The Key to Play-Calling: Do the Unexpected

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Mike McCarthy

Could anything be more undebatable that this header? Does anyone not agree with the premise? I’m excluding Mike McCarthy of course, because he’s demonstrated for 11-plus years that he has next to no interest in coming up with play calls that a defense isn’t expecting.

I only bring this up now because the Bears game provides some compelling evidence that might even get Big Mike’s attention.

First quarter, 7:12 remaining, 1st-and-10, Bears’ quarterback Mitchell Trubisky play fakes a sweep to Jordan Howard to the left, rolls to the right, throws to seldom used tight end Adam Shaheen, who makes his third catch of the year, 10 yards free of any defender, and rambles for 31 yards. This led to a Chicago field goal.

Second quarter, 9:29 left, 3rd-and-9, Trubisky unexpectedly goes deep to Dontrelle Inman, 26 yards. I’ll grant you that virtually any deep pass by either of these QBs would be unexpected.

Second quarter, 0:57 left, 3rd-and-1 – Trubisky passes to Daniel Brown for seven yards.

Second quarter, 0:38 left, 3rd-and-1, Trubisky passes to Inman for 10 yards.

Third quarter, 12:34 left, 3rd-and-1 – I-formation, Aaron Ripkowski behind Brett Hundley, Jamaal Williams behind him. Hundley play-fakes to Williams, tosses to Ripkowski who slipped out to the right flat, no on within eight yards of him, Ripkowski goes for 12 yards and a first down. You and I could have made the throw – Green Bay’s easiest third down conversion of the year!

Fourth quarter, 10:39 left, 1st-and-10, Joshua Bellamy fakes a short out, unexpectedly goes deep on Davon House, easy 46-yard touchdown throw.

Fourth quarter, 2:12 left, 3rd-and-10 – Hundley unexpectedly throws deep to Davante Adams, who makes a one-handed catch for 42 yards. The TV announcer said this, before and after the game’s biggest play: “They aren’t going to put this in Hundley’s hands… what a call by McCarthy, showing belief and trust in Hundley”

For this game, on 3rd-and-1 calls, pass plays resulted in first downs three out of four times. Run plays went zero for one. I wonder how these percentages would look over an entire year. Even if the percentages are close, in these surprise situations pass plays often go for big yardage or touchdowns, while run plays seldom gain more than a few yards. The best way to get big-yardage plays: do the unexpected.

Can McCarthy Change?

McCarthy’s first 11-and-half years as a head coach and play caller ended a week ago. He started the second half of 2017 with an uncharacteristic game for him. I’d argue that the Packers don’t win this game without a handful of unpredictable calls by Big Mike – and the Bears and Trubisky wouldn’t have scored a point except for their handful of surprise play calls. Will McCarthy continue to inject some play-calling creativity, as he did against the Bears, during the remainder of 2017?

Tell you what – if Big Mike stays predictable against the Ravens, the Packers could easily go scoreless.

Quarterbacks Hundley and Trubisky are in training to become NFL-grade QBs. They need all the help they can get as they develop. While Aaron Rodgers can make plays even when the defense knows what is likely coming, unpredictability can be the difference in winning and losing for an inexperienced QB like Hundley.

I believe play-calling is the most underrated success factor in the NFL. After two Hundley losses, could it have dawned on McCarthy that the predictability of his play-calling, more than anything else, was throttling his young QB? That’s the lesson I got out of the Bears win.

About The Author

Rob is currently twiddling his thumbs on Whidbey Island in Washington. He likes to do research, although he has no shortage of opinions. He saw his first live Packers game in 1958, the only win of the year.

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