managers.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

From Auburn to Oregon to NC State and all points in between, more and more college football teams are holding up cards with memorable pictures to call plays.

You’ve seen them before. They might have Kenny Powers and Rick Ross, an obscure Simpsons character or any other seemingly random image. If you’re Dana Holgerson, your play call sign might be an ode to your love for Red Bull.

These signs are unique to college football. They’re used to help teams run their offenses faster. It eases the mental workload on a quarterback because players can look to the sidelines instead of going into a huddle. They're also used in a lot of concepts that don't require the quarterback to change the call or decipher the complexities of a defense.

The proliferation of the sign is becoming bothersome to some in the NFL. Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said it’s making it harder to evaluate quarterbacks.

"It’s hard to evaluate those players at the college level when they look over to the sidelines," Schneider said at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday. "The cards look like turtles and colors and stuff and you have no idea what they’re doing, as compared to watching a guy under center, reading a defense, checking a play."

Coaches and general managers at the combine seemed more concerned about quarterbacks who relied on cards than those who often run with the ball. Simply looking over at a card eliminates many of the key traits an NFL quarterback has to possess. Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith stressed that card quarterbacks involve much more guesswork.

"I don’t know that they can’t play in our league, but it becomes more of a projection when you’re trying to determine if a guy can go in a huddle, call a play, go to the line of scrimmage, make an adjustment, take a snap, read a coverage and deliver the ball," Smith said.

Coaches talkin' signals

It can be a touchy subject for quarterbacks because they’re simply operating out of the offense that’s in place at the school. At Baylor, for instance, Bryce Petty rarely had to run through a call or work under center. That changed at the Senior Bowl, where the Tennessee Titans coaching staff made him play from under center and call plays from a huddle.

"You don’t know things until you live it out. You can hear about it as much as you want, but until you’re actually in there and doing it, you have no idea," Petty said. "It’s a learning curve a little bit, going from what we were doing at Baylor to what we’re doing now, but it’s all part of the process."

Petty may have been the benefactor of participating in the Senior Bowl. It was an opportunity some quarterbacks, like Marcus Mariota of Oregon, turned down despite playing in offenses that rely heavily on cards.

"It’s getting harder and harder in my opinion. It’s so unique, then seeing those guys go to the Senior Bowl and go under center and see people move around — how they’re moving the pocket and how they adjust," Schneider said. "It’s harder now because you see a lot of these guys look over to the sidelines. I know, me personally, you make several mistakes in that regard. You may question the guy’s decision making. You may value it higher just because of his intellectual level or what a good football guy he is. But then you don’t truly know because he’s looking over at the sidelines looking at cards."

In head coach Mike Leach's offense at Washington State, quarterback Connor Halliday said he had to look over to the sidelines for about half of his plays. At the combine, he said it's up to him to prove his football aptitude during interview sessions with teams.

"You have to show how well and how quickly you can draw up a front, draw up linebacker fronts and safety rotations," Halliday said.

When he spoke at the combine, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians seemed frustrated by the use of cards in college football.

"So many times you’re evaluating a quarterback who has never called a play in the huddle and never used a snap count," Arians said. "They hold up a card on the sideline, he kicks his foot and throws the ball. That ain’t playing quarterback. There is no leadership involved there. Now there may be leadership on the bench, but when you get in there … they’re light years behind."